Major Canine Search And Rescue Operation Pursued In Woodland Park

by Rick Langenberg

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The search for Lana, a young Woodland Park child, besieged the local community on a picture-perfect Sunday recently, summoning canine teams from Teller County and across Colorado.

The mission: To locate the young child, who was abducted by her father, the mother’s ex-husband, who violated a restraining order. The reported kidnapping occurred at a residence near the Columbine Elementary School in Woodland Park. It is a scenario not unusual in Teller County, where domestic disputes are too common. For more than five hours, the top search dogs across the state, courtesy of the Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado (SRDOC) unit, tried to pick up Lana’s scent. But they faced a clicking clock if the child had any chance of being returned to her mother.

Manned by an elaborate, mobile Teller County Search and Rescue incident command center, the pursuit involved about 20 teams, with each unit featuring a dog, a canine handler, a team backer and navigator. The command center came equipped with the most updated mapping, WiFi and GPS equipment available. Throughout the day, strategy and briefing sessions occurred inside the command center, with a headquarters established near Memorial Park, as team leaders reviewed possible leads on a regular basis. At times, it almost resembled a Denver Broncos football team huddle, without a Peyton Manning audible.

After a number of clues that tried to track the girl from the “Point Last Seen,” near her mother’s home, the search and rescue canine teams pursued evidence in the form of water bottles, toilet paper, dolls, toys and various objects found in the residential sections near Columbine that got the attention of the dogs. But in most cases, these possible traces of Lana didn’t amount to anything as the mobile command center was buzzing with calls from search teams. Each tip came out negative, based on the information reviewed by Don Johnson, the incident command center’s communications director.

Finally, a teddy bear, belonging to the girl, was found. This became the turning point. Lana was eventually found by two dog teams, who arrived at the scene from opposite directions, unharmed at a residence four and a half miles away from her alleged kidnapping location in another part of town around 2 p.m. More scents were also picked up from a scooter the girl was riding in the area.

Much relief occurred among the search teams and by the girl’s mother. More importantly, it marked another successful venture for the Teller Search and Rescue unit, and culminated a exhaustive two-day training with SRDOC that occurred in the Aspen Valley Ranch area and downtown Woodland Park. In this particular case, the pursuit for Lana involved a statewide training exercise and wasn’t an actual kidnapping, with the daughter of a local search and rescue member playing the role as the missing girl. But mock exercise or not, teams from Teller and a slew of counties from across the state displayed much intensity and attention to detail during the reported kidnapping. A photo of the girl was posted inside the mobile command center and no mention was made of this training serving as an exercise. The day’s scenario was depicted as a real-life mission. And the mini-heroes were crews of specially-trained dogs, who showed much enthusiasm in their efforts to locate Lana.

These top-trained canines are comprised of a variety of breeds, including labs, bloodhounds, border collies, shepherds, beagles and many more. “Almost any type of dog can be used, but they have to be trained,” explained Janet Bennett, a veteran member of the Teller County Search and Rescue group, who also serves as the team’s membership and fund-raising chairperson. In addition, Bennett works in a local veterinarian office, and so is quite knowledgeable about dogs. The search for Lana involved an urban pursuit, a type of training that the local team of 50-plus members is trying to do more of, especially with the changing dynamics of Woodland Park. According to Teller Search and Rescue President Michael Smith, the unit may even start a child abuse response team, which would be coordinated with the sheriff’s office.

One of Smith’s main goals as the search and rescue team president is to increase all levels of training and to develop a system so that all of the unit’s members are deployable for missions. Gone are the earlier days, when Teller County Search and Rescue was sometimes perceived as a local social club. Smith, who was part of initial search teams deployed during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon in Washington D.C., has cited a desire to bring the team into the ultra, modern, digital age with the best equipment and training possible. “We are becoming a much more professional unit,” explained Smith. And that includes learning the nuances of dealing with canine searches. “It went very well, “said Bennett, in describing the latest state-wide canine search and rescue mission. “It was a great training exercise and really gave us a chance to work with our canine search teams.” According to Bennett, Teller Search and Rescue team now has four dogs that are part of SRDOC.

And in the real life world of Teller County Search and Rescue this training, whether it involves a wilderness exercise or a mock pursuit for a lost kid, can serve as the difference between life and death. “Searches like this can get pretty technical,” admitted Bennett. She recalls one time near Cripple Creek, when a boy lost for four days, was eventually discovered by a “spider man” shoe print uncovered in the area. That small detail probably saved the youth’s life.

The recent pursuit for Lana marks a slight diversion in the normal operations of Teller Search and Rescue team. But diversity is becoming a buzz word for the search and rescue team, which can be used for child abductions, criminal evidence searches and disaster pursuits. Altogether, the group is deployed for approximately 25 to 45 missions a year, with most calls occurring late at night, with an average search lasting five to six hours, according to the estimates of members of the group.

Lost people still ranks as major problem

Still, the search for people who get lost in the high country, such as in the popular Crags area, tops the list as the number one calling for the group that has been in existence for nearly 50 years. “People not being prepared for the conditions are probably the biggest problems we see,” said Bennett.

Plus, Bennett says that many visitors come to the high country, with high hopes for adventure and good times, and rely too much on high tech equipment. “A lot of people have these elaborate GPS systems, but they don’t know how to use them,” related Bennett.

In fact, the advance in alpine equipment can often serve as a curse for search and rescue units, with many high country visitors relying on the false assurances from these special gadgets and mini-wilderness survival toys. As a result, many wannabe “Into Thin Air” adventure junkies end up as victims. As for tips for people who do get lost, the Teller Search and Rescue veteran advises that hikers shouldn’t hesitate to call 911 or the sheriff’s office when they get into trouble, and to stay put. Bennett explains that when lost hikers keep moving around, it only adds to the problems they have already created for themselves. This was one survival technique used by a Colorado Springs expert cyclist, who was rescued several months ago near the Gold Camp Road by Teller County Search and Rescue, after she got hurt along a difficult mountain biking route.

More importantly, if family members and friends haven’t heard from their loves ones during specific hiking excursions, don’t wait until it’s too late to make a call about their well-being, say search and rescue experts. “We are here to help. It doesn’t cost anyone anything,” said Bennett.

Also, when people hike up a trail, or mini-mountain, Bennett and other search and rescue experts advise them to look behind their shoulders and get a close view of the route they are taking, and especially observe closely the specific landscape and even use certain trees as landmarks. “A lot of times, when people go up a trail, they don’t have any problem. But when they go down, they sometimes get confused. If they look behind themselves when they are going up, there is less of a chance that they will get lost.”

For more information, about the Teller County Search and Rescue, visit www.tellersar.org.