Junior Crime Scene Sleuths

Can you imagine being a seventeen-year-old who casually mentions the time she almost stepped on a scapula bone walking through the forest, or a sixteen-year-old who spots the bullet that went through a victim and ended up buried in the dirt of a park?I now know teens like this.

I’ve written five thrillers for young adults (including Girl, Stolen, The Night She Disappeared, and The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die). For years, however, I’ve been itching to write a teen mystery series. The problem is that, for some reason, adults don’t tend to allow teens to do much that’s interesting and crime-related.

When I learned that a friend’s daughter was a volunteer with Multnomah County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue (SAR), I thought I had a pretty good idea what that meant: finding people lost outdoors. And it’s true that they are called out to help find missing hunters and hikers, or to look for people swept away by strong river currents, or kids who have wandered away from campsites.

It turns out that our local SAR group also has two things that set it apart.

The first is that most of its members are teens. Many SAR groups don’t allow teens at all. Those few that do take teens are usually either associated with Boy Scouts and/or just allow them to have an observational role. By contrast, MCSO SAR is the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office primary search and rescue resource. While there are adult advisors as well as a sheriff’s deputy present at any operation, the team leaders are all teens.

The second difference is that about a third of their callouts are to search for crime scene evidence. The group has been credited with finding key evidence in dozens of cases.

The three teens at the heart of the book

From the Multnomah search and rescue unit, Alexis, Nick, and Ruby were born. These three teens are new to SAR, and the story is told through their eyes. Each has something to hide. For Alexis, it’s the fact that her mom is mentally ill.  For Nick, it’s his secret fear that he’ll never live up to his soldier father, who died a hero in Iraq. And for Ruby, it means trying to figure out how to navigate in a world that doesn’t understand her or her obsessions.

More about MSCO SAR

MCSO SAR was originally a Boy Scout troop. In 1961, it was asked by Multnomah County to help with a search and rescue on Mount Hood after all its law enforcement staff had been exhausted. Later the group was asked to partner with Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office as a volunteer search and rescue resource. In the 1970s, it began offering membership to girls, and its relationship with the Boy Scouts declined.

To participate, teens must be fourteen years of age or older, maintain a 2.0 GPA, pass a criminal background check, have up-to-date vaccinations, be able to hike for long periods of time, be on call 24/7, and have the permission of their parents/guardians as well as their schools.


How crime scene evidence searches work

MCSO SAR members perform crime scene evidence searches at major or outdoor crime scenes for agencies all over the state of Oregon and have been credited with finding key evidence in dozens of cases.

To conduct an evidence search, SAR members form a line on their hands and knees, wearing painter’s padded kneelers and leather gloves, and crawl forward shoulder to shoulder.  They never touch what they find, so they don’t contaminate the chain of evidence.  They are taught to look directly in front of them as well as above them and behind them to make sure they don’t miss, for example, a knife embedded in a tree trunk.  The rule is, if they can’t see through it, they have to go through it, because they know that a bad guy might discard evidence in a place he thinks no one would ever look, such as a blackberry bush.

And these are teens fourteen to eighteen years old!


While the state requires only 30 hours of training for certification, all members of MCSO SAR receive nearly 300 hours of training in first aid, emergency survival skills, radio communications, land navigation, GPS orientation, crime scene evidence searches, search techniques, human tracking, helicopter safety, wilderness medicine, rope rescues, urban search and rescue, snow and avalanche safety, and response to terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters.


They meet every Wednesday evening and do weekend outings once a month. I have gone on trainings with them. One class I recently attended, conducted by the medical examiner’s office, was called “The Faces of Death.”It featured photos of people who have been found dead in the outdoors.  The death investigator who presented the sesson said they had toned down the presentation from previous versions. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to see the original version.


The latest class I took was a unit on “man tracking,” a real art in which the only clue of someone’s presence can be as small as a broken twig or a few grains of sand on top of a leaf.  (When I told folks at my kung fu school that I was learning to man track, one of the other women looked at me with pity and said, “Oh honey, I can set you up with somebody!”)


Reality meets fiction

Of course, the teens in my books need to take a few more risks and make a few more mistakes than the real MSCO SAR teens, so I made up a group and, in fact, a whole county: Portland County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue.


The Body in the Woods is perfect for fans of “CSI,” but the real thing is even better, and this book deals with real things. I go to great lengths to pack my books with authentic detail. In the past year alone, I’ve spent a day with a CSI team, attended the Writers Police Academy, done firearms simulation training, worked toward my purple belt in kung fu (including sparring, grappling, and weapons work), and taken a five-hour class in fighting back in close-quarters in which all the other attendees were cops.