User:Jeff Hasse/Missing Person Case Study -- Brandon Swanson

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Event Timeline[edit]

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 says he is in a ditch between Marshall and Lynd and directs 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 states he is 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.

There has been considerable speculation as to why Brandon was so disoriented as to his location. We believe that it is relatively easy to explain. His disorientation was likely due to a combination of five factors: 1) fatigue, 2) at least mild intoxication (Remember, his blood alcohol was still rising after he left Canby from that shot of whiskey.), 3) unfamiliar roads (While he had driven Hwy 68 many times, he probably had little reason to drive the gravel roads.), 4) the fact that all the intersections look relatively alike (mostly tilled fields with very few landmarks), and 5) possibly simple distraction. These all could have contributed to him not knowing exactly where he was.

How he came to the conclusion that he was near Lynd is a little more difficult to explain. While we will never know for sure, we believe that when he realized he had travelled down a minimum maintenance road, he conducted what is known as a transderivational search. He searched his memory for other minimum maintenance roads that he knew and came up with the gravel road which lies along a golf course between Marshall and Lynd with which he was apparently familiar.

At 2:17a.m., Brandon’s mother calls him. Brandon is clearly becoming impatient and tells her that he is going to walk to Lynd. He directs 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.

Reflex Tasking Phase of the Search[edit]

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).

Regarding information that can be gleaned from a cell-phone call after the fact:

While this is somewhat beyond my expertise, this is what I understand. Contrary to popular belief, cell phone carriers do not constantly keep track of the exact GPS location of every phone in the system (Big Brother isn't really watching...); only what tower each phone is connected to. This is for several reasons. Not all phones are GPS capable. While phone systems can roughly triangulate a call’s origin, this requires the phone to be picked up by multiple towers (and many calls are only carried by one tower). And keeping records of this data would require massive data storage capacity which increases cost to the carriers.

In order for a law enforcement agency to track the phone, the phone has to be queried by the carrier. This requires some paperwork and approvals. We don’t know if this was attempted in this case, but it likely would not have been any help, since by this time, the phone was most probably already inoperable.

In the various missing person websites, many inferences have been made regarding the fact that Brandon's cell phone rang for a time before it went straight to voice mail. Unfortunately, little can be accurately inferred from this. According to one of our team members who is an executive at a regional telephone company, the ring that you hear when you call someone has little to do with what is happening at the other end (the recipient's phone). It is an artificial sound that is being generated at a switch in some building, not by the recipient's phone. It is a holdover from the old analog phone days.

The way a phone handles voice-mail when it is turned off or disabled is entirely dependent on how this function is programmed at the phone carrier's computer systems. Therefore, there is a great deal of variability regarding how it works between carriers, calling plans, and even models of phones.

While there are many possibilities regarding what happened at the end of Brandon's phone call to his father (the phone may have been lost, shorted out in water, battery dead, working but Brandon wasn't able to use it, etc.), the only thing that can be accurately inferred is that Brandon wasn't able to reestablish contact with his father after that point.

Some more information regarding cell phone tower networks:

The paradigm is the assumption that, when you make a call on your cell phone, it automatically routes to the nearest cell tower, and that by capturing those records police can determine where you made a call—and thus where you were—at a particular time. That, is not how the system works.

When you hit “send” on your cell phone, a complicated series of events takes place that is governed by algorithms and proprietary software, not just by the location of the cell tower. First, your cell phone sends out a radio-frequency signal to the towers within a radius of up to roughly twenty miles—or fewer, in urban areas—depending on the topography and atmospheric conditions. A regional switching center detects the signal and determines whether to accept the call. There are hundreds of such regional centers across the country.

The switching center determines the destination of your call and connects to the land lines that will take it to cell towers near the destination. Almost simultaneously, the software “decides” which of half a dozen towers in your area you’ll connect with. The selection is determined by load-management software that incorporates dozens of factors, including signal strength, atmospheric conditions, and maintenance schedules. The system is so fluid that you could sit at your desk, make five successive cell calls and connect to five different towers. During a conversation, your signal could be switched from one tower to the next; you’ll also be “handed off” to another tower if you travel outside your coverage area while you’re speaking. Designed for business and not tracking, call-detail records provide the kind of information that helps cell companies manage their networks, not track phones.


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. This was a very good call.

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 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. When a dog stops trailing, this doesn’t necessarily mean the trail "ends;" it may simply mean that the dog is at the end of its "nose time." This was over a three-mile trail, which is a relatively long trail.

The Search Planning Process[edit]

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.

Planning Scenarios Discussion[edit]

  • This is the process we used to evaluate the various scenarios regarding what happened to Brandon before and after the cell phone went dead. Feel free to add to the arguments.

Initial Direction of Travel Scenarios (During the cell-phone conversation):

1. Brandon traveled due east across the field road (395th St) to 110th Ave around Congers Marsh, then east on Lyon-Yellow Medicine Rd.
  • Arguments for: Brandon may have been backtracking his route. (It is unknown in what direction he thought the Lyndwood Tavern laid.)
  • Arguments against: Brandon thought he was between Marshall and Lynd. There is no evidence that he was backtracking towards Marshall.
2. Brandon traveled east by first going south on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd., then east on 390th St.
  • Arguments for:
  • Taunton was the closest town to the LKP.
  • During the cell phone call, he stayed on the Minneota Tower.
  • Arguments against:
  • Taunton was nearly invisible (no glow of lights).
3. Brandon traveled south on the Lyon-Lincoln Road.
  • Arguments for: None known
  • Arguments against: He would have reached the highway within the 47-minute conversation. If so, he would likely have mentioned it to his parents. No mention was made.
4. Brandon traveled westerly by first going south on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, west on 390th St., then either south on 270th St to Highway 68 or north on 270th St.
  • 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.
  • Arguments for:
  • Brandon’s vehicle was heading west when it went into the ditch. Accordingly, he likely thought his destination was to the west or northwest.
  • The brightest glow in the sky was Minneota, which was east-southeast of Brandon’s LKP. He would likely have thought that this was Marshall and headed away from it towards where he thought Lynd was located.
  • At one point in the conversation, when asked on which side of the road his car was located, he replied; “On the left side.” This indicates that he was facing south at that time, which may suggest an intended direction of travel.
  • Later, he mentioned that he could clearly see the moon (suggesting that it was within his field of vision). At the time he was walking, the moon was due west of his position near or at the horizon. While certainly a “soft” clue, this suggests that he may have been heading westerly at the time he made the statement.
  • Brandon stated that he believed he was on the road between Savannah Hills Golf Course and Lynd. He also believed that he is just off Highway 23. If one compares the relative positions of Marshall, the Lyndwood Tavern, and Highway 23 with the positions of Minneota and Highway 68, a westerly direction of travel makes sense.
  • The trail established by trailing dog on Day 2 of the search.
  • Arguments against:
  • Porter is farther away than Taunton, (but Brandon probably didn’t know that).
5. Brandon traveled westerly by first going north on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, then west on 400th St.
  • Arguments for:
  • Brandon’s vehicle was heading west when it went into the ditch. Accordingly, he likely thought his destination was to the west.
  • The brightest glow in the sky was Minneota, which was east-south-east of Brandon’s LKP. He would likely have thought that this was Marshall and headed away from it towards where he thought Lynd was located.
  • Later, he mentioned that he could clearly see the moon (suggesting that it was within his field of vision). At the time he was walking, the moon was due west of his position near or at the horizon. While certainly a “soft” clue, this suggests that he may have been heading westerly at the time he made the statement.
  • Brandon stated that he believed he was on the road between Savannah Hills Golf Course and Lynd. He also believed that he is just off Highway 23. If one compares the relative positions of Marshall, the Lyndwood Tavern, and Highway 23 with the positions of Minneota and Highway 68, a westerly direction of travel makes sense.
  • Arguments against:
  • At one point in the conversation, when asked on which side of the road his car was located, he replied; “On the left side.” This indicates that he was facing south at that time, which may suggest an intended direction of travel (towards the south).
  • Porter is farther away than Taunton, (but Brandon probably didn’t know that).
6. Brandon traveled westerly by first going north on Lyon-Lincoln County Rd, then west on 170th Ave (or 180th, 190th, etc.).
  • Arguments for: He may have decided to turn west at any intersection.
  • Arguments against: If he wanted to head west, it is more likely that he turned west at the nearest opportunity. The phone conversation suggests that he was single-minded in his determination to go to the tavern.
7. Brandon traveled north on the Lyon-Lincoln County Rd.
  • Arguments for:
  • There was a direct line of travel north.
  • It is unknown in what direction he thought the Lyndwood Tavern laid.
  • Arguments against:
  • At some point in the conversation, he left the road and went cross-country, so it is clear that Brandon believed that the tavern was not in a direct path along the road.
8. Brandon traveled northeasterly.
  • Arguments for: None known
  • Arguments against: None known

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.
  • Possible waterways include:
  • The Yellow Medicine River to the south and west.
  • The Mud Creek to the north.
  • Any of the many drainage ditches in the area.
  • Arguments for:
  • During the phone conversation, Brandon noted hearing moving water nearby.
  • Drowning would certainly account for Brandon’s disappearance.
  • Water searches are difficult to search to a 100% POD, therefore it is possible that he is still missing in the ¾ - 2.5 mile radius from the LKP.
  • Arguments against:
  • While it is clear that Brandon’s phone was rendered inoperable when he uttered the expletive, it is dangerous to assume that Brandon was unable to continue walking after that point.
  • The area within the ¾ - 2.5 mile radius from the LKP has been searched extensively without success (especially the Yellow Medicine River), suggesting that Brandon is located elsewhere.
1.2 Brandon stumbled, injured himself (thereby becoming immobilized), and later succumbed to the cold weather.
  • Arguments for:
  • During the night in question, it is nearly certain that an immobile subject would have become hypothermic (especially with the light clothing that Brandon was wearing).
  • Arguments against:
  • A subject located on the ground within the ¾ - 2.5-mile radius from the LKP would likely have been found by now.
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.
  • Arguments for:
  • One cannot assume that Brandon stopped moving at the point the cell phone went dead. Cell phones are relatively fragile devices.
  • The area within the ¾ - 2.5 mile radius from the LKP has been searched extensively without success, suggesting that Brandon is located elsewhere. Per Robert Koester in Lost Person Behavior, “Hill, in an examination of suspended searches, found that in almost every case the search planners failed to search outside the median.” In this case, the median distance is 1.3 miles (which has been searched extensively). Statistically, there is a 50% chance that Brandon will be located beyond this distance.
  • Arguments against: None known
2.2 Brandon eventually fell into some sort of well, cistern, or tank and perished there.
  • Arguments for:
  • This scenario would certainly account for why no one has spotted his body.
  • Arguments against:
  • Modern well casings for residential use are generally 4-6” in diameter. Small enough for a puppy to fall into, but not a human. Municipal and commercial casing are often in the range of 16-20” in diameter, which is large enough to fall into. However, there are none in the area that aren’t enclosed in buildings. The only well that is large enough for an adult male to fall into that would have been accessible to Brandon is a hand-dug brick or timber lined well. Any in the area would be over 100 years old and most likely be collapsed. An intact pioneer well is an exceptionally rare thing in this area (if they are in the area at all). The likelihood that he found the one intact pioneer well in the entire region is extremely low.
  • For many years, Minnesota law has required that old wells and cisterns be filled in and/or capped.
  • A more likely possibility is falling into a cistern. Many, if not most, old farms in the area had one. Windmills would pump water into a cistern where it is more readily accessible. They are often covered with a wooden covering which can rot away. While all the teams have been looking for them, none have been found.
  • There just aren’t a lot of abandoned farms within the search area. We have found at least three old farmsteads on the map that have been completely wiped off the land. The farmland in this area is so valuable that every footing, cistern, and piece of concrete has been removed.
  • All of the search teams that I have worked with on this search are aware of old cisterns and the like. The three or four abandoned farms we have found have been searched thoroughly.
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.
  • Arguments for: None known
  • Arguments against: The likelihood of meeting a predator in this rural area on a weeknight is quite remote.
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.
  • Arguments for: None known.
  • Arguments against:
  • Brandon did not have any means of supporting himself.