Search and rescue/SAR mission 2008 02

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Situation[edit | edit source]

Taunton is in the far northwest corner of Lyon County; north is Yellow Medicine County and west is Lincoln County

Brandon Swanson, age 19, disappeared on Wednesday, May 14, 2008, in Minnesota. At about 3:10 AM he was walking cross country in the dark while talking on his cell phone to his father, when he said "oh s***" and the phone call ended.

Brandon had been driving home to Marshall from a party at a friend's home in Canby, when he became disoriented. Canby is about 30 miles northwest of Marshall. Although Highway 68 goes from Canby directly to Marshall, Brandon drove on gravel and dirt back roads. These back roads are used mainly by local farmers to access agricultural fields Incorrect. They are used by locals everyday for everyday activities.: most intersections lack signage [is this true? No] and the roads have few other distinguishing features. At one intersection Brandon drove the car into a shallow ditch, high-centering it.[1][2] He used his cell phone to call home and ask his parents to come get him. He said he was near Lynd. Lynd is about 6 miles southwest of Marshall on Highway 23. Brandon's parents went to get him but did not find him or his car. At 2:23 AM Brandon's father called him and they discussed what to do. The duration of this phone call was about 47 minutes. While they talked, Brandon set out walking to meet his parents in Lynd. He walked at first on gravel roads, then cross country, until the abrupt end of the call. Brandon's parents were unable to make further contact. They continued to search for him and called 911 at 6:30 AM.

Historical topography[3] of the area between Canby (upper left) and Minneota (lower right); the car was found near the center of this map

Around 12:30 PM a Lyon County Sheriff Deputy found Brandon's car about 2 miles northwest of Taunton.[1] Taunton is on Highway 68 about 17 miles northwest of Marshall. The car was high-centered in a ditch at the intersection of a dirt road and north-south Lyon Lincoln Road, 1.3 miles north of its intersection with Highway 68 and 0.5 miles south of the county line. The WGS84 UTM coordinate of this location is 14T, 730613mE, 4945208mN (see Google Map). No other physical evidence was found, neither objects nor Brandon's tracks. That morning, before the car was found, gravel roads in the vicinity were graded.[1]

Brandon's father wrote from memory what Brandon had said about his location.[1] Brandon said his car was stuck near a highway that he identified as Highway 23 between Marshall and Lynd, and that he was walking on a gravel road toward Lynd. He "encountered" a fence line twice and noted "water nearby".

Event Timeline[edit | edit source]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Brandon started his evening at a house in Lynd, MN rented by several friends. He had just finished a year-long technical school program in wind energy. It was the night before graduation and he was at a small gathering of five people described as a “get together of a few friends.” He consumed an unknown amount of alcohol. One eyewitness stated that the gathering was “low key” and Brandon was not overly intoxicated.

Between 10:30 and 11:00 pm, he left the gathering alone and drove to another friend’s house in Canby to say goodbye to a classmate. It was reported that he had an additional shot of whiskey at this party. He was there only for a short time and left some time after midnight for his home in Marshall.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The two-lane Highway 68 is a direct route southeast from Canby to Marshall. Brandon had driven it many times. Yet he doesn’t appear to have taken Highway 68 to get home. It appears that he was driving on gravels roads northeast of the highway to get home. We believe he was on the gravel roads to avoid detection by law enforcement and a DUI charge. These gravel roads do not parallel the highway, they are at about a 45 degree angle to the highway (running east-west and north-south), so he would have had to make multiple turns in a stair-step fashion to follow the highway’s relative path.

We know that he eventually ended up driving west down a minimum maintenance road for a mile. This is actually a field road between two large crop fields. He was attempting to turn south back on to a gravel road when he missed the field approach and went into the ditch at low speeds. The ditch bank was shallow but steep there and the frame of the car became hung up, so he was not able to back out or go forward. This occurred at approximately 1:15 a.m. There was no damage to the car and no evidence of injury inside the vehicle.

Brandon attempted to contact two or three of his friends by cell phone but was unable to reach them, so he called his parents for assistance at 1:54 a.m. Brandon said he was in a ditch between Marshall and Lynd and directed his parents there. There were several calls placed between Brandon and his parents between 1:54 and 2:17 a.m. During one call, he stated he was on the left side of the road just off Highway 23 (suggesting from the position his car was found that he was oriented towards the south and was confusing Highway 68 for Highway 23). During this time, Brandon’s parents searched for him by car but were unable to find him.

At 2:17a.m., Brandon’s mother called him. Brandon was clearly becoming impatient and he told her that he was going to walk to Lynd. He directed his parents to meet him at the Lyndwood Tavern in Lynd.

At 2:23 a.m., Brandon and his father begin a 47-minute cell phone call. During this call, Brandon indicates that he was walking along a gravel road away from Marshall towards Lynd. At some point, he leaves the road and travels cross-country, stating that he is going to “cut across because it will be quicker than following the road.” He further stated that he had encountered two fence lines and noted that there was water nearby. Shortly after, Brandon exclaims; “Oh s***.” His father believes he hears Brandon’s foot slipping and the phone goes dead. This was at 3:10 a.m. No further contact was made, even after repeated attempts.

Weather in the early morning hours of May 14th was mostly clear with a light wind for the area of 6-9 mph. The temperature at the time of his disappearance was 46° F and dropped to a low of 39° F. The moon was at its third quarter, due west of Brandon’s position, and setting at the time the phone went dead.

Brandon’s parents continue to look for him throughout the night. At 6:30 a.m., they contact the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office and report him missing.

Location[edit | edit source]

Red stickpin marks where car was found (click to enlarge)

The search area[4] is in southwestern Minnesota, near South Dakota. Lyon Lincoln Road, where the car was found, marks the boundary between Lyon and Lincoln counties, and their boundary with Yellow Medicine County is 0.5 miles to the north.

As in most of the United States, in Minnesota search and rescue is the responsibility of the county sheriff.

The area is rich farmland, and relatively flat and wet. Water (mainly small creeks and lakes) and fence lines are widespread. Both highways Which highways are you referring to? share a right of way with a railroad, Incorrect. While the topo for Highway 68 shows a RR track, it has been completely erased from the landscape. and are roughly paralleled on their north sides by creeks.

When he high-centered the car, Brandon was driving west on a dirt road dividing Section 6 in Eidsvold Township (see Public Land Survey System), and tried to turn south onto the gravel road on the west boundary line of the section / township / county. Evidently he knew (or thought) he was near a highway, but not which highway. Incorrect. He believed he "was just off Highway 23." Thus, it is not known which side of the highway he thought he was on, nor which way he intended to walk relative to the highway to reach his destination. Brandon thought he was walking to a populated place on the highway, and he was between two such places: Porter to the northwest and Taunton to the southeast. How did he decide which way to go? Could he see lights ahead of him? Which lights would he have seen?

A search dog used early in the search traveled northwest, toward Porter. This information led to much of the subsequent search being devoted to the northwest of the car. Incomplete. The bloodhound trail led to the search efforts at the YMR. Other developments not yet reported led to the search focusing to the northwest.

Subject[edit | edit source]

Male age 19 (May 2008), height 5 feet 6 inches, weight 120–130 pounds (slender build), Caucasian, average complexion, hair short brown, no facial hair, eyes blue. Last seen wearing a white MN Twins baseball cap, glasses, sterling silver chain necklace, white T-shirt, blue striped polo shirt, black hooded zip front sweatshirt with emblem on back, baggy blue jeans (hip hop style), belt (probably), white tennis shoes. Carried a black cell phone (Motorola SLVR L7c), wallet, car keys.

Reflex Tasking Phase of the Search[edit | edit source]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

We do not have any direct documentation regarding the early hours of the search. The following is based on reports from Brandon’s family and media reports.

We can presume that, after taking the initial information, an ATL (attempt to locate) was issued for Brandon and his car. It is our understanding that the Sheriff’s Office put in a request to Brandon’s cell carrier for data. We also understand that no information was immediately available because no one was at the carrier’s offices yet that morning. Shortly after the office opened, they found that Brandon's cell had been connected to the cell tower located just south of Minneota. I presume that they immediately refocused their search efforts in that area. At approximately 12:30 p.m., a Lyon County Sheriff Deputy found Brandon’s car located 1.5 miles north of MN Highway 68 on the border of Lyon and Lincoln Counties. The UTM coordinate of the vehicle’s location is 14T, 730613mE, 4945208mN (WGS84).

We (the civilian SAR resources involved in the case) know little about the first day’s search efforts. One media account mentioned that, besides using local officers for the initial search efforts, they requested the help of a canine from nearby Chippewa County. I don’t know what this dog found. However, I suspect that this dog is a police canine and attempted to run a non-scent-specific track (as opposed to a scent-specific trailing dog). This would have been at least 10 hours after the cell-phone contact was lost, which is a stretch for a tracking dog (which generally follows fear scent and the track made by crushed vegetation).

We also know that the car was towed away the first day of the search. In an unfortunate coincidence, the roads were graded the morning of the 14th, destroying any footprints.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

By 11:00 a.m., members of the Codington County Search Dive & Rescue team arrived at the request of the Lyon County Sheriff.

While initial attempts at obtaining a direction of travel using trailing dogs failed, once they switched to another scent article, one of the dogs was able to pick up a trail. From Brandon’s vehicle, it traveled ½ mile south then turned west onto 390th St. where it continued for a mile. There, the trail turned north onto Co. Rd. 16. The trail continued north for ½ mile then turned west onto the driveway of an abandoned farm. It continued west for approximately ¼ of a mile and then left the driveway and roughly followed the course of the Yellow Medicine River heading northwest. At one point the bloodhound jumped into the Yellow Medicine River and then exited it. The handler interpreted this behavior as possibly indicating that Brandon might have fallen into the river at that point. However, the trail continued past this point to a drainage, where it continued north towards the gravel road forming the boundary between Lincoln and Yellow Medicine Counties. The dog was unable to trail any further.

This trail is consistent with Brandon’s 47-minute cell phone conversation with his father. We know he travelled along gravel roads for most of the conversation. He then left the road and travelled cross-country at the driveway. He mentioned two fencelines, which are in the area. The terrain near the river is wooded, uneven, and has many animal den holes. In addition, Brandon was congenitally blind in his left eye, making his depth perception poor (especially in the dark). And the moon was setting during the conversation, leaving him with only starlight to navigate by. Finally, the average person walks between 1 and 3 miles per hour. That puts Brandon between ¾-mile and 2.5-miles away from his car when the phone went dead. The trail to the point in the river where the dog jumped in is within that range.

We believe that it is most likely that Brandon tripped, stumbled, or slipped on one of the many hazards in the area. He likely dropped his phone and it was rendered inoperable somehow (shorted out in water, hit something hard and broke, battery popped out, or he simply couldn't find it again).

In addition to the bloodhounds, two area search dogs worked the area near the car and around the Yellow Medicine River. There were also an unknown number of emergent volunteers searching the area around the vehicle and a team from the Department of Natural Resources that floated the river in a boat.

Based on the bloodhound trail, a presumption was made by the local commanders that Brandon fell into the water and drowned. Much of the search effort from this point on is directed towards this scenario. While this was a reasonable scenario to explore, other scenarios exist, such as Brandon stumbled, lost or broke his phone, and continued walking. In fact, the bloodhound evidence is more suggestive of the second scenario. While the dog did at one point jump into the Yellow Medicine River, it came out again and continued with good purpose of movement, suggesting the trail continued. The dog was able to follow the trail until just shy of another gravel road.

The Search Planning Process[edit | edit source]

Every Search Manager must deal with two fundamental questions during a missing person search: Where do we search? and How do we search? This section describes the ways the planning team decided where to search in the Brandon Swanson case. These are standard practices taught by both the so-called Land SAR community (e.g., NASAR) and the so-called Mathematical model (e.g., the Air Force’s Inland SAR Planning Course).

There are four standard methods used to determine the overall search area and initial search priorities:

1) Theoretical Maximum Distance Traveled

  • This is simply the rate of travel multiplied by the time traveled. Since the average person walks between 1 and 3 mph, and Brandon walked between 47 and 53 minutes, this gave us the 0.75 to 2.5-mile initial planning ring. (On the master map, the minimum distance is designated with diamonds and the maximum distance by triangles.)

2) Statistical

  • Retrospective studies based on the International Search and Rescue Incident Database found that, in these circumstances (abandoned vehicles), subjects were found 5.6 miles from the Last Known Position 95% of the time, yielding a total search area of 98.5 square miles. The median distance is 1.3 miles (5.3 square mile search area).

3) Subjective Considerations

  • This includes evaluating attractants, navigation aids, and navigation barriers that might influence where Brandon would go. This yielded a number of "investigative clues" that helped us set initial search priorities.
  • The following subjective considerations were evaluated in this case:
  • Attractants (principally lights from the surrounding area):
  • The most visible man-made light in the area was the prominent glow from the east-southeast in the direction of Minneota (although it is likely that this was a glow of lights from Marshall).
  • There was a scattering of individual lights in all directions. None stood out.
  • Navigation Aids:
  • County roads (For the majority of the 47 minute conversation, Brandon traveled along one of the gravel roads.)
  • The glow of lights in the distance. (Brandon believed he was oriented to his location.)
  • Navigation Barriers:
  • Yellow Medicine River to the south (although multiple bridges cross the river)
  • Mud Creek to the north (although multiple bridges cross the creek)
  • Highway 68 SSE

4) Deductive Reasoning

  • We came up with and evaluated a number of scenarios that might explain the circumstances of his disappearance.
  • Known: On May 15, 2008, Brandon left a gathering in Canby to drive home Marshall when he drove west down a field road, attempted to turn south onto a gravel road, and became stuck. He believed he was somewhere between Marshall and Lynd. Between 2:15 and 2:25 am, he left his car and began walking. He was attempting to meet his parents at the Lyndwood Tavern. At the end of a 47-minute cell phone conversation, Brandon uttered an expletive and the phone went dead.
  • Due to the nature of this case, planners evaluated two separate sets of scenarios: What direction Brandon might have headed during the cell phone conversation and what happened after the cell phone went dead.
A. Initial Direction of Travel Scenarios (During the cell-phone conversation):
1. Brandon traveled easterly.
1.1 Due east across field road (395th St), 110th Ave around Congers Marsh, east on Lyon-Yellow Medicine Rd.
1.2 South on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd., east on 390th St (towards Taunton).
2. Brandon traveled south.
3. Brandon traveled westerly (towards Porter).
  • If Brandon intended to go west from his LKP, he only had two choices if he wanted to walk along a road. 1) To go south along the road he was on and turn west at the nearest intersection or 2) Go north and turn west. Either way, he would likely turn west at the nearest opportunity.
3.1 South on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, west on 390th St. Then either south on 270th St to Highway 68 or north on 270th St.
3.2 North on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, west on 400th St.
3.3 North on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, west on 170th Ave (or 180th, 190th, etc.)
4. Brandon traveled northerly (on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd).
5. Brandon traveled northeasterly.
B. Scenarios After Phone Went Dead:
1. Brandon was killed at the point the phone went dead (or became immobilized by injury and later perished in the same area).
  • Notes: Brandon was traveling cross-country at the time. During the 47-minute conversation, Brandon likely traveled between ¾ to 2.5 miles.
1.1 Brandon drowned in one of the many waterways in the area.
1.2 Brandon stumbled, injured himself (thereby becoming immobilized), and later succumbed to the cold weather.
2. Brandon slipped and his phone was somehow rendered inoperable, but he was able to continue walking.
2.1 Brandon became wet from falling, wet grass, and/or sweating from the exertion of walking and became hypothermic over time, eventually succumbing to it.
2.2 Brandon eventually fell into some sort of well, cistern, or tank and perished there.
3. Brandon was picked up by someone and taken outside of the search area.
3.1 Brandon was later harmed by whoever picked him up.
3.2 Brandon obtained a ride from someone who was able to transport him to safety and Brandon is alive and well and living elsewhere.

Scenarios[edit | edit source]

Scenarios here are limited to those within the scope of search and rescue. Scenarios such as running away from home and abduction by aliens are outside that scope. Brandon could be...

  1. in the Yellow Medicine River
  2. in water other than the Yellow Medicine River
  3. in an agricultural field
  4. in conservation land or woods
  5. in an abandoned well or cistern
  6. in a fence rowLaguyon 06:16, 4 February 2010 (UTC)

Yellow Medicine River[edit | edit source]

This scenario was the focus of much of the initial search. Conservative cumulative POD estimates effectively rule out approximately six miles of the river (PODcum >96%). An additional four miles of river was searched to PODcum of 46-52%

Water other than the Yellow Medicine River[edit | edit source]

There are many road ditches, field drainage ditches, creeks, and wetlands in the area. These were the focus of much of the HRD canine's search efforts for two reasons. 1) A body partially or fully submerged is difficult to find visually, but canines are quite effective. 2) Wet areas form good scent pools for the canines to detect, even if remains are not nearby.

With the amount of water in the area and the continued findings of the canines, this final location scenario remains a high probability.

Agricultural field[edit | edit source]

The fields within 2-3 miles of the LKP were searched early. Because the fields were not planted yet or newly planted with no growth, PODs were relatively high.

The canine teams initially avoided searching fields for several reasons: 1) The assumption that few fields had been planted when Brandon went missing, therefore the farmers would have found him while planting. 2) Farmers tend to be very sensitive about crop damage and we wanted to avoid that issue. 3) The constant wind blowing through the area allowed the dogs to effectively sample many of the fields from their edges.

Once we determined that the remains were likely within the Mud Creek drainage, and we found out that over 60% of the fields in the area had already been planted when Brandon went missing, we felt we could no longer ignore the fields. This occurred in the late spring of 2009. Since then, we have been systematically detail-searching each of the fields in the area, an exhausting process.

Recently, five different certified HRD dogs gave full trained final responses on a field cultivator sitting by the side of a field. This may or may not indicate that the body is scattered in a nearby field. This is one of the more puzzling findings.

Conservation land or woods[edit | edit source]

There is quite a bit of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program--a wetland preservation program)in the area. In addition, there are wooded areas and tall grass along most creeks and drainages in the search area. The wooded shelter-belts around every farm in the region are particularly dense. All of these are being systematically searched.

This remains a very high-probability scenario.

Abandoned well or similar[edit | edit source]

Old hand-dug water wells, cisterns, and similar underground structures with inadequate covers are potential traps for anyone walking over them.

This scenario has been considered but only minimally and extensively investigated. It is thought that all most former homesteads within current agricultural fields have been fully reclaimed. An old homestead that still stands about 1.3 miles west of the car was thoroughly searched.

Former homesteads can be identified by comparing old topographic maps with recent satellite imagery which has been done.

In addition to old homesteads, land used for rural schools should be identified. These schools had wells which may never have been sealed or have become open with time. The schools were placed so that walking distance was no more than two miles.Laguyon 18:41, 1 February 2010 (UTC)

Interestingly, none have been found. We are used to finding these elsewhere. They often have coal chutes to dank basements that still operate and can trap children. Tillable land is so valuable in the area that these all appear to have been reclaimed also.

Thanks to Baby Jessica and other high-profile cases, all the searchers (including the untrained emergent volunteers) are aware of abandoned wells and the like and actively searched for them.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 User:Jeff Hasse/Missing Person Case Study -- Brandon Swanson
  2. Alan Boyle (June 3, 2009). "(High-centering) Will Mars rover roll again?". CosmicLog. Retrieved 2010-01-30.
  3. "Tons of Maps Online (ToMO): USGS 1:250,000 series maps Watertown, New Ulm". Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2010. Retrieved February 1, 2010.
  4. "100,000 scale topographic map of search area". Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved 2010-01-30.

External links[edit | edit source]