Following the scent
Search managers in Swanson case deal with complicated science
MARSHALL — The search for Brandon Swanson — 19 years old when he went missing on May 14, 2008 — is entering its ninth year, but Ken Anderson and Jeff Hasse continue to lead the search effort.
“We’re not done with the search,” Anderson said. “We’ve deployed without local field support because we didn’t need it for the environment we were searching,” Anderson said. “It’s not required for the locations we’re searching.”
Anderson and Hasse are Minneapolis-based search managers who have been working on the case for the past eight years.
Anderson said there are a number of variables that have complicated the search for Swanson. He said the southwest Minnesota environment is especially difficult because of the changing wind patterns.
“We could go to lunch with the wind coming from the north and when we come back, the wind is coming from the east,” Swanson’s aunt Laura Swick said. “It’s one of the weirdest areas for that to happen. But because we live in the Buffalo Ridge area, the wind swirls around.”
Anderson said most dogs work in conditions where the wind is less than 8 miles per hour — a condition that’s rare in southwest Minnesota. It’s not like missing persons cases people see on television, he said, especially when it comes to scent.
“What happens in the middle of a field where it’s moist? Water sits there, then goes through the farmer’s tile and ends up in a ditch three quarters of a mile away,” he said. “So how do you make the connection from scent being indicated in the water environment and still be able to locate it back to source, where the scent is captured by a canine?”
Those are just some of the challenges the Minneapolis-based search managers have encountered, especially once scent get in water.
“Science is so complicated and there isn’t good data on how scent moves,” Anderson said. “The closest we got was through the federal government, which has some software that deals with how things move by air and are deposited and then picked up by air and then moved again. But it’s not scent. It’s chemical or biological materials.”
Anderson said that when the sun warms up the air, the process also warms up the scent. Water then gets picked up and it gets transported. When the air cools, like in the evening, it condenses again, typically on vegetation. The next day, the process starts all over again.
“If you have three days of scent going up and depositing and the wind stays consistent, you’d have a straight line of scent,” he said. “But if the wind changes 45 degrees every day, you’d have a zigzag line.”
Anderson also explained the need for canine teams with specific capabilities is like the difference between seeking a general practitioner and a specialist for medical treatment.
“We know we’re on this road somewhere in between and that’s why we need the science catching up to our search environment,” Anderson said. “We’re getting more and more in the specialty range. The search area is coming to a point where more experienced specialized resources are necessary.”
In an October 2015 search, multiple canines hit on a bone in a field — only one bone of the 206 in the human body would be needed to verify Swanson’s fate. Later, however, it was determined that the bone wasn’t human.
“It complicates it,” Anderson said. “So now we have to deal with how that figures into the picture. Is it a science problem where it’s something about the bone, which is like any bone that is human, which the science isn’t there to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or is it a soil issue that confuses the dog and the answer is ‘yes,’ but there aren’t studies to support it? Or is it an experience issue or a training method issue?”
Anderson said all of those are questions that need to be asked and all require a different method to get an answer.
“And while we’re doing this, the calendar is still clicking by,” he said.
Hasse said the search for Swanson has been the most well-documented and detailed search ever conducted, in part because they’ve kept meticulous records, which includes tracking the canines and handlers through GPS technology.
“We have over 1,500 track logs as a whole — all the searchers, all the dogs — so if we ever find Brandon, we’ll know every group that passed wherever and every canine that was downwind,” Anderson said. “We could recreate the dots that make it work.”
Anderson said finding Swanson would not only provide the family with some answers, but the data they’ve collected throughout the searches could potentially affect every canine search in the world in the future.
“If we can find Brandon and have 10 years of weather-related data and search data, we might be able to go backward and learn what actually can take place in a complicated environment like this,” Anderson said. “We’d know more about what the canine’s potential search ability is than we know now. There’s so much data that it would warrant a research study.”
About 30 years ago, Anderson brought sonar technology to Minnesota for the purpose of search rescue and recovery. He’s the president of Emergency Support Services.
“I’m doing stuff that’s unique to everybody in the state,” Anderson said. “My experience clearly shows I think outside the box and I try to work with everybody. Because of Brandon, the search methods in the state have already changed. Every search organization that has participated in this search multiple times has learned from this and has changed their methods.”
Early searches for Swanson used a lot of manpower. But in the past few years, the searches have centered around a few select certified human remains detection dogs. More than 40 dogs have been used over the course of nine years.
“(The most recent canine teams) come from three different outlying states (Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa) and now South Dakota, too,” Anderson said. “They continue to donate time when they can. They’re wonderful resources and they’re donating a huge amount of time. For the Halls (Bill and Lois Hall) from Iowa, a one-day search is a three-day venture for them. (The canine handlers) are part of it and they don’t drop it.”
The canine handlers, Anderson and Hasse, the founder of Midwest Technical Rescue Training Associates, are all volunteers in the search for Swanson. Most have full-time jobs and many drive a good distance just to help search.
“I have 36,000 miles invested for Brandon’s search,” Anderson said. “And I personally own almost all of the equipment we use, including the blue truck, trailer, computers and software. That’s my day job paying for all of that.”
Despite the frustrations and challenges, people aren’t giving up and have vowed to continue donating their time, talent and effort for Swanson and for his family. Swanson’s parents — Brian and Annette — continue to express their gratitude to Anderson, Hasse and the whole team of people they work with.
Area farmers are asked to be on the look-out for anything suspicious and to call the Yellow Medicine County Sheriff’s Office (320-564-2130) with any information.
“I think I’ve talked to probably well over 70 percent of the farmers myself,” Anderson said. “It’s the highest probability that he’s in a farmer’s field.”
Swanson was cutting through a field to get to a main road when his cellphone conversation with his dad abruptly ended on the night of his disappearance.
“I think Jeff is correct,” Anderson said. “Once something is found, it’s a high probability that everything is going to be within a small distance because everything is on his person.”
Swanson was last seen wearing baggy blue jeans, a blue striped Polo shirt, a black hooded zip-front sweatshirt with an emblem on back, a white Minnesota Twins baseball cap, glasses and a sterling silver chain.
“If anyone comes across clothing, hardware or anything suspicious, please call the sheriff’s office,” Anderson said.
Swanson is believed to have been carrying a black Motorola cellphone along with his wallet and car/house keys.
“On family farms, when they come across bones of an unknown type in an environment they have no memory or stories about, that should hopefully raise a flag,” Anderson said. “The highest concentration of scent is in the water. The water has to drain from something. Right now it’s draining into the watershed and from there to the Yellow Medicine River.”
The search managers know the dogs are indicating on human remains, though there’s a possibility that it’s not Swanson’s.
“There could be one homeless person somewhere up in our watershed who passed away that spring and we’re following up on the wrong source, but until we know, we keep searching,” Anderson said.
Before a search can take place, the co-managers have to coordinate with each other and then with law enforcement. They have to get permission from the landowners and schedule a time with canine handlers. The weather also has to cooperate.
“(Yellow Medicine County Sheriff) Bill Flaten has been the spokesperson and has gotten us access that we didn’t before,” Anderson said. “He’s the person we report to because it’s his county and without his support, we wouldn’t have been able to keep this search going. The Sheriff’s Office has been a key provider of resources and a provider of communications. They’ve exceeded our expectations.”
Minnesota searchers recently closed two missing persons cases, offering some hope of closure for the Swanson family. The search for Jacob Wetterling, who was 11 years old when he was snatched from the rural St. Joseph area, ended in September when his remains were located after more than 26 years. A search for missing Sandstone 22-year-old Kenneth “Scott” Kleppen also ended recently. His remains were found after a two-year search effort.
Swick empathized with both families and noted the bittersweetness of it.
“I’m glad they have peace, but our family does not,” she said.