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.
Some of the lost are found as easily as sunglasses absent-mindedly perched on a head. Once, the squad tracked down a disoriented cross-country skier just a few hours after she’d been reported missing. Other searches have been more harrowing: an Alzheimer’s patient was found after he spent five days wandering aimlessly in a wooded area; he was severely dehydrated and likely wouldn’t have survived much longer. When it’s too late to save a life, the squad can at least give the family some answers about what happened, even it those explanations are often slow in arriving. In the recent case of a marina owner who drowned in the St. Louis River, it took five months to find the body, and Crossmon checked in with the man’s widow every day until his remains were located. Still, Crossmon finds few jobs as satisfying, even if the search is not to rescue a life, but to recover a body. “We brought somebody home safe, or we brought ’em home,” Crossmon says.
In the case of Lloyd Skelton, the squad has found only cryptic clues. Skelton lived alone and had a habit of going on solo trips, so his daughter didn’t report him missing until he’d been gone nearly two weeks. On the initial search, the squad discovered a jacket, neatly rolled and stuffed under a rock near the south end of Whiskey Jack Lake. Soon after, they found socks and pants a few yards off the trail. Skelton’s keys, wallet, and lighter were in the pocket of the pants, which looked like they’d been dropped and stepped out of, all of which suggested “paradoxical undressing,” an irrational behavior exhibited by people experiencing hypothermia.
While hypothermia is the most likely scenario for Skelton’s demise, foul play can’t be ruled out, nor can suicide—or even a staged disappearance. The squad can make some assumptions, but they must not jump to conclusions. They start at the site of the last clue left by Skelton and follow the most likely paths, radiating out like spokes.
At a meeting before the return to Angleworm, Rick Slatten, one of the squad’s leaders, warned the group’s newcomers that the difficult terrain would make the operation exhausting. Or, as he put it, “It’s a great way to get sandpaper eyeballs—and get chased out of your comfort zone.” Slatten held up a “bag of bones,” a disassembled plastic skeleton that he’d painted dirty gray: this is what they’d be looking for. He stood in front of a topographic map and pointed to the target area. “We need to pound the snot out of it,” he said. “This guy is findable.”
Around 8 a.m., the caravan reaches the trailhead, and roughly 20 squad members gather to receive their assignments. Some wear simple T-shirts and hiking boots, but others are outfitted with army boots, cargo pants, and military-style shirts with last names stamped above the pocket that hint at the group’s quasi-law-enforcement status.
If there are any signs of Skelton here, they are hidden in a densely packed forest of birch, spruce, fir, cedar, and pine. The terrain is so remote that cell phones and CB radios won’t work, so the squad has enlisted ham-radio operators to set up a mobile communications tower for relaying messages. A thick spongy layer of pine needles and leaves covers the forest floor, along with tangles of ferns and downed trees. The natural camouflage of grays, greens, and browns would render year-old human bones nearly invisible.
Inside the command center, three separate laptops display spreadsheets and topographic maps. A few squad members operate the command center alongside two members of the county sheriff’s department. (The partnership has been beneficial for the department, as the donated labor saves them the equivalent of at least a dozen full-time positions.) Each search party carries a GPS unit and, every 15 minutes, radios their coordinates to base. Slatten, the resident computer guru, has posted charts labeled “Calculating the Probability of Containment” and “Search Effectiveness Calculator,” which look like pages from an economics textbook. On the whiteboard, someone has written “coffee: 42 cups = 4 scoops.”
On the previous search for Skelton, the squad used human-tracking methods for a subject presumed to be alive—looking for compressed soil, trampled vegetation—and dogs primed with Skelton’s scent, acquired from his belongings. But this time, the squad’s best-equipped member is probably its cadaver dog, trained to locate the odor of human remains.
Hours later, the sun begins to set and the teams return. Squad members remove their packs, their shoulders and hips darkened with sweat. They stretch their legs, rub their sore shoulders and knees. Dave Drozdowski, a Duluth police officer, loads gear into his truck and pats the cadaver dog, Abe, on the back. The Labrador retriever crawls in Drozdowski’s truck and falls asleep, exhausted. He only raised his snout a few times, and the scents didn’t lead to clues. The human searchers, relying on their eyes, didn’t find anything, either.
About 8:30 p.m., as the sky darkens, the last search party returns from the woods. Slatten enters the command center and props up his feet. “I probably went through three-quarters of a bottle of bug dope,” he says, following the statement with a swig of Gatorade. As he picks the black olives off a Subway sandwich, Slatten points to the GPS map and remarks how much ground each team covered; his wife, Deb, who works in the sheriff’s office, teases him: “Is that with the ‘guy exaggeration factor’?” Everyone laughs. A few moments later, it’s quiet enough to hear the hum of the vehicle’s generator when a squad member speaks up: “So, will we look again?”
The one question that isn’t raised by the group is one of accountability, or blame. No one gets into a debate about how, or at what point, people must take responsibility for their own actions. It may be difficult to have sympathy for the guy who lights a match to see if the snowblower tank is filled with gas, but what about someone who forgot to wear a life jacket? What about someone who goes into the woods alone? These are not the sort of issues squad members seem to spend a lot of time mulling, and it’s not difficult to understand why. They don’t get to choose who they help. Indeed, they often tend to downplay the importance of their work. “I’m not in the business of saving lives,” Slatten says. “We help people out of a jam.” Squad members speak of their motivation in almost generic terms, wanting to simply “help people.” The business of life and death, the sorrow of a loved one lost—isn’t the sort of thing that words are good at explaining.
Near midnight, Crossmon pulls into the squad’s headquarters. As he puts the vehicle in park, his pager emits a series of piercing beeps. A 911 dispatcher’s voice comes in over the radio: There’s a missing kid in Duluth. Crossmon picks up his cell phone and dials the digits for the dispatcher.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.