When I arrived, it seemed like the entire county was there; Sheriff’s Office deputies, Red White & Blue Fire Department, the ambulance service. No one seemed to want to tell me what was going on. Joe Ben was coordinating, and he told us to park on the side of the road about halfway up Fuller Placer.
Tom, Chad, Glen, Becky and I gathered around the Rescue One truck for a briefing.
“At this point what we know is that there’s one, possibly two injured parties, and it’s a crime scene,” Joe Ben said. “Fire and SO will be going in ahead of us. Bring tech gear just in case, because we have no idea of the terrain.”
I ran back to my car for a harness and helmet, thinking that it sounded like an interesting day ahead. When I came back to Rescue One, all of the SO and fire personnel were driving up the hill; I asked Joe Ben if we should be driving too, but he replied that he’d prefer we walk. We carried a litter, the Teton and rope gear up the road, watching other emergency vehicles passing us, Glen and Becky grousing to each other all the way.
At the end of Fuller Placer a dirt road headed south up into the woods, and police crime scene tape stretched across the entrance. Two firemen waited patiently at the tape, and we could see a group of SO deputies already 100 yards up the trail. There were six of them, and they moved slowly.
I tried to get more information. Joe Ben just wasn’t talking. But Glen had somehow found out more, and he told a small circle of us in hushed whispers what he’d heard.
“Apparently a hiker found a man lying on the trail with a stab wound. He said his girlfriend stabbed him and then he killed her.”
“So, they had a domestic dispute and they ran into the woods to do it?” Chad asked, incredulously.
Glen shrugged. “That’s what I heard.”
We watched as the SO deputies surrounded two men parked in a pick-up on the side of the dirt road. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but we saw the two men putting their hands behind their heads as a deputy searched them. Maybe ten minutes went by before the deputies apparently decided that the men were unconnected to the crime, and moved on up the road. They disappeared over the top of the hill, where all we could see was a big green water tower.
After what seemed an interminable wait, we were called in. We hiked up the road with the two firemen, two of us pushing the Teton and one carrying the litter. The dirt road ended at the water tower, but a trail branched off to the right. There was a cluster of SO deputies a short way down the trail. When we got closer we could see that they were clustered around a young man lying on the ground.
An SO detective standing over the man gestured to us to avoid a pool of blood on the ground, which was cordoned off with tape. We stood to the side of the trail and waited for instructions. I couldn’t stop staring at the young man on the ground. He had long, dark hair, unkempt, down to his shoulders, and a handsome face despite it being distorted with pain. Piercing dark eyes. He looked to be in his early twenties. His right leg bled profusely from mid-quad and there was a green wool sweater tied around the wound.
The detective was asking him questions. “Do you have any weapons on you? A knife?” The man shook his head. “No, nothing.” The detective patted him down, causing him to writhe in pain.
The detective turned his attention to us. “You can go ahead and package him up and get him out of here,” he said. “Be aware, there’s going to be a second patient.”
“Do we know the status of that patient?” I asked him.
The detective pointed at the young man on the ground. “He says she’s DOA,” he said. He turned his attention to talk to one of the other deputies while I stood staring at the young man, who was trying to answer the deputy. “I just woke up this morning and she had passed,” he said, spreading his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. No one was listening but me, for some reason, and I couldn’t take my eyes away. “She’s still in the tent,” he continued, and began to give directions to the tent, which no one listened to. Tears filled his eyes, and he writhed in pain again. I couldn’t tell whether the tears were from physical pain, or the import of what he’d just said.
The detective asked us to leave one person to guard the evidence at the scene, and Tim volunteered. The rest of us began to package the patient in the litter, being careful with the right leg. He moaned a few times, but otherwise was stoic. We put him in the Teton and wheeled him down the trail. He was very quiet. I knew he was supposedly a murderer, but something about him touched me, and I felt pity. He had the look of a man who believes his life is over. I asked him if he was OK and he nodded.
We were back on the pavement within a few minutes and put the young man in the waiting ambulance. The Sheriff had arrived by then, and he asked that someone take him up to see the evidence. I volunteered. As we hiked up the road, I ventured a nagging concern to the Sheriff; “The patient said he woke up and she was dead. Are we sure there isn’t someone else running around in the woods with a knife?” The Sheriff nodded. “I see your concern,” he said. “Why don’t you relieve your teammate that’s guarding the scene and I’ll have an armed deputy take his place.”
When I came back down with Tim, it appeared that the deputies had chosen to have us wait while they searched for the tent themselves. We sat on the trailer behind Rescue One, trading gossip.
“I heard you asking the patient about his girlfriend,” I said to Becky. “Do you know these guys?” Becky nodded. “Not well, but I know them, yeah. They’re squatters; this tent we’re looking for is actually where they live. Sometimes on Sundays they come to my church to get warm.”
I mulled this new piece of information over, fascinated. “So do you think he could have killed her? Or do you think there’s someone else running around in the woods?”
Becky considered for a moment. “They both seemed a little unstable, and I can certainly see a domestic dispute between them getting violent. But they also always seemed to look out for each other. I can also see the possibility of some sort of squatter’s war over territory, so yeah, there could be someone else.”
We waited, studying maps to try and trace the patient’s directions to the tent. Over the radio we heard there was a team of SO deputies going in from the top of Boreas Pass to try and find it from another side. A ranch hand that worked for the ranch estate at the end of the road came up and offered his site maps, which were helpful. The mission coordinators gathered around the back gate of the ranch hand’s pickup truck and plotted search areas. Finally, the SO deputies realized that despite the risk of messing up a crime scene, it might be best to send us in.
We formed three teams, each with two SAR members and one armed deputy. My team was Glen, myself and a very quiet female deputy that I’d seen around on calls a lot this summer. We were each assigned an area to sweep north of the trail where we found the patient, and we positioned ourselves within sight distance of each other. I quickly lost sight of my teammates, however, and found a faint trail through the woods. I couldn’t tell if it was a game trail or human. I heard Jim Koegel and Wes from the ambulance service next to me, and they shouted that they were on the Boreas Pass trail. On the other side of me I heard Cale, and suddenly, just as I saw a flash of blue tent through the trees in the distance, he shouted, “I got it!” Over the radio, everyone was told to freeze and hold their positions while Wes was summoned to the tent.
From where I stood, I could see the tent and Cale and Wes, but nothing else. Wes went into the tent, and I heard Cale say to him, “That’s not consistent with them having a fight, is it?” Wes replied, “No, definitely not.”
Joe Ben radioed everyone back to base. Cale yelled down to me that detectives were waiting to come in, and asked me to flag the route on my way down. I found that I could actually follow the trail most of the way down, and there were scuff marks along parts of it, presumably from the patient dragging himself on the ground. I flagged a tree every few yards. Toward the end of the trail, I found a cell phone lying in the middle of the trail, and I marked it, remembering that the patient said he had lost his cell phone.
When I got to the water tower, I radioed command and offered to wait there for the detectives to point them on their way. Wes came down while I waited. I restrained myself from asking any questions, as curious as I was, but I hoped that Wes would tell me what he saw and he didn’t disappoint me. “It was strange, there were no signs of trauma,” he said. “She was propped up against a backpack, half in her sleeping bag, with a little bit of dirt on her face but no blood or bruising. Unless it was below the waist, which I couldn’t see because of the sleeping bag, she certainly hadn’t been stabbed.”
The detectives arrived, three of them, and asked if I could walk them in. I agreed, and pointed out evidence I’d seen on the way. They talked amongst themselves as we walked and it was clear that they believed the young man had killed his girlfriend. One of them noted that there was no blood on the trail until just before the spot where he was found, and speculated that he’d stabbed himself to make it look good. I thought about that. Didn’t it make sense that the sweater tied to his leg took a while to bleed through? I wondered now if the patient had ever said he killed her, or if everyone had just heard what they expected to hear. I also wondered if anyone besides me had heard the patient’s statement that she was dead when he woke up, and finally I thought I should mention it. I beckoned to Amy, the one female detective, because she seemed a bit more approachable than the other two. When I told her what I’d heard, she asked me to write a statement when I got back to base.
After I dropped the detectives off within sight of the tent, I went back down. My teammates were hanging out waiting again, planning how we would evacuate the body. Two of them were arguing about whether we could fit an ATV through the dense trees. I got a witness statement form from one of the deputies and filled it out. The SO bus arrived with pizza; it had been hours since the initial call and all of us had missed lunch. We ate pizza and traded gossip again, speculating about every possible cause of death we could dream up for this phantom woman we still hadn’t seen, and suddenly Joe Ben called us over.
“Everyone can go home,” he said. “The SO thinks they can handle getting the body out themselves, and they don’t want to make us wait for the investigation because it’s going to take a while.”
Someone asked, “How are they going to do it by themselves?”
“They have their own rhino,” Joe Ben said, “and if necessary they’ll cut down trees. I’m sure they can do it. They asked me to thank everyone for their help today, and to emphasize how important it is that you all maintain confidentiality about what you saw today. Don’t talk to anyone about this mission, not even to other rescue group members who weren’t here today. If anyone asks what the mission today was about, just tell them you can’t talk about it.”
We packed up quietly, each thinking our own thoughts. As I headed down the hill to my car, Becky ran after me. “Hey,” she said, slightly out of breath. “I don’t like this.”
“Don’t like what?” I asked.
“Not being able to talk about this mission. That’s really hard for me. That’s how I process things after a mission; I talk about it.”
I knew what she meant. I felt the same way. “Call me later if you want to talk,” I said. “Surely they can’t mean that we’re not allowed to talk to each other.”
I checked the paper every day for days, looking for some mention of autopsy results. It wasn’t until weeks later that they finally ran the story. The woman in the tent had overdosed after stabbing her boyfriend.