June 25, 2018
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Maine Warden Service, volunteers disagree on search protocols

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

HOWLAND, Maine — As far as Richard Bowie is concerned, the Maine Warden Service followed its protocols to the letter in its search in thick woods off Lagrange Road for missing Freeport resident Dean Levasseur early last week.

The effort began, Bowie said, with a line search — searchers walking almost shoulder to shoulder over rough terrain as they looked for the 24-year-old — and proceeded flawlessly. The searchers marked their searched territory with GPS technology and warden service aircraft soon were called in to augment the on-the-ground work, Bowie said.

Levasseur was reported missing on Sunday, April 22, but authorities didn’t bring in the normal contingent of volunteer searchers to help look for him until April 24, Bowie said. Levasseur’s body was discovered the next day.

Bowie — who is director of Down East Emergency Medicine Institute, one of the state’s largest nonprofit search groups and which helped search for Levasseur — is concerned that state police and game warden search protocols are outdated and believes that volunteers should be called in sooner.

Maine Warden Service Lt. Kevin Adam, the state’s search coordinator, strongly disagreed, saying the system has evolved continually and works well.

“In this case, there is no faulting individuals,” Bowie said, referring to the Levasseur search. “There is a system issue with the way it is designed. It needs to be brought into modern times.”

Randolph Michaud, chief of North Star Search and Rescue, a 30-member volunteer group covering Aroostook County, agreed with Bowie. He said Maine legislators should update the state’s search protocols so that search groups immediately are notified of pending or potential searches so they can assemble and otherwise prepare to participate.

“The Maine Warden Service does a wonderful job,” Michaud said, “but the whole system is broken down. A lot of the times, I find out about a search [in Aroostook County] after watching the news.”

But retired Game Warden Deborah Palman, president of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue, an organization that coordinates the efforts of about a dozen volunteer search groups statewide, said Maine’s search and rescue system is “one of the best, if not the best” in New England and along the East Coast.

“There are probably individual situations that could have been done a tiny bit better, but overall, given the lack of funding from the state, it does fairly well,” Palman said. “It is huge that there is one agency [the warden service] in charge of running searches. In other states, where no one agency is in charge or they have no search management training, it is just chaos.”

“I think it works great,” Adam said of Maine’s search system. “We have refined this system repeatedly and we meet with [the Maine Association for Search and Rescue] every other month [to discuss further refinements]. We have pretty much perfected this, and any time there is an issue we look at what it is and how can we make it better.”

Michaud and Bowie would like to see Maine emulate the recent attempt by Vermont legislators to update that state’s search protocols to require that searches begin immediately, a bill proposed in the wake of the death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven. Duclos didn’t return home from a hike on the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton on Jan. 9. He was found dead the next morning of hypothermia.

According to VTDigger.org, a Vermont-based statewide news website dedicated to coverage of Vermont politics, Vermont state police waited about 16 hours to initiate a search operation after family members reported that Duclos was overdue from a day hike.

Greg Dimmock of Bradford said similar timing dogged the search for Levasseur — in which Dimmock participated — and for Dimmock’s son, Old Town resident Jeremy Dimmock, whose body was pulled from the Penobscot River in Old Town last July 24 after he had disappeared on July 18 and drowned. His death was ruled a suicide.

“As far as Levasseur or any of them, [the start of a search] needs to be put out there quicker. My wife and her friend spent two days trying to get somebody to do something. Unfortunately, it would not have changed the outcome,” Dimmock said, “but the Old Town police just figured that he was a young man in his 20s and he just skipped town … and he didn’t. Unfortunately, he didn’t go a half-mile from the house.”

The Vermont legislators’ bill would set interim operational requirements for prompt responses in search and rescue cases, require cooperation with municipal and civilian search and rescue organizations, and establish a study committee to evaluate whether the state’s search and rescue function should remain with state police or be passed to other agencies, according to VTDigger.org. The bill passed the Vermont House about two weeks ago and is pending.

“The system issues there caused that person to die,” Bowie said of the Duclos incident. “One day we might see that happen here. It is just a matter of time before they [Maine search protocols] cause a delay that can cause someone harm.”

A musician, Levasseur died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound early on Sunday, April 22, after he hiked with his fellow bandmates for 2½ miles through the woods off Lagrange Road to get to Chickenfest, a party hosted every spring by University of Maine students at a different, secret location.

Levasseur’s body was found just a few hundred yards west of the stage on the morning of Wednesday, April 25.

After Chickenfest ended, state police learned from Freeport police that Levasseur was missing on the night of April 22. The Maine Warden Service searched the area starting on the morning of Monday, April 23, and continued all day with a search and rescue canine and the dog’s handler, plus three or four wardens and state police, but a torrential downpour prevented the dog from picking up any human scent, Adam and warden Sgt. Ronald Dunham said.

Once that search ended unsuccessfully, state police went public with the search, seeking information on Levasseur’s whereabouts “because we wanted to make sure that he hadn’t left the area with somebody else,” Adam said. “He was a 24-year-old man at a party with 500 people.”

It turned out that Levasseur had sent a text message around 1:30 a.m. April 22, the last message he ever made, Dunham said. State police detectives believe Levasseur likely shot himself shortly afterward.

Dimmock and Bowie don’t believe that an immediate search for Levasseur would have helped but said that wardens and state police, the agencies typically involved in searches, should begin searches a lot sooner with local search groups and volunteers.

A large-scale call for volunteers in the Levasseur search didn’t go out until April 24, and “there should not have even been a question at that point,” Dimmock said. “They have to say, ‘Hey, we have to jump on this quick and use all of our available resources.’”

The Orono-based search group Dirigo Search and Rescue Association gathered on the evening of April 24 at first unaware of whether a search would continue the next day, Dimmock said.

About 150 or so family members, friends and volunteers from several search groups searched for Levasseur on April 24 and 25.

A centralized search such as those practiced in Maine and in Vermont with state police or the warden service “immediately builds in a delay factor,” Bowie said. “If the local community was immediately notified of searches, and responds to them, a lot of these incidents would be over before the wardens showed up.”

Adam agreed that immediate call-outs would work more efficiently in some instances, but he and Palman said that with wardens handling an average of 485 searches annually — last year’s searches totaled 512 — an immediate call-out system probably would overwhelm the fragile coalition of all-volunteer searchers and tax other resources.

“If I were to notify them 1.33 times a day, then sooner or later I will be crying wolf,” Adam said, referring to the average number of callouts per day.

Adam said he and other wardens usually involve communities and local resources as soon as they can and frequently are called into searches by local officials but must balance available resources against a particular case’s requirements. Wardens try to distinguish between those who are lost, such as hikers who have gone off a trail, and those who do not want to be found, such as those who are attempting suicide or who suffer from mental illness.

“We are making decisions on the fly and we have to use our resources efficiently,” Adam said. “I can’t be putting out a page once a day saying, ‘I might need you,’ and then 20 minutes later saying, ‘You can stand down.’ They know now that when they get a page, I need them.”

The warden service spent $281,503 on searches last year, and about the same amount the two previous years. It has just begun tracking search success rates statistically during its July-to-July fiscal year, Adam said, but anecdotally speaking, he believes that the search success rate is very high, with only two or three people searched for last year remaining missing — and one of those was a homicide victim, Christiana Fesmire of Lewiston.

Another problem, Michaud of North Star Search and Rescue said, is that the treatment of search teams is erratic. In some parts of the state, volunteer searchers are treated professionally — in others, as bothersome, he said.

Much of that, Adam and Palman said, concerns search groups that fail to keep their $25 certifications up to date with the Maine Association for Search and Rescue or that fail to maintain good relations with individual wardens. Though it is an all-volunteer organization with no statutory power to enforce standards, the search and rescue association is relied upon by the warden service to help ensure that search groups maintain their skills with certifications, Adam and Palman said.

“We don’t want the liability as a group of calling out untrained services,” Palman said, adding that groups that are seen to behave unprofessionally, such as by criticizing wardens or search efforts on news websites, won’t be called to help with searches.

Adam said he encourages volunteers and search groups to participate in search efforts. Those untrained in search procedures can help out at search scenes in other ways, he said.

The Maine Association for Search and Rescue acting as a regulatory body without statutory approval is one of the system’s biggest problems, Bowie said. It causes a “failure to bring all the resources in all the time,” he added.

“In other words, you will have a search and rescue team in Orono that doesn’t know anything about a search going on in Orono. That happened two years ago,” Bowie said.

Down East Emergency Medicine Institute and North Star Search and Rescue are among at least four search groups excluded from the search call-up system because they are not certified by the Maine Association for Search and Rescue, “by this private club,” Bowie said. “They control who gets called.”

The association, and the warden service’s reliance upon it, has resulted in aircraft from Brunswick Naval Air Station being called into searches in Bangor while Down East search group aircraft already in Bangor sat idle, Bowie said.

Some of the people with Down East and other search groups not called upon have had national search certifications — and medical certifications to treat lost persons once found — and were quite qualified to help, said Dr. Robert Bowie, an emergency medicine physician who helped found the Down East group and is Richard Bowie’s twin brother.

Dr. Bowie said he worried that the Maine Association for Search and Rescue is too sensitive to criticism and that the organization’s critics would find themselves shut out of future searches.

“I would say that a system that cannot criticize itself, or allow criticism, is worrisome and will have difficulty improving,” he said.

Adam said his first preference for air searches is state resources such as the warden service, Maine Forest Service and Maine Marine Patrol because they are professionally staffed and equipped search units that do searches routinely.

It is far better, Richard Bowie said, for all search organizations to get an early start on searches under the control of town police and local fire departments than to wait for game wardens or state police. Control can transfer to the wardens when they arrive.

“They can take as much as an hour to get there,” Bowie said. “If we are waiting for an ambulance to come from Augusta, the outcome wouldn’t be good, so why do we have that time-delay factor built into search and rescue?”

Wardens and police have been more likely lately to call out uncertified search groups if they think the help is needed, Palman said. It is also part of a volunteer search group’s responsibilities to maintain good relations with wardens and other search groups.

What searchers see as notification delay is often wardens and others investigating a case enough to show that a search definitely is needed or to improve search efficiency, such as by finding the missing person’s family and friends to determine where the missing person last was seen or might be headed, Adam said. Wardens also must examine terrain and weather as part of their setting the scale of a search.

Sometimes Adam and other wardens decide that a search doesn’t need a large-scale response and the volunteer searchers disagree, Adam said. Sometimes, too, warden-organized searches face delayed notifications from other police agencies.

Wardens must triage search cases like doctors in an emergency room — a daunting, time-consuming task, Palman said.

But keeping search powers for those missing in Maine’s woods or on Maine’s water bodies should stay with the warden service, Adam said.

“The big thing about search in my opinion is that a town [agency, such as a fire department] might have a search once a year or once every 10 years, but we at Maine Warden Service do it all the time,” Adam said.

Dimmock, an untrained volunteer searcher, said he saw the profits of that warden service experience in the searches for his son, Levasseur and the most recent search for the missing Ayla Reynolds in Waterville.

Wardens and other searchers displayed excellent teamwork, efficiency, camaraderie, compassion and communication skills in the woods, Dimmock said.

“When it’s operational, it is clockwork. It is really amazing to watch them, impressive,” Dimmock said. “I am really a nobody in the whole scheme of things, but when I was at the Levasseur search, three-quarters of them remembered seeing me during the Ayla search. That tells me that they know people. One asked me to ensure that a whole group of volunteers was signed up. It felt good.”

Dimmock said he was well aware that search cases so often have endings that quicker searches wouldn’t have altered, such as his son’s, and that calling out searches faster could cause a lot of problems.

“It is a lot of money,” Dimmock said. “Here you are half a million dollars into the Ayla Reynolds case, and what do you have?”

The $500,000 price tag was an estimate by Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey of the total cost of the Reynolds investigation, including the cost of Waterville, state police and game warden overtime and regular pay for the searches for the missing girl, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Public Safety Department.

“You can’t jump at every whim and woe,” Dimmock added. “Levasseur might have disappeared with some girl and common sense is out the window. You have to understand that, but here it was Tuesday night and Dirigo doesn’t even have a confirmation about going out on a search Wednesday morning. That isn’t right. It needs to be fixed.”

Dimmock sees indications, however, that the system is improving.

“The Maine Warden Service is realizing that these independent search outfits are very helpful to them. They need to not be afraid to call us. It is free manpower,” he said. “They are starting to call us more.”

BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.

Follow BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. on Twitter at @NickSam2BDN.

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