Expertise hard to find in searches for missing persons
The low frequency of cases and high training costs are cited as reasons for the lack of certified volunteers.
By JENNIFER JACOBS
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
July 6, 2006
Floyd, Ia. — After the sixth sweaty, stressful day of searching had failed to turn up any sign of a missing 5-year-old girl, search commander Lt. Brian Tiedemann sagged in a lawn chair in his backyard, alone, too drained to do much else.
The sheriff's car rolled into his driveway. Tiedemann could read the news in his face before he spoke: Evelyn Miller had been found, and she was dead.
Since that day one year ago, Tiedemann has wondered if the search could have been done differently.
"What keeps going through your head is, 'Was there something you missed that could have helped with the case?' " said Tiedemann, a Floyd County sheriff's deputy. "Everyone goes, 'Well, anyone can walk down corn rows.' But there's a difference between just walking, and seeing evidence when you're a member of a well-trained ground search team."
Officials across the state have begun to realize the truth about Iowans properly trained in searching for missing people: It's hard to find any.
When a Council Bluffs woman went missing in May, about 120 well-meaning civilians turned out, but only four trained volunteer searchers. The ratio was similar when a Van Buren County woman fell into a deep well while hunting for wild berries last summer. She did not survive. And a Humboldt County woman with dementia froze to death in November before searchers found her.
"Those are the cases that really got myself and others talking," said Lt. Col. Michael Jensen of the Iowa National Guard. "When you can get trained responders on the ground rapidly, the positive outcome is enhanced tremendously."
Jensen is the chairman of a newly created committee called the Missing Persons Coordination & Facilitation Work Group. It meets monthly and is making recommendations to the Department of Public Safety, which by state law is responsible for missing-person searches in Iowa.
The committee has representatives from the Iowa State Patrol, Division of Criminal Investigation, National Guard, and the state associations for sheriffs, police chiefs and firefighters, and others.
"Someone finally said, 'Enough is enough. We need to start sorting through this,' " said Jim Peters, who trains searchers and is the only certification coordinator in the state for the National Association for Search & Rescue.
Emergency officials have a hard time justifying training, because it's expensive, and because of the low frequency of missing-person cases, said Peters, who lives in Story County.
But when Iowans go missing, they're often in danger - and timing is critical when it comes to finding a victim of foul play, a disoriented elderly person, a wandering toddler, or someone lost or injured, he said.
Those trained in "missing- person search management" know how to read clues such as footprints, tire prints, cigarette butts, candy wrappers and drops of blood, Peters said. They don't trample evidence, they're well-versed in map reading, and they can find people swiftly, he said.
No central database of searchers in Iowa exists, so the new state committee, which includes Peters, hopes to create one. All of Iowa's certified searchers are volunteers and pay for training out of their own pockets.
The only professional-level volunteer teams in Iowa are Star 1 in Story County and the Des Moines-based Iowa Search & Rescue, Peters said.
"You ask any volunteer fire department, and they'll say, 'Yeah, we do search and res- cue,' " he said. "Or, you'll get a woman who says, 'I'm a searcher. I've got a dog with a nose that can find anything.' "
Peters said he is "waiting on the edge of his chair" for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System to release an official definition of what it takes to be a ground searcher - including physical fitness, equipment and training - later this summer.
Iowa is already seeing a boost in competency, thanks to requirements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said. Since Evelyn's death, Peters has certified about 18 Iowans, and is scheduled to train about six more this month, including Tiedemann.
The search for Evelyn Miller was a major event in Floyd County, Tiedemann said.
"Every day it was, 'Think, think, think. Keep ahead. Where should we go next?' " said Tiedemann, who saw very little of his wife, 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son during the six-day search.
At one point the searchers numbered 460. Fewer than 24 had hands-on search experience - and Tiedemann had called in every single professionally trained volunteer in Iowa. He was grateful when the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children dispatched a search consultant and investigator.
Tiedemann and Floyd County Sheriff Rick Lynch strongly doubt the untrained searchers harmed any evidence connected to Evelyn's murder. "No," Lynch said firmly. "I don't think that's the case."
Tiedemann realized at noon on the second day, after searchers had covered a mile radius around her family's apartment, that Evelyn had not just wandered off.
The searchers were told not to touch possible evidence - any item that didn't belong in the natural environment - but instead call for a deputy to check it out.
Just after 7 p.m. on July 6, 2005, a searcher in a kayak found Evelyn in the Cedar River.
For Tiedemann, seeing her body was one of the hardest things he's done. "My gut just clenched up," he said.
Tiedemann is up to date on behind-the-scenes details of the murder investigation. "Like any investigation," he said, "it's a process."
Meanwhile, he said, any time he talks to law enforcement officials from other agencies he brings up one thing. "I tell them we need to get more trained search teams in the state of Iowa," he said.
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