Ranger team has record of finding success

State group specializes in woodlands operations

March 23, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When a 62-year-old man vanished into the 2,500-acre wilderness of nearby Soldiers Delight last month after allegedly burning down his lifelong Randallstown home, local police realized they needed help.

"Every police officer gets a little woodlands training," said Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey, but the officers were happy to see Maryland's Department of Natural Resources Ranger Tracking Team.

"They are specialists in woodlands operations," Toohey said. "Their training ... is what led authorities to this man."

The 2-year-old ranger team is finding success in wilderness searches through cutting-edge techniques --such as deploying small units and using equipment like global positioning devices, computers and radios -- combined with ancient tracking methods.

The unit also applies tactics borrowed from the former Rhodesian military.

Studying clues such as patterns of broken twigs or creases in fallen leaves, a small, highly trained team can more easily and efficiently follow signs to a quarry, replacing large search teams, officials said.

"We're not looking for a sloppy, muddy footprint," said Sgt. Mel Adam, a Cecil County-based ranger who conceived the two-year-old tracking unit. "The human foot leaves a flat, heavy impression that is different than anything else. The only thing close is a black bear's."

Each ranger carries a water bladder, military field rations, a trauma medical kit, a bullet-resistant vest, guns and their communications gear, he said.

Adam, a ranger based at Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County, suggested the new tactics after fruitless searches for two fugitive killers: Norman Johnston, an escaped Pennsylvania convict, and Joseph Palczynski.

`Taste of searching'

Adam said the August 1999 Cecil County search for Johnston, who escaped from a Pennsylvania prison where he was serving a life sentence for the 1978 murders of four teen-agers, "was my first taste of searching rural areas."

Johnston was found and arrested in Pennsylvania without incident after a three-week hunt.

"What we were doing was pouring 100 or more officers into a particular area. It was basically people looking under fallen trees and walking in different directions."

It worried him that if shooting started, officers unaware of who was around them could inadvertently harm each other.

Manhunt ends

The search for Palczynski in Gunpowder State Park along the Harford County line in March 2000 renewed those fears.

He was killed after a four-day standoff with police.

Adam's computer research led him to the Tactical Tracking Operations School of Mesquite, Nev. Run by David Scott-Donelan, the organization bills itself on its Web site as "the only civilian school in the USA, possibly the world, specializing in ... bold and aggressive man-tracking."

The firm applies military techniques adapted from the former Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) to modern American military and civilian purposes.

Adam attended a $700 training course Scott-Donelan taught in Virginia to a group of federal, state and local officers.

Later, Scott-Donelan came to Elk Neck State Park in Maryland to teach ranger team members, along with several Harford County sheriff's deputies, one Baltimore County officer and others.

The team's most high-profile recent search involved tracking William E. Tinkler, who authorities say burned the Randallstown home he grew up in hours before he was to be evicted. He lost the house last summer after failing to pay taxes.

Authorities first thought Tinkler had died in the fire, but after examining the ruins with dogs, they realized he was likely hiding in the woods of Soldiers Delight.

An initial search by a group of Baltimore County and state officers February 25 wasn't productive, Adam said, and the ranger team withdrew.

The ranger team returned March 2 after no new leads turned up.

"We saw signs of a human foot," Adam said, and the team followed the trail "for quite a ways."

It had recently rained, which made tracking easier, he said, but the area had been heavily used the previous weekend, so the searchers weren't sure they had the right tracks.

On the trail

They took time to check other areas, but ultimately returned to the trail, where a ranger saw an arm as they approached a concealed area under a fallen tree.

"He was inside of it," Adam said. Tinkler appeared to have hollowed out part of the tree bough and built a shelter under it.

The officers called out they were police officers and ordered Tinkler to show his hands, but they heard a muffled pop. That proved to be a .22-caliber rifle that police said Tinkler used to end his life.

"There are some people who want to be found and some people who don't," said Maj. John Norbeck, the team's commander and manager of the central region of the State Forest and Park Service, headquartered in the Howard County portion of Patapsco Valley State Park bisected by U.S. 40.

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