Camp Barrett parolees comb Mt. Palomar for hunter

The unlikely rescue

Shane Snider, Mike Baxter. Mike stopped and called out to ask if they shouldn’t go right, but Shane didn’t reply.
  • Shane Snider, Mike Baxter. Mike stopped and called out to ask if they shouldn’t go right, but Shane didn’t reply.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

For an hour and a half, 80-year-old Tony Carrasco had been waiting for a deer to pass within range of his old bolt-action Remington, but now he was getting bored. It was a splendid morning in late October, the sun coming full and strong out of a blank sky. His hunting stand was an outcropping of stone in Dyche Valley, on the remote eastern slope of Palomar Mountain. Near him was a dry creek bed and beyond it, dense cover where he had glimpsed a buck. Although he planned to still-hunt at the outcropping until midmorning when his son Mike, hunting 300 yards down creek, would come to fetch him, They couldn’t resist stalking the buck a ways.

Carraso's hunting stand was an outcropping of stone in Dyche Valley, on a slope of Palomar Mountain.

Carraso's hunting stand was an outcropping of stone in Dyche Valley, on a slope of Palomar Mountain.

It was a flat, easy walk up the creek bed. Had he kept on that path, he would have crossed a logging road and found his way back easily, but the buck took him up a branch of the creek into steep, thick woods, ever farther from the promise of meeting his son. Tony wandered this way and that in an effort to find something familiar. Confusion gradually turned to fear, and fear to panic, and he lost the chance of thinking his way back to safety.

Shane Snider: "I always told myself I would never give up marijuana, because I just loved it.”

Shane Snider: "I always told myself I would never give up marijuana, because I just loved it.”

Mike Carrasco returned to the outcropping at 10:30 and called about for his father. His concern grew, and around noon, Mike drove eight miles down to Lake Henshaw for help in finding his father. He described Tony as a fit and hearty man, wearing a blaze-orange vest, camouflage pants, and a red cap and carrying a rifle and a 9mm pistol.

By late afternoon, the sheriffs department, with about 100 search-and-rescue volunteers, had set up command unit — an electronics-laden bus — in Will’s Valley, a few miles down from the outcropping, in a field wide enough to land a helicopter.

Mike Baxter was in for stealing parts from the auto body shop he managed in San Diego.

Mike Baxter was in for stealing parts from the auto body shop he managed in San Diego.

Rescues start small, but with the best people and equipment: helicopters, dogs, trackers. The strategy is to establish the victim’s direction in order to localize the search.

The trackers went up to the outcropping but couldn’t find a lead. Mike’s earlier search had scuffed the ground, confusing and erasing Tony’s footprints, and the trackers lacked a good piece of Tony’s clothing to give the dogs his scent. An air search spotted nothing. The eastern slope of Palomar Mountain is mostly a rumpled thicket of scrub oak and manzanita.

The question was whether they could make it in the dark.

The question was whether they could make it in the dark.

The ground cover is so thick you couldn’t see a campfire from above, nor even the smoke that would disperse through the leaves. The report of a pistol or rifle shot would be useless, since the echoes from steep canyons obliterate any sense of location.

The afternoon’s search proved unsuccessful. At nightfall, Tony kept warm under a pile of gathered leaves. In the morning, he resumed his wandering with new vigor but became more and more disoriented as the day wore on.

Back at the search center, more trackers arrived, including three horse-mounted trackers from Chula Vista. A second helicopter and a search plane were called in. A National Guard C-130 transport plane with 50 more search-and-rescue volunteers from Los Angeles and Riverside was scheduled to land near Oceanside a few hours before dark.

But meanwhile, the command team met for a reassessment The San Diego reserve commander believed Tony was alive but was dehydrated and perhaps injured or delirious and would likely die during the next 24 hours. With time running out, the command team decided to flood the search area with any and all unskilled volunteers to beat the bushes in hope of coming across Tony. The search commander requested that two county honor camps in the area send in teams of inmates to help comb the mountain.

About this time, Tony blundered through some underbrush and tumbled from the top of a ravine. He came to rest about 50 feet from the bottom, pinned between a sapling and the ravine’s wall. He sustained a bruised leg, a cracked pelvis, two cracked ribs, and a dislocated shoulder. The sky was barely visible overhead, a weak blue.

"Oh, right. Bullshit,” said Shane Snider as he climbed onto the heavy green bus and heard the news. He and 17 other inmates from Camp Barrett, a low-security jail in the hills east of El Cajon, were going to join the search for a lost hunter on Palomar Mountain. And here Shane had looked forward to a quiet Saturday of raking leaves at a county park. The change in plan finally sank in when the rest of the crew assembled on the bus and it lumbered to the highway.

Rescue command could not have been given a less likely bunch of inmates for a mountain search. Though most of the men at Camp Barrett go out every day to clear fire roads, plant ground cover, and the like, Shane and his group were stay-at-homes; they went to school or worked in the camp greenhouse all week long, leaving only on Saturdays to give the regular work crews an extra day of rest. Still, Shane looked forward to the Saturday outings, since they broke up the monotony of camp and gave him a chance to get outside. He likes the outdoors.

Named after a western movie, Shane, 27, actually seems to have stepped out of an old photograph of a sideburned, long-jawed, long-limbed frontiersman. Easily bored, Shane was once likely to choose the frontiersman’s usual method of relieving boredom, booze; but lately he’d come to feel he’d really changed and could prove it. He had a sentence-modification hearing coming up November 17 and felt he had some good things to tuck into his file for the judge.

While at Camp Barrett, Shane had graduated from high school, earning his general education diploma with a score of 66 on the arts and literature test, placing in the top 6 percent of the test group, and a 75 in science, the top 1 percent. He also had a certificate of completion for attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which the court had prescribed. In fact he had come to lead an AA group.

He’d surprised even himself with his commitment to abstinence. “I always knew I could quit drinking,” he told a recent visitor to Camp Barrett, “but I always told myself I would never give up marijuana, because I just loved it.” Still, he said, he happened to come by some marijuana while at the camp, and he turned it over to his mother as an earnest indication of his intention to quit. “I proved I can do it,” he said.

As his mother, Elanore Snider, tells the story, once while she was visiting Shane, she noticed another visitor slip him a Baggie of pot. Without mentioning what she’d seen, she glared at him until he handed it over. “I’m not surprised,” said Mrs. Snider, a recovering alcoholic, of Shane’s having handed over the dope.

“I never thought I would,” Shane said, “but now I really think I can.”

If things kept going for him the way they’d been, he planned on getting out in November and going to work in his dad’s machine shop in El Cajon, leaving for the last time Camp Barrett with its dormitory bunk beds and shiny floors and TV room with bus-station furniture. Except for the time he’d bitten a policeman while resisting arrest, he’d been arrested only for drunken driving and possession and sale of marijuana. If he’d truly found it in himself to quit drugs, he would never come back. He felt himself on the brink of release.

After almost an hour on the winding highway that passes through Julian and Santa Ysabel, the crew bus from Camp Barrett arrived at the mountain and the inmates got out to have some lunch and listen to a guy from search and rescue tell them what to do. They would fan out, keep within sight of each other, calling out Tony’s name periodically, and follow a canyon down a few miles to where it leveled into a broad meadow. There they’d regroup and wait to be picked up before dark. The guy told them what the hunter was wearing and what he looked like, his age, and so on. Shane watched him with the critical eye of a high school dropout who scrutinizes every teacher minute by minute for something to discredit.

The crew started out around two o’clock. The inmates were wearing light green pants, dun T-shirts, and green jackets. They blended in with the green-brown terrain. Shane walked fast, ahead of the others. He was starting to enjoy himself.

When he was a kid on Morgan Way, in El Cajon, a neighbor got him interested in snakes, and soon he was off to Horse Thief Canyon every chance he got, looking for rattlers. He was maybe 12 when he brought his first one home in a pillowcase and dumped it on the lawn. His parents’ shock satisfied him immensely. Catching rattlers and selling the skins (meticulously removing the skin around the head with a scalpel) made money for him to buy more exotic snakes and the equipment to care for them.

His well-developed hobby seemed to fit in a household such as his — cohesive but edgy. His parents have been married more than 30 years. Their house is not the neatest in their cul-de-sac, by any means, but the lawn gets mowed, and their three children always have a place to come home to. On the other hand, his mother’s alcoholism strained their lives in various ways. She once blacked out and awoke to a fresh six-pack of beer on the kitchen table, with no memory of having driven to the store to buy it.

Shortly after she quit drinking, Shane found work on a fishing boat in Alaska and left his parents to care for his snakes. The boa escaped and wasn’t seen until days later, when it was discovered ringing the toilet seat. His dad found it after getting up in the night to pee. Later, he told Shane to thank God it was he who’d found it and not his mother.

Shane by now had walked ahead of the group. With him was another inmate, Mike Baxter, whom Shane recognized from camp but hardly knew. Mike was 22, five years younger than Shane, shorter, and more powerfully built. He was in for stealing parts from the auto body shop he managed in San Diego. Shane and Mike called back twice to check on the whereabouts of the others, heard an answer each time, and kept going. When they called back a third time and heard nothing, they decided to have a smoke and wait for the others to catch up. They rolled cigarettes, Mike pocketing the papers that Shane had produced. They waited ten minutes but still heard nothing.

They figured the others had taken a break too and decided it was best just to keep going. Everyone was walking down the canyon so they would certainly meet up when they reached the meadow at the bottom. Besides, if they turned back now, they’d have to climb uphill.

So, onward and downward they walked at the pace the slick footing of grass and oak leaves allowed. They kept to the side of the canyon wall, where there were fewer boulders. The ground here would be awash in runoff during the rainy season, but now it was chalk dry and cluttered with fallen limbs and leaves that had gathered in drifts. There was no sound except their breathing and the crash of their footsteps.

They walked steadily for an hour or more. Each had long since thought they should have found the meadow. Once, much farther back, the canyon narrowed considerably where a big oak stood in their way and seemed to offer a choice of directions, one downward to the right and the other straight ahead. Shane was leading and went straight with no hesitation. Mike stopped and called out to ask if they shouldn’t go right, but Shane didn’t reply, and Mike followed.

Now they stopped again for another smoke. Plainly, they were lost; but worse, it might appear that they were trying to escape. This was not what Shane needed. Mike had served only a third of his six-month sentence; and though he still had his own adjustment hearing to worry about, Shane’s term was halfway up, and something like this, taken the wrong way, could ruin his chance for an early release.

Shane started climbing the steep canyon wall. “Where’re you going?” Mike yelled.

“Gonna see where we are.”

Mike clambering after, Shane went up 50 yards to gain some elevation and to get out from the cover of oak. They saw some rocks that rose above the brush, climbed them, and found themselves on the north side of the canyon, looking east toward the flat, white San Jose Valley. In the distance, indecipherably far, was the golf-course community of Warner Springs. At the bottom of the mountain, down to their right, they could make out some buildings whose color they recognized immediately — the yellow of Camp West Fork, an honor camp they had both been assigned to before moving to Camp Barrett.

The way it looked, if they continued down this ravine, they’d eventually reach the valley and could make their way to West Fork to turn themselves in. The question was whether they could make it in the dark. The sun had crossed to the western side of the mountain, and the ravine was already deep in the shadow of twilight.

They lost no time getting down again and heading for the valley. Boulders became more obtrusive the farther they descended. The going became slow and frustrating, the more so because they didn’t know what would happen when they reached camp and explained themselves to the probation officers. Shane was never quite convinced that they had been put down as escapees, and indeed they never were, but neither could he be sure that everyone would believe they’d just gotten lost.

Years before, some El Cajon policemen had come to break up a fight in front of Shane’s house. Shane said that he himself had broken up the fight, not started it. But in the end, he dared the police to arrest him, and in the ensuing scuffle, he bit one of the officers in the groin. (The charges against him were later dismissed.) But another time, on a fishing boat, Shane came upon a shipmate who was sick and had swallowed his tongue. Shane grabbed him under the sternum and gave him a quick upward punch that left him spluttering but safe and walked on without getting further involved.

Now, having stopped under a tree to rest and have another smoke with Mike, it had occurred to Shane that he might have to pay a heavy price for getting involved with this rescue attempt, even though he hadn’t tried to escape and certainly hadn’t wanted to get lost. They snuffed their cigarettes and got going again.

At rescue command, the search leader, Sgt. Bolding, was irked that some of his highly trained volunteers, donating their own time and spending their own money for gas and food and other supplies, had to be called off the search for Tony to go find some honor camp inmates who’d been reported missing.

Meanwhile, Tony, lying injured in the ravine, heard some voices. They were below him and somewhere to his right. He couldn’t see down there, but they were coming closer.

Shane heard a noise and stopped. It was a voice, unintelligible. Mike stopped too.

“Tony!” they called together. They heard an answer and followed it up to where the hunter had come to rest. He was hunched against a tree and had a smear of blood on his shin. He had lost his rifle but was still wearing his pistol and holster. Absurdly, they asked him if he was Tony Carrasco.

Lucid and alert — anything but what they’d expected — Tony wanted to know if they had any food or water. Mike stayed with him while Shane ran back to a place between some rocks where he’d noticed a trickle of muddy water and carried a cupful — half a cupful by the time he’d returned — in the flared tin cup that an inmate packs everywhere, clipped to his belt loop.

Mike had draped his jacket over Tony. Careful to move him only slightly, Shane took his pulse and checked his eyes for clarity. Apart from his bloody shin and aching shoulder, he seemed in pretty good shape.

Shane and Mike decided to build a fire and try to attract attention. Shane had noticed Tony’s pistol. While Mike cleared brush, Shane carefully unfastened the holster from around Tony’s waist, strapped it on himself, and checked the clip to see how many rounds were left: four. He fired one, paused several seconds and fired another into the air.

Mike, meanwhile, was striking matches. A Chicago kid, he’d built campfires before — with a blowtorch. Now with a match in the failing light, he tried to coax flame from the glum red line on a leaf. Then he remembered the rolling papers he’d pocketed from Shane There was something he knew how to light.

He got some going under a teepee of twigs, and as the fire rose, he and Shane decided quickly that one should stay with Tony and the other keep heading down to West Fork for help. Shane said something to Tony, and by the time he’d turned back, Mike had gone.

Running full speed, with four miles to cover, Mike attacked the ground in front of him as if it were a jogging track and not a tilted junkyard of bush and rock. Though he was out of breath in 200 yards, he stopped only three times: once when he reached what looked to him like the den of a bear — not that he’d ever seen a bear’s den — but he walked around whatever it was as quietly as he could, once again when he was scrambling up the canyonside to avoid a clump of boulders, and a last time when he jumped from the top of a rock down six feet to the ground and landed on a log that rolled backward and banged him on the thigh. It hurt enough for him to rest a few seconds and rub it, then he was up again and going.

Shane, back with Tony, brought him more water, tended the fire, and tried to figure another way of attracting help. He heard an airplane and fired another round but with little hope that it would be noticed. They were under too much cover to be seen, and the report of the bullet was instantly lost in the aircraft’s din. Shane saved the last round for when he might really need it.

About an hour later, after nightfall, Mike reached the wash at the bottom of the canyon and looked for the lights of West Fork. He saw the black shapes of trees and could make out the twin bare tracks of a dirt road. He thought better of following it when he saw it led farther down the valley; West Fork was higher.

He ran on sandy ground for another half-mile, until he heard the loudspeaker of the camp and followed it through the dark. He rounded a last bend and found himself near the chow hall, where he hailed a deputy probation officer and said that he and another inmate from Camp Barrett had found the lost hunter in a nearby ravine.

From the look of him, Mike was to be believed. He was coatless and drenched in sweat, and West Fork had been notified of two inmates who’d been separated from their search party. After telephoning the sheriffs department, the PO told a surprised Mike that contact had already been made with Tony and Shane and that help was on the way.

While Mike had been making his way to West Fork, Shane had heard the sound of an engine on an unseen road and shouted the car to a stop. In it were Tony’s son Mike and a neighborhood man who had joined the search with his dad’s old Datsun four-wheeler. They heard a voice, Shane’s, yelling, “I have Tony!” and Mike Carrasco charged downhill to face his father’s rescuer — a young man wearing jail-issue clothing and a gun.

Afterward, the rescue was routine, except for the number of people it took to extract Tony from the canyon. Sgt. Bolding went out with four men and had to call back for four more, in addition to Shane and the two others. In the dark, with miners’ helmets and flashlights, they chopped through brush with machetes and strung ropes to hold on to while carrying Tony in a stretcher-like Stokes basket some 500 yards. Tony was driven back to search command and helicoptered to Palomar Hospital in Oceanside. His son got the pistol back.

Down at West Fork, Mike had a shower, fresh clothes, supper and went to bed. Before being driven back to Camp Barrett, Shane partied a bit. “I had all these deputies giving me coffee, cigarettes,” he said, “telling me what a good job I’d done. Basically treating me with respect.” Driving back to Camp Barrett late that night, one deputy sheriff flipped Shane a quarter to call his girlfriend and remind her not to miss visiting day. Shane was taken to the camp office and congratulated by some of the POs on duty.

On other days following, the inmates gave him an assortment of raspberries:

“Hell of a twist to an escape gone wrong.” “Heard you stole a gun from an old man.” “Heard you stole his wallet.”

Mike and Shane received letters of commendation from the Camp Barrett director and from their supervising PO, Ignacio Arias. Shane’s letter from Arias read: “Your positive and heroic actions on this date leading to the rescue of an... injured and lost individual deserve recognition.... Thanks for all your efforts.”

Tony Carrasco was released from the hospital and is home in Long Beach. His ribs and pelvis are healing; and while his shoulder still gives him pain, he seems to be doing okay, says his son. Mike Baxter happened to earn his G.E.D. a few weeks later and was granted a requested transfer to the Work Furlough Center in Southeast San Diego.

Shane was indeed able to present an impressive record at his modification hearing. He was released that day and went home to his parents. He told a reporter a few days later on the telephone that he was relieved to be out of jail but that he also felt “a little nervous” with the responsibility of not using drugs. “I went into a bar a couple nights ago,” he said. “No sweat.” At his hearing, he’d actually thanked the judge for having sent him to jail.

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