By Sonia Duggan
When Lucas resident Diane Leigh went missing last May, the Collin County Sheriff’s Department and Lucas Fire Department conducted a search for hours with no luck.
The 71-year-old woman was last seen helping her husband with yardwork, and when he went inside, she wandered off. A neighbor’s surveillance camera had footage of her and the direction she wandered, but search efforts soon stalled.
Lance Gant, Assistant Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator for Lucas Fire-Rescue felt that they needed additional assistance in finding the missing woman. He contacted the fire chief and city manager who approved Gant’s idea to call in a unique ministry that works to bring home the lost and missing; Lone Star Search and Rescue, a K-9 search and rescue team.
By the time LSSAR reported on scene at noon May 17, Ms. Leigh had been missing for 24 hours and the prospect of finding her alive was grim. Aside from bringing various types of equipment to aid the search, the team brought three different K-9 teams and volunteers from the Texas State Guard.
“We were able to coordinate their efforts with our own as well as with Collin County Sheriff’s Office, who was lead in this incident, were providing,” Gant said. “We were able to combine their members with ours for coordinated search teams. This allowed better communication between our agencies along with knowledge of the area during search.”
The dogs repeatedly circled a pond on a neighbor’s property and Collin County divers were called out to search the pond. After it was cleared, they continued the search. “Once they put the dogs on a specific scent it’s almost like the dog gets a picture in their mind – and they completely focus,” reported Michele Benjamin, K-9 Unit Captain. Hours later, when the search resumed, Michele said the scent kept breaking up once the dogs got to Lucas Road due to the heavy traffic.
“In cases like this, even though the scent was broken, it’s not gone forever,” Michele said.
The second search began in the evening hours once the dogs were relocated to the other side of the road.
Kenny Howell and Kevin Baker were flankers working that night with Team Rocky. A flanker is responsible for communication, navigation and first aid.
It only took 30 minutes for Rocky to pick up the victim’s scent and Baker spotted Ms. Leigh in the creek bed. She was tired and unable to call out for help. It was 8 p.m. It had been 30 hours since she was reported missing.
“I guess she (Ms. Leigh) had gotten hot and thirsty. She was in water (about 1 foot) and was resting her head on the side of the embankment,” Michele said.
Once a victim is found, Michele said this is when the calling agency (agency in charge of the search) would come in and take over, but due to the fact that the victim was in danger, the team couldn’t leave her where she was.
Team members crawled down to where Ms. Leigh was and pulled her up on the embankment. They were able to stabilize her and get her out. Later that night a terrible rainstorm came through. If the victim had remained in the creek bed, the outcome would most likely have been very different.
Lucas FD had never had a missing person report before. After the incident, the fire department asked LSSAR to come in and train their firefighters on what to do with a missing person case and how to work as a team.
“Lone Star Search & Rescue did an outstanding job in this incident,” Gant said. “Following the first phone call, they responded with the necessary equipment and vehicles to begin coordinating and helping with the search efforts, along with the search dogs (K-9 Units). Those dogs are absolutely amazing.”
Michele said the Lucas search was a very emotional, very rewarding experience.
The rescue team is a ministry of First Baptist Church in Wylie started in August 2013 by Michele and her husband Terry Benjamin, the Team Director and Texas State Guard Lone Star SAR and Battalion Commander. Before starting the Wylie team, the couple served on SAR teams in another part of Texas; 15 years for Terry, 10 for Michele.
Knowing the time and dedication it takes, the duo retired from SAR when their daughter started high school in Wylie. A few years later when she graduated, they revisited their passion to serve.
“The month we dropped our daughter off at college – that’s the month we started this team with the church,” Michele said. “We are the only church that has a team like ours attached to it.”
The purpose of connecting with the church, say the couple, was to have an outreach team that could come to a search and minister to friends and family while the team is out searching.
“Because we are part of our church, our tithe can be donated to the team,” Michelle said. “That’s what helps to fund us.”
LSSAR is an all-volunteer, part-time professional organization that provides free assistance to law enforcement, fire departments and other agencies to help search for missing persons.
They train to follow NASAR standards (National Association for Search and Rescue), Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and National Incident Management System (NIMS).
There are different certifications for different types of searches, and the certifications and trainings are rigorous. “We have classroom instruction and we have field work,” Michele said. They are certified to search in wilderness, urban, HRD (human remains detection) and water and disaster incidents.
Grid search is not taught because they have dogs. Volunteers and their dogs go through other types of searches that include buildings, scent specific and HRD.
“Most of our searches are wilderness so we go ahead and certify members for those types of searches, then we go ahead and certify them on HRD etc.,” Michele said.
They train the volunteers at different levels and there are different steps within each level. Once they have completed each level, they are tested, and once they have completed all the levels, they are certified to be mission ready.
The group trains every Saturday and only take one weekend off every month. Sometimes they partner with other teams in DFW and the Texas State Guard search unit to train.
Outdoor trainings often occur at Brown Street Park and at the Benjamins’ ranch in Campbell. Indoor search training is conducted at the First Baptist Church Event Center or Smith Elementary in Wylie.
When LSSAR is called to aid in a search, they typically bring a team of 10-12 people along with four certified dogs. They have six handlers, five flankers, six assistant flankers (also the Texas State Guard members), two ATV team members and an Outreach Team to minister to waiting family and friends.
The group is outfitted with a command trailer, complete with audio and communication capabilities to deploy and track their teams in the field plus track the status of resources and provide continuous updates to the calling agency. They also have ATVs, two Polaris utility transport vehicles and a pontoon boat for water searches.
All volunteers have full-time jobs, and most can deploy to a rescue effort on a moment’s notice. For those that can’t, they will deploy at night or on weekends. “We have understanding employers,” Michele said. “We put a letter together to notify our employers that this is a donation of our time if we get a search during the workday.”
Aside from the canine handler, there are lots of available positions. More volunteers are always needed, and you do not have to be a member of the church or have a dog. For those who don’t want to commit to that extent, victim volunteers are needed to help them practice.
The most time-consuming position is that of the canine handler. These volunteers give countless hours to the training of the dog and themselves. Currently there are six K-9 teams; Team Rocky, Team Charlie, Team Ranger, Team Sweetie, Team Bella and Team Jethro.
Since LSSAR provides all the necessary training needed, volunteers just need the right dog and free time necessary to train. Some volunteers, such as Anna Brownlow (Team Jethro), start as a flanker first so they can observe how the dogs search.
Medium to large dogs are best and a specific breed is not a requirement. Michele’s dog Charlie is a 3-year-old Australian Shepherd. Linda Perdue’s dog Rocky is a German Shepherd/Blue Heeler rescue. He was two when he started though most are younger. “We don’t want them any older because they get set in their ways,” Michele said.
For anyone interested in joining the K-9 unit, Michele will do a home visit and test potential dogs to make sure they have the personality and drive to do the kind of work. “We’ve tested dogs before that we didn’t accept,” Michele said.
Brownlow’s dog is a German Shepherd that was rescued by her daughter in College Station. Not only is Jethro smart, she says, but he is loyal and friendly despite abuse by his previous owners.
The handlers say the dogs don’t know the difference between a training search and a real search. “When I pull out his collar and he sees’ me dressed like this, wearing this vest, he knows exactly what all of this means,” Brownlow said. “It’s like a game for them. Like a child playing hide n’ seek,” Linda added.
Some dogs are motivated by treats while dogs like Jethro are motivated by toys, which according to his handler, makes it so easy. When they’re successful in their training, the dogs are thrown a party and they are praised for their efforts. “They crave that, then they want to do it again,” Michele said.
The group will travel anywhere in North Texas to help. If they get a call from another area they try and connect departments with a team that is in their proximity because time is of the essence when it comes to search and rescue. It takes a minimum of 1 – 1 ½ hours for volunteers to get ready to deploy, especially if they’re at work, so they can tell their employers, gather their stuff, dogs and change clothes.
In the past, Wylie F-R has put the team on standby which actually reduces their time in half, said Michele, because they can find out who is available, if they can make it, and what time. “We’d rather be on the way and then get called off then have them wait 24 hours to call,” she said. “We’ll come. We don’t mind sitting around. We’ll bring you coffee.”
In the couple’s combined years of search and rescue, they have had only three live searches, two of which were over the summer. They say it’s rare to get out on a search and find a live victim.
In August, they were contacted by the Collin County Sheriff’s Department to search for a missing Blue Ridge woman who had gotten lost walking her dog. The dog returned back home without the owner. The call to LSSAR for help came at 6:30 p.m., a few hours after she went missing. Thankfully, Team Sweetie found the woman, who was in her 60s, in just 20 minutes. She had gotten disoriented in an overgrown field about 30 yards from the road.
“She was giving up. She just laid down in the field – she was exhausted,” Flanker Buddy Perdue said. “She was waiting for somebody to come get her.”
In cases such as Blue Ridge, the FD asked for the teams’ continued assistance to help extract the victim out of the field.
“That part of a search is left to the discretion of the calling agency and we were happy to help,” Michele said.
In five years, the Wylie team has conducted 24 searches. While most calls for help are for the elderly, the team has aided on a variety of searches including trying to locate the head of a motorcyclist that was decapitated, Christina Morris’ remains, and missing children and teens. Weather-related incidents such as the Wimberley flooding in 2015, and the tornadoes in Canton in 2016, have required their K-9s, equipment and expertise.
“Every search is different, and we discover something new we need,” Buddy said. In the Canton case they realized they needed chainsaws and came back and bought two to add to their supplies. Recently, they realized they needed a skid or stretcher to aid in transporting victims.
Lone Star Search and Rescue only responds to calling agencies and they deploy based on their need.
“We’re free. We’re all volunteers. We are properly trained and certified. We’re ready for any type of call that we might get.”