Tracking Criminals
A true story
By Kim A. Cabrera

 

Tracking criminals. Map of the route I followed when I tracked the burglars. Map drawn by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Above is the map of the trail I followed when tracking the criminals who burglarized my place.
You can use it to follow along with the story of the incident below.

 

Living far from town has many advantages, as well as disadvantages. Some of the advantages are privacy and solitude. A disadvantage is that things can happen out here and no one will see or hear them. Many times, I have thought about what would happen if I was ever to get burglarized. I have run many scenarios over and over in my head, thinking about how to best use tracking skills in such an incident. In May 2005, I got the chance to test my ideas when theory became reality.

Due to unusually cold weather for May, I had slept with a space heater running all night. The heater is very noisy and covers any sounds, except those that are very loud. When I was ready to head off to work in the morning, I went out to lock things up in the building below my cabin. This building is the kitchen, dining hall, and rec room for the summer camp I caretake. Outside, I found some fresh dog tracks. The dog had run through a puddle and over an area of wooden deck, leaving wet prints. I stepped next to them on my way out, thinking that they were from a feral dog that had been seen in the area. I had locked the back door of the lodge and was heading to the front when I noticed that the plywood door to the dining area was open. Some cabinets were standing open too. I looked around and noticed other cabinets open as well. Everything had been closed the previous night when I left. I immediately went back outside, not knowing whether or not anyone was still in the building. I then called the sheriff. Of course, due to budget cuts, our area is only staffed part time with law enforcement, and I happened to call too early in the morning. No deputy was on duty yet. The dispatcher told me it would be an hour or two until anyone could come out. (Another disadvantage of being out in the middle of nowhere.) I was on my own.

So I grabbed my pepper spray from the truck and went to take a look around the outside of the building. I found that they had gained entry by slicing through a screen and climbing in a window. They then used a knife, or other object, to pry open one of the plywood back doors on the lodge deck. When they had climbed in, a lighter had fallen out of someoneís pocket. I did not touch it, hoping it might yield some fingerprints.
 

How the criminals entered the building. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
This is how they gained entry to the building.

 
At the back of the building, on the side facing the river, someone had cut through a screen. This window looks over a drop of about 15 feet toward our river access trail. I assumed the burglars had cut it so they could drop stuff out and go outside and pick it up when they were finished inside.

I went around the outside of the building and identified two sets of tracks, along with the dog tracks. The dog tracks that were next to the ones I had made a few minutes previous were already beginning to dry up at the same rate as mine did. This told me that they had been there not too long before I discovered the break-in. Below the screen at the back of the building, I found their tracks, as well as imprints in the soft soil that looked like they were from objects that had been dropped out of the window above. One imprint was square and the exact size of the battery pack on our missing cordless drill. I knew at least one item they had taken from that imprint alone.

Signature track left by one of the criminals. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The shoe print of one of the criminals. A perfect signature track, with good identifying features.

Signature track in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The same shoe pattern found along the trail I followed. This is called a "signature track."
 

In a muddy track trap on the road leading into camp, I found the perfect signature tracks of two people and a dog. I also found a ball cap that one of them had dropped on the road. I looked inside and found some curly, brown hairs stuck to the fabric. So I figured I was looking for two people and a dog. One person had a tennis shoe with a herringbone pattern and the other was wearing some type of hiking boot.
 
At about this time, the deputy arrived to take a report. I showed him the tracks and asked him not to drive over them on his way out. He and I walked all around the camp to make sure nothing else had been touched. I found some tracks leading out of camp, heading north along our trail above the river. I showed the lighter that I had found to the deputy and he collected it as evidence, but did not think it would yield fingerprints. The items I discovered missing were: a skilsaw, an electric drill, a cordless drill, a large canvas book bag, a protective helmet used when working with chainsaws and weedeaters, two hammers, a set of drill bits, a tape measure, a plastic storage drawer filled with pens, pencils, staplers, scissors and other office supplies, and a rake. The last two items seemed like odd things to take, but they were gone nonetheless.

The deputy did not want to take the time to follow up the trail I had found leading out of camp, so he left. On his way out, he drove right over the tracks I had asked him to not drive on. (Oops!) He thought tracking would take too long and would be a waste of time. (This seems to be a common attitude in the law enforcement people I meet. They donít see the value in tracking. Itís something we, as trackers, should work to change.) Seeing as how they are understaffed, I can understand his reluctance to spend a lot of time on any one case. However, that did not mean I couldnít go track them myself. So thatís exactly what I did.

Route taken by the burglars, showing shine trail. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The route they took out of camp. Trackers call this sign "shine."

 
On the trail just out of view of the last building, the burglars had tried to climb up the steep hillside, hoping to get back to the dirt road that they had walked in on. They were unable to climb the hill, laden down as they were with their ill-gotten goods. So they continued along the overgrown trail, heading upriver. I followed all the way to a meeting place we have there under the trees overlooking the river about ľ mile from camp. There, the burglars stopped to drop off a piece of wood they had carried all the way from camp. It was an odd item to take, but they carried it about 1/4 mile before they dumped it. They seemed to spend a little time looking for a way to get back across the river. Then they decided to try to hike uphill and get back to the road on which they had entered camp. They went cross-country, trampling through poison oak as if they didnít know what it was, or were among those who are lucky enough to not be sensitive to it. I am not one of the lucky ones who is immune to poison oak, however, so I had to take it slow and go around and over as many plants as I could. What an obstacle course!


Trail through poison oak. Arrows show sign of human passage. Leaves have been bent over, exposing the lighter undersides.

 
At the top of the hill, they could either go left toward the sewage treatment plant on the road, or right toward the bridge over the creek. They chose to go left. I followed their trail all the way around the outer perimeter fence around the sewage plant. They went almost to the road, then suddenly stopped and turned around and went back into the brush and tall grass. When they ducked under one thick bush, a cigarette pack had fallen out of someoneís pocket. I found it to contain several packets of matches, a couple crumpled dollar bills, and a big baggie of marijuana. I took it along as evidence to give to the sheriff later, being careful not to put my fingerprints on it.

I went inside the fence to talk to the employee working at the sewage plant. He told me he had arrived there around 8:30 in the morning. That would be about right with the timing I had come up with from the age of the dog tracks. I had first found the break-in at 8. It would have taken them at least half an hour to get to where they turned around in the tall grass by the sewage plant. So now I had established time using the track evidence as well as the input from the employee. They must have seen him arrive and, thinking they would be caught, retreated back into the brush.

Route through grass toward the suspension bridge. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The route through tall grass. Shine is an easy sign to follow.

 
The trail now led toward the suspension bridge over the creek. This bridge was built only to bring the sewage across the creek from the minimum-security correctional facility on the other side. The suspension bridge has two cables about four feet up to use as handrails, and a metal walkway, full of holes to prevent water from pooling on it. There is nothing else to prevent one from falling off. It hangs about 75 feet over the creek bed. When you walk out to the middle of it, it sways and moves. Believe me, you hold on tight to those steel cables too! Itís not a pleasant place to be for those who donít like heights. (Like me.) The two burglars, and their dog, had gone across it. I don't know how they got the dog across it unless they carried it. I started to follow, but could see that the gate on the other side was locked. I also did not want to go trespassing on the state prison property without permission. So, I turned around. Did I mention that I don't like heights?

The suspension bridge. I wasn't going out there. I don't like heights! Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The suspension bridge. It's a long drop from there to the creek...

Trampled and bruised vegetation is an excellent sign for trackers to follow, except when the route leads out over open space far above the ground....  Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
Plants trampled on the suspension bridge indicating passage of humans.

Still wanting to continue the trail, I went home and called the correctional facility commander and explained what I wanted to do. I got permission to drive over there and continue tracking from the gate. With his permission, I was able to drive my truck all the way down to the gate on an overgrown dirt road. Mine were the only vehicle tracks in the tall grass.

It was easy to pick up their trail. The burglars had climbed over the fence, even over the barbed wire at the top. The dog had been small enough to slide under the gate. I followed their trail, much easier now in the tall grass. They went into the forest about 20 feet from the gate. There, they dumped out the contents of the storage drawer and proceeded to disassemble every ink pen in there. They took them apart and removed the outer tubes and left all the other parts. This puzzled me, and I later asked the deputy why they would take only the tubes. He said they can use them for taking drugs. That must have been quite a good motivating factor for them because they hauled that heavy and awkward drawer a long way and over a dangerous bridge.

The drawer of office supplies they ditched in the woods. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
This is how I found the drawer of office supplies.

 

Their trail then led up the overgrown road. They came to a hole in a fence around an old dried up pond. They reached the back fence and clipped their way through it. Either they had some wire cutters already with them, or some were stolen that I hadnít noticed were missing. Their trail then ran north again, parallel to the fence and then off into the forest. The trail was easy in places, so that I could move along it very fast. At other places, I had to stop and go step-by-step to move it through difficult patches of forest duff. (This is where it would have been helpful to have several teams of trackers in radio communication with each other. We could have moved the trail a lot faster and possibly caught up to them.) They went along the slope as much as possible, staying out of sight of the correctional facility. I donít know if this was by accident or if they knew it was there. The fact that they didnít just walk out on the overgrown road, but chose the harder route through the forest seemed to say that they knew where they were and didnít want to be seen.

Part of the fence that they cut their way through. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The fence they cut through.


Shine trail through tall grass. This was the easy part.

 
Their trail went over logs, under trees, through brush, and through lots of poison oak. The dog was still with them. At one point, they came to a ravine with a creek at the bottom. The creek ran downhill toward the river, on the right. However, the ravine prevented any forward progress. So they turned and headed uphill, along the edge of the ravine, possibly looking for a place to cross it.

Twig broken by human passage. This is called aerial sign. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
A twig broken off when a person walked by and broke it. This is called "aerial sign" or "aerial spoor."

The twig from the photo above and some arrows showing sign on the ground indicating they walked this way. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The twig from the photo above and some arrows showing sign on the ground indicating they walked this way.
Notice the bent leaves and the disturbance of the forest duff.

 
I came upon a clump of rock mixed with mud that had separated from the soil beneath it when someone had stepped on it. The person with tennis shoes had stepped on top of it, only to have it break off beneath his feet and pitch him into the ravine. There were marks on the bank where he had fallen, then slid down. The poison oak bushes broke his fall as he slid over them, bending them into the creek bed, about 20 feet below.

The dirt clod that caused the fall. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
The dirt clod that broke off and caused the fall into the creek bed.


The place where the fall happened. Notice the denseness of the poison oak plants in the creek bed below.
This is what broke the fall and probably prevented injury. (If you don't count being covered in poison oak!)

 
The person wearing hiking boots then went along the edge and found several places where the bank jutted out and he could climb out and look back and down into the creek bed. I figured he was trying to see what happened to the other guy. The dog was with the guy on top. I could not see well enough into the creek bed to see if the person was still down there or not. I didnít find any place where he had climbed out of the creek. I could only see that the bushes down where he had fallen were bent over, but not what was holding them bent, if anything.

The trail of the boot then headed up the hill. I followed that, being the only sign I had left to follow. This person went up into a flat area of forest from which he had a clear view of the correctional facility. His trail then meandered back and forth in the forested area, as if he was undecided what to do. Should he walk into the prison facility and ask for help? Somehow, I doubt he even considered that an option!

Trail ending point marked with orange tape. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
Before quitting the trail, I marked my last location with orange tape so I could return if needed.

 
It was getting late in the day at this point and I had not found a place where the one who had fallen had come up out of the creek. So I decided it would be best to at least report what I had found to this point and let the law enforcement folks decide what to do about it. So I made my way over to the correctional facility and found the commander and told him what had happened. He had me call the sheriff, as his staff was not trained or equipped for finding people in the woods. I waited for the sheriff to show up. The three deputies who showed up did not want to go traipsing off into the woods through all that poison oak if there was no way for them to be sure someone was really still down there in the creek. I could not say for sure that anyone was still there because I had found no place where the person had climbed out. After much discussion amongst themselves, the deputies decided to go with me to where I had found the box of stolen office supplies. I had asked if they could get fingerprints off the plastic box. They collected the box for evidence and said they'd attempt to lift some fingerprints from it. I gathered our office supplies and put them in a bag to take back home later.

The deputies decided that it would not be worthwhile to go look in the creek. They figured that, even if the burglars knew they would be in trouble, one of them would have gone for help if his buddy fell in the creek. So they talked themselves out of even going to look. The poison oak was also a big deciding factor in this decision. They said that it would take ďan act of GodĒ to get the SAR team called out for something like this.

It was getting dark by this time and I had no other trackers to assist me. I was shaky and had low blood sugar. My own rush to stay on the trail had caused me to neglect some basics. Such as bringing enough water and snacks to keep me going for hours and hours on the trail. This was a good lesson for me. I tend to rush into the follow-up sometimes and neglect to slow myself down and think it through and bring the supplies I need with me. So, we all left and went home. I checked the roadside as I drove out of the facility. I saw no tracks coming out of the tall grass there. The roadside was steep and I didnít see any sign of anyone having come out that way either. But, at the intersection where the road to the prison met the main road to town, I found the boot tracks of the second person. No herringbone tracks were with him.

Did the other person get out of the creek? I hope so. I should have just stayed with the trail and found out what happened, but I was trying to think about what would be the best thing to do, assuming someone was down there lying injured in the creek. I figured getting help was the best decision, even if they decided not to have a look.

The next day, I called various businesses in town to ask them to keep an eye out for our missing stuff, should anyone try to sell it. I also called the deputy and told him about the bag of marijuana I had found. I asked what he wanted me to do with it. He was being a smart-aleck when he told me to ďsmoke it.Ē The stuff is so common in this area that such a small amount apparently is not that important. I photographed the "evidence" and then threw it in a dumpster. A road crew working on the roadway above the camp found our cordless drill tossed into the brush at the side of the road the next day. It had the camp name engraved on it, and the burglars must have realized it would be hard to sell it like that. The sheriff took it for evidence and we may get it back.

Later that week, I was at work and happened to see the underside of a co-workerís boots. ďThatís it!Ē I shouted. ďThatís the pattern of the boots of one of the burglars!Ē She must have though I was nuts when I asked if I could take a photo of her boot tracks, but she allowed it when I explained. It was a HiTec brand boot and the pattern matched perfectly with the one I had found from the burglar. So I know what type of boots one of them was wearing.

So much can be learned from tracking! In following this several-mile long trail, I learned the kind of boots worn, whether or not the person was a smoker or drug user, the color and curliness of their hair, that they had a dog with them, that they werenít afraid of heights, and are not bothered by poison oak. They seemed to be somewhat familiar with the area. They seemed to have a good sense of which direction to go to get back to the road to town, even when walking through the prison property. They walked in here to do their deed, and there was no car parked at the gate. Since a lot of the homeless people in this area live in the forest, and have dogs, and walk everywhere, I suspect it could have been a couple of them. I should keep an eye out for two homeless people in town, with a dog, and who are covered with poison oak rash. Later that day, I did see two homeless people, carrying a heavy black plastic garbage bag, heading out of town. By the time I turned my truck around, they had disappeared. Weeks later, I saw the same people take a trail off the road into the woods near where they had disappeared last time. I suspect their camp is down there. Maybe some of our stolen stuff is there too. Maybe this isnít the end of this storyÖ.

 

Kim A. Cabrera

5/5/2005

Page updated: July 2, 2008

 

More photos showing sign from the trail below.

Easy tracking through shine in tall grass. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
This is the fast-moving part of the trial. When you can see the shine like this, you can just walk across the field and pick up the trail on the other side. Just watch to make sure your subject doesn't change direction on you.

 

Bruised vegetation indicates human passage. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
Bruised and bent over vegetation. The dark bruise marks indicate that this is fresh sign.

 

Scuffed moss.  Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
Scuffing of the moss and needles on a fallen log.

 

 Scuffing of moss on a log. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
Scuff marks and torn up moss on a log where a person went over. Note the poison oak on the right!

 

Broken twigs, bruised vegetation and other sign.  Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.
This is the fun stuff when tracking. The subtle signs like this are what makes it so exciting. Broken twigs. Torn and bruised vegetation. Compacted forest duff and soil.  This is the stuff that makes you slow down and pay attention.

 
 

Author's Note: I thank the instructors at Universal Tracking Services for the many, many years of training that
provided me with the signcutting skills to track these criminals.

 
 

 

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