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The Searchers

You’re in the woods. You’re in trouble. You’d better hope the state’s best rescue squad is on the case.

The Searchers
Photo by Richard Hamilton Smith

(page 1 of 2)

IT’S 5 A.M. and the sun is just beginning to rise over Highway 53. Patches of fog hover on the pavement as a caravan of cars and trucks, all bearing the word RESCUE on their license plates, departs from the St. Louis County Volunteer Rescue Squad’s headquarters just outside Duluth.

The squad’s captain, Tom Crossmon, drives a white Tahoe outfitted with a siren and a paging system. He’s 41 years old, with a medium build, wispy dark hair, and an easy grin. A self-professed “information junkie,” he’s wearing three communication devices—pager, cell phone, walkie-talkie—strapped to his belt, and there’s a GPS map displayed on a laptop mounted to the vehicle’s dash. As Crossmon drives toward Ely, lakes and woods scroll past the window, and the road gets narrower and lonelier. Tiny bugs splatter on the windshield.

Nearly every day, the St. Louis County squad responds to some sort of emergency: a car crash, a plane wreck, a drowning, a wilderness search and rescue. The squad’s members are not part of the police force, the sheriff’s department, or the National Guard. They’re ordinary people who, at the buzz of a pager, turn into an altruistic A-Team. They might be teaching, welding, or driving a bus one moment and then—buzzzz—they’re on the trail with a bloodhound or rappelling from a helicopter.

Of course, the 53-member squad isn’t the only one of its kind in the state. Nor is it the largest. But due to its remote and sprawling territory—7,000 square miles between Lake Superior and the Canadian border—the squad has become one of the busiest and most sophisticated, involved in numerous high-profile missing-persons cases around the state. Earlier this year, after hundreds of community members and FBI agents had scoured a heavily wooded area of the Red Lake Indian reservation looking for Tristan White and Avery Stately, a six-person team found the brother’s bodies. The group included three rescue-squad members.

Each summer, as vacationing Minnesotans head north to go boating, hiking, bird-watching, and fishing, the work of the rescue squad picks up. The group rescues or recovers nearly 50 missing persons a year, but it’s the unsolved cases that stay on the members’ minds. Over the past two years, they’ve found every subject, dead or alive, except one: Lloyd Skelton, a 57-year-old hiker last seen entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on June 4, 2005. And today, on a Monday morning in June, the squad is searching again.

Lloyd Skelton was an avid adventurer who had once climbed the Grand Tetons and paddled from Minnesota to Hudson Bay. On his ill-fated Boundary Waters expedition, Skelton had left the Twin Cities intending to go on a week-long solo kayak trip, but the cold, wet weather made him change his plans. He was last seen buying a day-hiking permit from an Ely outfitter for the Angleworm Lake entry point. He parked at the trailhead and disappeared into the woods, leaving behind his kayak and gear.

The wilderness can be dangerous and uncertain, even for an experienced outdoorsman, and any number of things could have led to Skelton’s demise: reckless behavior, a misjudgment of his physical abilities, something as freakish as a poisonous spider bite or as mundane as a slippery rock. But the squad can’t be certain of anything. They can’t even be sure he’s dead.

A year after his disappearance, Skelton’s family wants answers, and if anyone can find them, it’s Crossmon. He has spent 22 years with the rescue squad, a tenure that probably seemed inevitable: His father was a member for 27 years, and Crossmon began tagging along when he was 12. “It was my version of scouting,” he says. By day, Crossmon works as a corrections officer at the federal prison outside Duluth, where there is almost never a question about where anyone is.

Perhaps this is why Crossmon can’t stand to leave a case open. He still has an oversize button with a photo of a 19-year-old girl pinned to his truck’s visor, even though it’s been nearly a decade since the girl, Katie Poirier, was abducted during her late-night shift at a Moose Lake convenience store. The colors on the button have faded—not unlike the hopes of finding Katie, yet Crossmon keeps it as a reminder.

At quarter after six, Crossmon checks in with his wife, who sends him off with the usual “Be careful.” Crossmon’s involvement with the squad has caused him to miss many family weekends and even his children’s birthday parties, but his wife seems to understand. “She says I’m a bit of a thrill seeker,” he says, flashing a sheepish grin.


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