Inside the search to find George

MACKENZIE - It was a rainy and cold Saturday afternoon last weekend. Somewhere, in a forest filled with bears near this isolated community north of Prince George, there was a lost boy.

"At about 1:42 p.m. - I was on days off - and I received a call from one of my constables, Jeff Ludovici, notifying me of a missing four-year-old in the area of Lions Lake," RCMP Cpl. Martin Neveu said. "He explained that there had been over an hour time delay and gave me the circumstances that mom and a friend had taken the boy berry picking. When they had arrived on site the boy was sleeping in the van. She laid him on the floor and they moved to the berry patch, which was approximately 30 feet away. A few minutes later, they went back to check on him and the door was open and the boy was gone."

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Tykao Hazard had searched for her son George with her friend with no success before calling the police.

Neveu turned on his police radio and started monitoring the investigation from home, hearing the Police Dog Service call was already put out, along with Air Services and Search and Rescue was in the process of being activated to locate George.

As he continued to monitor the situation, he was given a description of the area that Neveu is familiar with because that's where he often goes fishing.

Lions Lake is about 18 kilometres from the Mackenzie Junction.

It's a small forestry service road that leads to a small lake. CN was notified because the location was right beside the track and information was shared on local logging truck channels.

Sgt. John Grierson, the detachment commander, was away during the start of the investigation. Neveu called to tell him about the lost boy.

The initial attempts to search for George were hindered because the two constables at the site were instructed by the Police Dog Services personnel not to contaminate what little tracks a four-year-old could make through the bush.

"So it was search in a certain pattern, keep track of where you've been so that the dog could be more successful," Neveu said.

Two more officers were deployed to attend the scene but had to be redeployed to a domestic dispute. After that situation was resolved, they hauled out the two RCMP ATVs.

That's when Neveu went to the site and established the Search and Rescue (SAR) command post at the Lions Lake Provincial Park campsite about one kilometre from where George was last seen, so not to contaminate the scene.

"In my mind and heart at this time there are two possibilities," Neveu said.

"There is a possibility that this is legitimate that the boy got out of the van and he's now out in the wilderness in these rainy conditions - he's a four year old with no exposure to wilderness - so that is a grave concern and there's also the side that's always going to be in the back of our minds - is there another angle to this? Is it possible that there could be a parental abduction, or anything like that - is there any sign of anything suspicious?"

To consider those options is just part of police training, said Grierson.

"You don't want to have tunnel vision about this," he said. "The overwhelming concern is the safety of the child but we have to be cognizant of any other possibilities.

There's always a concurrent investigation as well as the search. And then you cross your fingers and toes."

When Neveu went to the site, Knut Herzog, the Mackenzie SAR manager, was already on the scene and preparing his team, establishing search patterns to ensure they would conduct an effective search.

Neveu said when he talked to George's mom, she said she believed she could hear George calling her a few times shortly after he went into the bush.

Neveu had Hazard and her friend reenact the scene to show exactly where they were standing when they heard George's calls in relation to the van and Neveu took the opportunity to examine the scene firsthand.

It was then confirmed they both concluded George's call came from a specific direction.

In the meantime, Neveu looked for evidence of other vehicles in the area but found none.

"It's not like this took place in the middle of town where someone could randomly walk up to the van and take George and go," Neveu said. "You're in the middle of the bush."

During his 19 years on the force, Neveu said he's seen a lot of things that are not what they seemed at first and it's always in the back of an officer's mind.

"But despite that, we have to keep boots on the ground and get the search going," Neveu said. "It wasn't too long before SAR was rolling in and things were starting to happen."

To get SAR mobilized, Herzog called Dale Parker, the president of the Mackenzie SAR, to get as many members of their team out to the scene as soon as possible. There are 23 members of the SAR group in Mackenzie. Most are shift workers and some have employers who understand the gravity of circumstances when SAR members are called out and release the employee to do their volunteer duty.

Herzog went out to the scene and established communications with Neveu, the incident commander, while Parker got the gear they needed after he put out the call for SAR members to come out.

"That's when we discussed the plan and I made some recommendations that we needed to get pretty big quick here, so I was going to be putting in a call for a lot more resources to come our way," Herzog said. "I needed to know where the police dogs were working because we do not want to contaminate the area so we can work jointly. Then I went out to look at the place last seen for George and then try to find a direction of travel. Through the training we receive as trackers, given the size and nature of George he did not leave us a lot of signs, a lot of things in that area were already pretty hard to see because people had already been looking for him."

The plan was made to start the search from the van and expand outwards.

"There was a team of five SAR members going out and doing a sound sweep," Herzog said. "So we stop whistle, listen for him, and then we move along and keep expanding on that."

Because children are taught about stranger danger, trying to communicate with a lost boy can be difficult and even if George was close enough to hear or see people around him, would he call out or go towards them?

"One of the first things we always ask parents is if their child has a safe word," Herzog said. "I know when my kids were growing up they all had safe words so if a stranger came up to them and gave them that safe word they knew that mom and dad OKed this person and that's a pretty good idea to have with all children so that if they're ever in a situation like this they can use that and know that the people are approachable."

Unfortunately, George didn't have a safe word.

"So we tried to do a sound sweep by whistling to get his attention without people calling out because at that time with the amount of people we had there we tried to cover as much ground as we could because maybe he just wandered a little bit away so we were covering a fair amount of ground," Herzog said.

It became clear that George was not responding to the sound sweeps which led to the knowledge that they needed more boots on the ground as quickly as possible. Herzog knew that a child could choose to hide from a person they consider a threat so the more eyes in the woods to find George the better, because if he's not coming to them, they had to find him.

To Herzog that meant people had to be searching in sight of each other. They would now assume they are looking for a little person who could be hiding, so looking for the sleeve of his coat as he's hiding in a bush or the top of his head as he's crouching down was now the focus.

They put a request out through the Emergency Coordination Centre to bring in all SAR teams in the area, so the call went out to Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Prince George, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James.

Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) was also called in to assist SAR members who would struggle with the stress of trying to find a lost boy for long stretches of time.

Any time there is a lost child the pressure on people can be immense, Herzog said.

For the parents, including George's father Kris Benoit, and other family members who are in distress, the RCMP call in Victim Services.

Because they wanted to get as much ground covered as possible before it got dark Saturday, the Mackenzie SAR turned to social media to get the word out they needed people to help with the search.

"There was already a huge outpouring on the first day from the community," Herzog said.

By the time it was all over early Sunday evening, there were more than 500 volunteers involved with the search, logging more than 3,000 volunteer hours.

The first wave of members of the public who wanted to search saw 168 people attend Saturday. The hardest thing to do for the search organizers was to tell them to go home when it got dark.

"The rationale for pulling them off at night is because your chance of injury at night goes up significantly," Parker said.

But that didn't stop the search. That's when the specially-trained SAR teams took over, usually in groups of five.

"As the teams arrived from around the province, they were put to work," Herzog said.

There were 17 SAR members searching overnight.

During the night search came the threat of several bears in the area.

One bear was so aggressive he was making chomping motions with his teeth near at least a dozen searchers. No amount of noise from them was going to scare off the bear and those searchers had to be pulled out of that area for their own safety.

Conservation officers had to be called in to take care of the problem. No bear was destroyed as the officers were able to scare them off.

While some people were searching, others were organizing what the search would look like come first light Sunday and they were expecting more than 200 people to arrive for a 6 a.m. start up.

Parker spent Saturday night in the field so that Herzog could go home and be ready for what was to come on Sunday.

"It was just knuckle down, get it done and make sure things were working," Parker said. "There really wasn't much thought at that point. For me the extra thoughts came about when I got up in the morning at about 11 o'clock and I looked at Facebook."

Parker said you always hope in these situations that when you leave that things would change in your absence.

Parker has been in the community for more than 30 years as a supervisor at Conifex. He raised his children in Mackenzie.

"You're going through all the turmoil that's going on in the community at the same time and you're going' they don't need this'," Parker said.

Mackenzie, a forest industry town, is experiencing major mill shut downs that has put hundreds of people out of a job right now.

"For me, what kept me going, was being there, finding problems, solving problems interacting with people and not thinking about what was happening outside of what I was doing," Parker said.

It's the downtime that's the killer, Grierson agreed.

Neveu said he's got a six and seven year old at home and he just always had to stay on task during the single biggest event he had ever taken command of.

The convergence of volunteers and searchers was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose, Neveu said.

The problem that arises with members of the public eager to help find a missing boy is the willingness of people to put their own safety at risk. That's when police officers and search commanders have to step in. Volunteers also needed to be told the hard truth that George might not be found alive and they must not contaminate the scene that might interfere with a police investigation. It was a heartbreaking possibility everyone had to face.

Each team of volunteers had an experienced leader to guide them and the terrain made it very challenging at times as the search took place in such dense forest people had to walkl shoulder to shoulder for hours on end.

The search did not take place only on the ground. It was by boat on Williston Lake, combing the shoreline and it took place from the air as well as long as the weather would allow.

Withinin two hours of the start of the search on Saturday, air services were called to the scene. It was raining so hard it was difficult to see out of the helicopter because the rain drops were so big.

On Sunday, something went wrong with the helicopter and the mechanic who was located in Regina was rushed to Prince George to fix it. There was no other aircraft available to come to the scene. By 6:30 p.m., the helicopter was back in the air and within the hour George was seen.

There was a police dog and handler in the area and when George was found, the spotter in the helicopter guided the pair to George.

Grierson talked to the dog handler, who was not available for an interview, and he said he and his dog were eight feet away from George and they still couldn't see him.

The chopper pilot told Herzog they are right over George and he wasn't moving and they couldn't be sure it was him. Then George moved his arm and then they knew.

"The helicopter pilot said he moved 10 feet to the left and he couldn't see him," Parker said.

The Mackenzie RCMP and SAR members stressed that it was a team effort that led to the happy outcome.

"Yes, the spotter and pilot saw him and the dog man got directed to him and picked him up," Grierson said. "But it's 500 other people who made it happen."

George was found 990 metres - just shy of a kilometre - from the point he disappeared.

There were plenty of tears of relief among the volunteers as word got out that George was alive and well and on his way to the hospital to get checked out.

When Grierson first saw Herzog, some 30 hours after their work began, they didn't hold back their feelings, either.

"Let's just say there were two burly guys hugging each other in the middle of the bush," Grierson said.

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