Search team practices in Perryville park
— The monthly training session for the Northern Region Volunteer Crime Scene Search Team in Perryville Community Park on Saturday night was reminiscent of an Easter egg hunt.
But the 22 NRCSST members were looking for evidence – including spent shell casings, discarded or lost clothing, a rope and other items – in a scenario in which a white man who stands approximately 5’5 and weighs about 210 pounds had fled from police into this waterfront park after robbing a local bank.
He was last seen wearing a black sweatshirt, blue jeans, tennis shoes and a scarf, which the gunman had used to conceal his face.
Also unlike an Easter egg hunt, this particular mock search was performed at nighttime so every team member walked gingerly with his or her flashlight trained on the ground, a far cry from the aimless, daylight dashes kids make while pursuing their treats.
The volunteers grew even more deliberate whenever they traversed beyond the reach of the glaring, generator-driven light towers and floodlights provided by the assisting Perry Point Volunteer Fire Co.
One last difference, this search was executed systematically in accordance with the strict techniques and protocol that every volunteer learns after signing up for the team and clearing an extensive background check. The volunteer search team is affiliated with Maryland State Police.
“Our line is really crooked now. Everyone stop. We need to straighten it back up,” one of the instructors called out, as he watched a neat row of flashlight-wielding volunteers transform into a slight U-formation because some were walking faster than others.
Maintaining a straight line ensures that every piece of ground within that human field has been thoroughly checked for possible evidence.
“It’s harder than it looks, keeping a straight line,” commented Perryville resident Ernie Miller, commander of the NRCSST and a member for approximately 20 years, roughly since its inception. (Before retiring from Perry Point, he had commanded the search & rescue team there.)
The NRCSST is summoned when law enforcement officers are looking for evidence in the woods and in fields. It also is called upon to help search for missing people, most commonly when someone with Alzheimer’s disease roams from his or her residence.
“Back in the old days, we just helped on cold cases only. But now we’re called, as needed, for a variety of reasons,” Miller noted.
The searches are conducted under the close supervision of police officers. The most important rule is this: A volunteer cannot touch what he or she has found, to avoid tainting possible evidence that will be properly collected by crime scene technicians and later analyzed in labs. After marking the spot, the volunteer must immediately inform a police officer.
“Found something,” was periodically heard from various spots in the park during Saturday night’s drill.
Then, playing the role of police officers, NRCSST leaders would go to the spot, examine the item that prompted the volunteer to call out and then collect it.
Miller recalled a search in Queen Anne’s County a few years ago in which a pair of gloves – a key piece of evidence in a shooting – was found by the search team. Forensic investigators were able to glean DNA from the gloves, he said. The NRCSST received an award from the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office for its help in that case, he added.
The search team members also learn how to operate metal detectors, which they used to comb the park grounds for spent shell casings during Saturday night’s training session.
“Trust your metal detectors,” urged training officer Jim Manning a few times during the drill. (Manning had served as a law enforcement officer for 42 years before retiring.)
Volunteers listened intently to their metal detectors and continued moving in the direction that made the sound emanating from the devices increase in frequency. As they did, assisting volunteers pointed their flashlights at the ground near the metal detectors’ sensors.
Looking for the six spent bullet cases that had been hidden for this exercise seemed like trying to find needles in a haystack, given how much ground had to be covered, but the volunteer searchers found all of them in less than 30 minutes.
They also recovered a black sweatshirt, a floppy sunhat, a scarf and a length of rope, which the scenario’s robber possibly planned to use to tie up bank employees during the heist.
The volunteer searchers had found all of the planted “evidence” in less than 90 minutes.
Perryville Police Department Chief Al Miller, whose agency has requested NRCSST’s help in the past, lauded the volunteer search team. Miller assisted with Saturday night’s training session.
“This is a great resource. This is all done on a volunteer basis, so it doesn’t cost law enforcement anything,” the police chief said.
The NRCSST is a nonprofit organization that is kept afloat solely by donations, which help the volunteer group purchase equipment and jackets, hats and other clothing bearing the NRCSST logo, according to group officials.
Its website erases any illusions a potential member might have about searching for evidence and missing people.
“Rescue work is not glamourous. It is usually only plain hard work. There are no regular hours on a search. Working hours start at any time and last for as long as anything worthwhile can be accomplished. The most important factor in a search mission is its accomplishment, and not by whom it is accomplished. Are you willing to sacrifice your own needs for those of another? If the answer is YES then you are ready to become a volunteer,” it reads on the site.
A volunteer cannot have a criminal record and must be “physically fit to stand crawl (hands and knees) for hours at a time conducting detailed line searches looking for evidence,” according to the website, which also notes that a volunteer must attend 50 percent of the monthly meetings and half of the training sessions, which occur about nine times a year.
At the end of the website’s message, it reads, “Please keep in mind that this is not for everyone. There may be times when you will get dirty and you may see things that are not so pretty. You can be called out in all types of weather.”
Those cautions obviously did not dissuade the NRCSST members who turned out for Saturday night’s training session from joining. Abiding by regulations, the NRCSST members declined to specifically comment on any of their past searches, explaining that there could be open criminal court cases relating to them.
“I just wanted to serve the public,” said Henry Lee, 64, a North East-area resident and retired machinist who joined the NRSST team about six years ago.
Team member Amy Henschel, 30, of Perryville, ex- plained, “It’s not something a lot of people would want to do, but it is necessary.”
“I’m interested in law enforcement,” said Roy Temple, Jr., a Darlington resident who joined about a year ago.
Elkton-area resident Tony Pisano, who joined about six years ago, said, “I had an interest in giving back.”
Terri Grove, of Perryville, joined about a year ago.
“I wanted to help the community. It’s very interesting,” Grove said, adding that when searchers find something key to a case “it’s a great feeling because you accomplished something.”