It’s 7 p.m. the day after Columbus Day, and I’m on my first call-out on the Monterey County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team. An hour ago, the car of a suicidal subject, reported missing by his family two days before, was located at Veterans Memorial Park, an oasis of campsites and picnic tables in the middle of the city of Monterey, surrounded by wild ravines, oak-pine forest, and deer trails. A call for assistance was immediately issued, causing pagers to beep countywide. I phoned Sgt. Moses to say I’d be at the substation in ten, jumped into my uniform, and headed out.
My first mission. I am nervous and excited both.
When we pull up at the staging area in our big yellow truck, over a dozen people are already assembled: two Monterey City police officers, who found the car; five sheriff’s deputies and a like number of volunteers; and SAR volunteer Miranda with her search dog in training, Izzy. Most of us wear screaming yellow shirts with our purpose silkscreened on the back--just like on TV: SEARCH AND RESCUE.
The missing man’s car, a dark blue late-model BMW hatchback, hunkers in the middle of this scene. A policeman and two deputies peer inside with flashlights. “There’s his jacket,” one says. Another, on the passenger side, comments: “There’s a piece of paper on the seat. I sure would like to see what it says.” They try the doors. “I suppose that little red light on the dash means if we break a window, the alarm will sound.” “Yeah, and keep on sounding until the battery dies,” responds the other.
Sgt. Joe Moses appears out of the dark, says to Miranda: “You probably won’t get much scent; the site has obviously been compromised.” He jerks his head toward the men with flashlights circling the car. “But I want you and Brandon to head up that path”--he gestures toward a gap in the darkness--”with the dog, see if anything comes up.” She nods, then gets busy fitting Izzy, a barrel-shaped Queensland heeler, in a bright orange vest with a neon-green light-stick. A few minutes later the threesome heads into the night.
As I watch them take off, I sense motion to my left and turn. A short, stocky man with prominent cheekbones and a sturdy jaw veers toward me from across the street. He’s carrying two high-power flashlights with handles, one in each hand. “When are you going to go down into the canyon?” he asks, jerking his chin to indicate the darkness out of which he emerged. “What?” I say. He repeats his question, edgily. He isn’t one of us. I say, “We haven’t gotten any orders yet,” and turn away, not sure whether I should have said even that. He turns and goes back across the street, disappears back into the dark.
A policeman approaches the BMW with a fingerprinting kit and pulls out a soft, squirrelly brush that he dips into a metal canister. He swishes the brush over the driver’s window, over the handle, over the edge of the door.
Soon Sgt. Moses comes over and points at me, Todd, Sierra, and Jesse: “You four, head that way.” He jerks his head to the right, indicating the direction Miranda and the deputy had gone. “Two of you stay on one side of the path, the other two on the other side. Look all around you. Look down. Look up. Jesse”--he singles out the deputy--”you’re team leader.”
We switch on our headlamps and set off. The four beams of light float through the darkness, picking out branches and bushes, a sandstone outcropping up a steep ravine, slippery slopes of pine needles. A slight trail heads up to the right. Todd follows it, and I trail behind. Nothing. Back to the path. We walk slowly, searching for a clue. Jesse peels off to the left, then reappears. We don’t speak. We just peer as deeply as we can into the dark forest--the big stage, unlit tonight except by our headlamps, a dance of shifting images. Though eventually, perhaps, one of these feeble lights will become the spotlight that reveals the main act.
On the ride over, Brandon had joked with Sgt. Moses, betting five dollars we wouldn’t find the subject. Moses bet we would. In this rough terrain in the dark, I am siding with Brandon. My hopes go in that direction too, because if we do find him, I’m expecting the worst. I’d heard muttered remarks from the officers in charge: “back doing drugs;” “feelings of hopelessness.” He told his family twice, on Friday and again on Saturday, “This is no way to live.” Then on Sunday he was gone. And a rope was missing from the garage.