There are not many stories told of the K9 tracker teams or the solo tracker responsible for spotting and following signs left behind by a careless escapee or group of escapees.
In fact, not much at all is told of those brave individuals who sacrifice so much and receive so little of a reward for their hard work that is an essential part of any manhunt but often gives way to the publicity given to those involved in the actual apprehension of the fugitive for the sake of the camera and public relations purposes given such moments.
You may start the awareness of the tracker from the moment the escape has been noticed and the alert goes out for the first responders to answer the call to find the missing person. Everyone involved know the risks involved in fast pursuit, armed fugitive manhunts and none takes this challenge any less serious than the solo tracker who works alone or the K9 tracking team who work day and night, wind, snow or rain to find the escapee at all costs.
Trackers search the breached area for clues and signs and determine the direction taken and the tracks provided to begin their search. Their first analysis is crucial to those who need this information to follow up with other resources.
While others are deployed to pre-designated roadblocks and mobile chase teams, these trackers analyze and determine the value of the clues or signs left behind so a better understanding can be gathered from the evidence left behind or signs detected along the escape route giving the manhunt a sense of direction and determination to close in on the fugitive at neck breaking speeds.
Because time is so important to trackers, they must conduct their risky business at a moment’s notice to take up the challenge of tactical tracking as it is one of the most dangerous jobs in the fugitive retake business. Hunting armed suspects is never easy. The risks involved are numerous and extreme making such ventures an adrenalin rush for those participating in the manhunt.
Tracking is a scheme of man versus man as well as man versus nature. The escapee(s) are using the same senses the hunters have with one exception, the hunters should have better equipment, training and analysis skills than those they are hunting.
The difference is what keeps the trackers alive and the hunted prey. In some cases, if the tracker is outsmarted by the hunted, the end game could be fatal as the hunted could become the hunter and turn the danger around and turn the manhunt into a tragedy.
Having previously been a manhunt tracker with the New Mexico Department of Corrections, I was willing to respond any time of the night or day to answer the call to a manhunt. The single most critical fact I faced was the fact that I didn’t know if the fleeing suspects were armed or not and if they were desperate enough to kill someone to get a chance to get away and never be found.
I had to deal with a potentially fatal homicidal intent by convicted felons or jail escapees pending murder charges for crimes they were trying to avoid by escaping from the jail. All this, without the full knowledge of all the facts and relied on the dogs to do most of the work to offset the mindset of those we were following or hunting to the bitter end.
I remember one manhunt assigned to was the helicopter escape from the Santa Fe penitentiary. They flew down the Rio Grande River and landed in a small town airport leaving the pilot and another inmate inside the helicopter and running for the thicket of the Rio Grande River.
When the dogs arrived, we were assigned teams and I drew the dog team knowing well from my experience before with this very same team, I would be crawling on my hands and knees, wading through water at waist high level and fighting off the encountered with snakes and a myriad of stinging and biting flying mosquitoes infested and insects crawling over my skin and clothes as I climbed barbed wire fences to keep up with the dogs.
It was more often the trackers encountered many things not counted on when running along the trail and without much thought as to what they may find, these trackers exhibited courage that only brave individuals could bear and withstand as the stress was unsurmountable and real every minute of the run.
Although we trained for such a situation, we never train hard enough to meet every test on high risk trailing giving us a disadvantage that could cause to be fatal if the mistake was a grave one.
One major disadvantage was the fact that although you carried a sidearm on your belt, the chances of drawing such a weapon while handling the dogs were rare and often puts you in precarious situations that can only be solved by never tracking alone. Having no real ability to defend yourself, you rely on your partner to protect you and anything less is unacceptable.
Running and handling a tracking dog is a full time job. Hampered by the lead, the speed and the dog’s trailing behaviors creates distractions that takes your eyes off the threat around you and completely makes you vulnerable to the attack by those you are hunting.
Compound this with a forest full of thick trees or being dropped off by a state police helicopter in the middle of a level clear meadow inside a national forest wildlife sanctuary where no motorized teams can go, or a snow covered mountain range filled with caves and jagged voids that create good hiding spaces, the vulnerability factor is so high, you cannot take but notice the danger of being exposed while running with the dogs.
This was the key to my involvement, this was the job I was assigned during these manhunts as I became the cover man for the handler at the point making sure I was the spotter for both of us and become the ears, the eyes and the gun for the lead tracker with dog.
The stress was unbelievable, the weight on your shoulders unbearable and the need to be alert for every second you were running at the close proximity flank of the point lead tracker with the dog. The main factor to the threat was the proximity given when chasing a fugitive or a group of dangerous and desperate men.
The proximity was critical as there were times where you actually pass them by as they hide and conceal themselves from you as you approach them with all the chances that the dogs knew they were close by but the handler and cover man had no clue until the danger appeared.
Too often, after the hunt was over and the interview with the escapees reveal that proximity was dangerously close at times and that if the suspect had an opportunity to fire, they would have, leaving trackers at a strong disadvantage to defend themselves out there by themselves.
Hence it was important to learn the proximity alert as it was a little bit better preparedness for such a danger and offer a little bit more security in dealing with the threat of being shot or killed by those you are hunting.
A manhunt is very fluid, fast paced, tactical adjustment at all times keeping you and your team as safe as possible while hunting the prey. No two manhunts are the same and training should be given for every scenario possible to keep trackers safe.
Although you can train hundreds of hours for the hunt, you will find that there is no way to duplicate the reality as it develops before your very eyes. The adrenalin rush, the danger and the excitement is what makes you tick but the reality of a tracker is the rush of the hunt and the end game of capturing your prey before the others get in the way.
Working the tracking scene is a situation that is limited by time and weather. The longer the fugitive remains out there, the less of a chance there is to find him. Time is not on your side and once your time is up, your role can be suspended until a fresh sighting is made or confirmation has been received they were apprehended and the chase is over.
Some references were provided by an excellent book written by Jeff Schettler’s newest book “K9 Trailing: Tactical Tracking Teams – we thank Jeff for sharing some of his experiences as a tracker.