EYOTA — The search for a missing man was over in what seemed like moments Thursday afternoon, thanks to the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office and the Rochester Police Department's specialized Project Lifesaver equipment.
The missing man was actually deputy Corry Retzer. Retzer hid himself in the woods at Chester Woods Park as part of the quarterly training done for Project Lifesaver, which was brought to Olmsted County in April 2007 and serves as the hub for southeastern Minnesota.
The program serves individuals at risk for wandering off or becoming lost. Clients enroll voluntarily and are given a transmitter the size of a wristwatch to wear. The bracelet can be worn on the wrist or ankle and is affixed in a way so it cannot be easily taken off. Each transmitter emits a signal specifically designated for the individual.
If the client becomes lost, a caregiver can call 911 to activate the Project Lifesaver Search Team.
"It is really important, because the clients we already have on the program are people with Alzheimer's or memory issues and autistic children and sometimes they aren't able to verbalize to somebody where they live, their name or anything," Olmsted County Sheriff's Sgt. Kirby Long said. "If they do go missing — it's important for them to get found."
For many children on the autism spectrum, the danger can increase. Many have a fascination with water and don't realize the danger it presents.
Rochester resident Brad Trahan was instrumental in bringing the program to the county and has served on the international Board of Trustees for Project Lifesavers. Trahan and his wife have three children, one of whom has severe autism and is non-verbal.
"It’s a parent's worst nightmare — a loved one goes missing with no way to communicate with anybody where they need to go or where they belong," Trahan said.
On Thursday, more than a dozen members of the Rochester Police Department and the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office gathered at Chester Woods Park for the quarterly training.
The Search Team consists of deputies from the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office and officers from the Rochester Police Department who are professionally trained in the operation of Project Lifesaver search equipment along with search and rescue techniques. The team also works in cooperation with the Minnesota State Patrol Aviation Unit and the St. Paul Fire Department Minnesota Aviation Rescue Team.
While a majority of the group stood waiting for the training to begin, Retzer casually disappeared from the group. He would be the first “missing person” the men and women would need to locate.
A short time later, the group was split into four teams and given their starting locations to find “Nicholas” a man in his 40s who had been missing for more than an hour. “Nicholas,” the teams were told, left on foot, is attracted to water, likes people and gets around well by himself. After a few more questions from the teams, each headed off in a different direction on the ground. A state patrol helicopter circled overhead.
The handheld receivers the officers and deputies were using on the ground have the ability to pick up the individual transmitter from about a mile away. The equipment in the helicopter has a range of about 10 miles.
To the untrained ear it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the beeps as the deputies worked to pinpoint the direction they needed to head in next.
Early in the search, Rochester Police Community Service Officer David Jensen got out of a black SUV and stood in the middle of the road with the receiver above his head as he listened for a clearer tone directing him where to go.
Following the tone, Jensen and Olmsted County Sheriff's Deputy Heather Johns quickly abandoned the cleared road and started walking through the tall grasses and into the woods. Heading toward higher ground, Johns and Jensen would pause every 100 yards or so to listen to the receiver. In what felt like less than 15 minutes, the team had found Retzer hidden in the brush.
With a quick radio message to the helicopter and the other teams, the search was over.