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‘Rabbits’ Prove to Be Elusive Quarry for Those in the Hunt

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jim Elvington knew the escapee was out there somewhere; crouching in a ditch, hiding in the tall grass or perhaps even peering down from the trees. He also knew that his best hope of finding him was to look straight down at the ground.

“Right now we don’t know what his tracks look like. We only know that he was wearing boots,” Elvington said without lifting his eyes from the roadside gravel. “That’s the way it is. Sometimes you just don’t have a lot to go on.”

An experienced tracker with the Santa Clarita Valley Search and Rescue Team, Elvington arrived at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic just after sunrise Saturday and spent much of the morning scouring the dirt for the elusive print that would put his group on the trail of the renegade convict.

Not an actual convict, mind you. The escapee, or “rabbit,” was actually a military volunteer acting out the role. On Saturday, nine rabbits were pursued by about 70 search and rescue team members and trainees, Explorers and GIs from Edwards Air Force Base who participated in the annual training exercise staged by the Santa Clarita sheriff’s station.

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Nine search teams in all, each with a separate assignment, set out to find people pretending to be escaped prisoners, lost campers and a missing deputy. The exercise was designed to teach the trainees some of the rudiments of tracking, detection and search management and to let more experienced searchers sharpen their skills.

The tally at the end of the day was not great--only two of the nine rabbits were found--but officials said the drill was designed to be difficult.

Sheriff’s Lt. Carl Deeley said the fake escapees did not wear blue jumpsuits like actual Pitchess inmates, but were identifiable by the X on each shirt. They also were confined to about four square miles around the detention center.

The drill started bright and early.

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By 6:30 a.m. the Sheriff’s Department, under the guidance of Capt. Rick Byrum, had begun organizing a command post near an abandoned nursery north of Pitchess.

“These people are on foot and we might not have a lot of time,” he told a group being sent after lost hikers.

Besides the two-legged searchers, the drill involved several canine teams and a volunteer posse of half a dozen sheriff’s reserves on horseback.

Many of the participants Saturday have taken part in real searches, often in inclement weather when every hour can mean the difference between life and death.

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“Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you’re not,” said Bill Tibbitts, a 62-year-old engineer from Lancaster who took part in the unsuccessful real-life search for missing Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Aujay, who disappeared June 11 in the Devils Punch Bowl area.

Like many of the volunteers, Tibbitts said a love of the outdoors and a desire to help others led him to join a search and rescue team.

It’s a serious commitment. Members buy most of their own equipment, participate in monthly training sessions and agree to be on call basically all the time. For this they get paid $1 a year by the Sheriff’s Department.

“A few years ago we found a gentleman and his three young children out by Big Pine,” Tibbitts said. “That was a very good feeling. That’s what it’s about.”

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As a few curious inmates looked on from the other side of the razor-wire fence, Elvington’s group pored over an area where they were told their escapee had last been spotted. After nearly four hours in the sun, it proved to be a fruitless search.

“That’s the way it is with a real search and rescue. Not everyone can be in the right location,” said Elvington, 52, a Santa Clarita electrician.

Unlike last year, when two mock escapees were discovered eating hamburgers at a coffee shop, none of them made it off the Pitchess property this time.

“We faltered a bit at times but I think this was an excellent learning experience,” Byrum told the searchers at the end of the drill. “The real purpose today was to find some tracks and figure out a lot of clues, so when it’s time for a real search we’ll all be prepared.”

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