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.”

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