Tree Saddle Mission Feb-Mar 2014
The subject, Paul Tomasso, 56
year old male, was reported missing when he did not arrive
on a flight to Connecticut on February 24, 2014 for a family
event. His vehicle was located near Board Tree Saddle on
SR288 about 10 miles south of Young, AZ.
Sgt. Rodney Cronk and Sgt. Dennis
Newman of Gila County Sheriffs Office, along with Dave
Pirtle of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (one of our best
trackers) went out on February 25th to search
around the vehicle and gather whatever information they
could, and establish a direction of travel if possible.
They found a note on the vehicle indicating that Mr Tomasso
had left the vehicle on February 13 and indicated he was
going to backpack for 4 or 5 days “plus or minus”.
Since the note indicated he left
his vehicle on the 13th, and it was now the 25th,
tracks and scent were already 12 days old. A helicopter was
also called in on this first day and covered as much area as
it could before dark.
A note about the terrain in this
area: This is extremely rugged country, very rocky which is
not conducive to tracking, and it is covered with very dense
brush. It would be possible to walk within 10 feet of an
unresponsive person and not be able to see them, so line
searches would not be very productive, and would require
intense manpower. The area east of the vehicle has a more
than 1000 foot drop extending several miles north and
south. It is mostly cliffs with some intersecting draws and
ridges that could be climbed down or up. The area west of
the vehicle also drops in elevation and is intersected by
various draws and canyons that drop very steeply into deep
This topographic map shows the
terrain layout in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle:
Identifying a direction of travel
on the first day was not successful. In addition to 12 days
of elapsed time and very rocky ground, there are deer, elk,
and cattle in the area, along with birds, insects, wind, and
other track erosion mechanisms in play.
It was noted by the family that
the subject liked to investigate Indian ruins, so some focus
was placed on these and there are numerous of these in this
area. Family also noted that he was in good health, was
experienced at backpacking, and would travel as much as 10
miles in a day. This made for a huge search area. Just
using a radius of 10 miles makes a search area of over 300
square miles, so the need to establish a direction of
travel, or find area attractants, was paramount in being
able to narrow the scope of the search to make it feasible.
The second day callout for
February 26 was for Mounted Posse as well as jeeps and quads
– to cover roads and as much ground as possible close to the
location of the vehicle in a continuing attempt to establish
a direction of travel and help narrow the direction of the
search. 21 searchers responded on the first day from Gila
County Sheriffs Mounted Posse and Tonto Rim Search and
Rescue. They covered dozens of miles by quad, jeep, and
horseback, and found no clues. DPS Ranger helicopter was
also on scene during the day, and also in the evening after
dark to look for fires or lights – with no success.
A significant winter storm was
bearing down on central Arizona for Friday through Sunday,
so the Arizona State SAR coordinator was contacted to get as
many resources in as possible from other counties to put on
a major push before the storm destroyed further ability to
track or look for sign.
On February 27th, 44
searchers signed in, as well as K-9 units. They came from
Maricopa County (Central Arizona Mountain Rescue
Association), Navajo County (both mounted and ground
searchers), and Gila County (both mounted and ground
searchers and K-9). In addition to searchers, numerous
support personnel arrived with food, water, and other
supplies needed to maintain a long duration Search and
Rescue effort. Many, many miles were covered by horseback,
by vehicles, and by foot. Technical teams were required to
access some of the near-vertical canyons. One team was in
the field until after midnight due to a difficult extraction
from the assigned search area.
On February 28th,
after some very difficult hiking and searching on the
previous day, 26 searchers signed in again from Gila County
and Maricopa County. The winter storm set in late this
evening, and throughout the afternoon searchers were
hampered by high winds and dropping temperatures.
On Saturday March 1st,
12 searchers from Gila County and Maricopa County made it
through heavy rain to the search location, and searched
additional search sections. This was a good test of rain
and winter weather gear, as there were high winds, sleet,
and snow – including a “thunder snow” – all day long.
The next day, Sunday, March 2nd,
6 searchers coming from Payson had to travel through a foot
of snow on top of the Rim. Several searchers were turned
back due to a jack-knifed truck that looked like it would
take a while to remove. Searchers covered additional canyons
and areas with possible ruins identified by the forest
service. The greatest difficulty on this day was very slick
ground saturated by over 3.5 inches of precipitation, plus a
cover of 2 inches of snow.
Monday, March 3rd
found 13 searchers from Gila County and Navajo County
covered more possible attractants identified by the search
Tuesday, March 4, 28 searchers
from Gila County, Navajo County, and Maricopa County signed
in and covered assignments.
Wednesday, March 5, 15 searchers
from Gila County and Maricopa County covered assignments.
Thursday, March 6, 14 searchers
from Gila County, Navajo County, and Maricopa County covered
By Friday, March 7, it was
getting difficult to get searchers due to the prolonged
effort, people with jobs, etc. 3 searchers from Gila County
performed their assignments, and at the end of the day the
Sheriff’s Office decided to suspend the search unless new
leads could be developed.
This was a very difficult
search, and it was very difficult for the coordinators to
make a decision to suspend the search. There were a number
of compounding factors in this search that made it
The search started 12 days after the subjects last known
position at his vehicle - 12 days of track and scent
erosion. Tracks were found in conflicting locations during
the search, but were not possible to follow, and could have
been made by others in the area, such as horn hunters or
Very difficult terrain for tracking, even if the tracks were
No direction of travel was ever established to help narrow
or focus the search.
A heavy winter storm covered the search are with over 3.5
inches of precipitation starting the 5th day of
Very remote location hampered communications on a number of
levels – very spotty cell phone service prevented timely
communications with various agencies that could provide
assistance, such as with locations/maps of ruins that might
be an attractant. Local communications with searchers was
difficult as well, with searchers occasionally being
designated to be radio relay for safety.
Extreme terrain made it difficult for teams to complete an
assignment. Several canyons required technical gear just to
reach the assignment area. Dense brush made movement
difficult and also hampered efficient coverage of an
During the storm footing was slippery and dangerous
requiring additional safety precautions.
Over the course of the 11 days of
active searching, volunteers provided the bulk of the
manpower in the field. By my count 185 man days were spent
by volunteers covering the various search assignments.
K-9’s were used on several of these days. DPS Ranger
helicopter was used on several of these days. In addition,
food, water, and other supplies were delivered to the
command center by various volunteers and other state
resources to support the search efforts.
Click on pictures for larger versions
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue