Group brings wealth of experience to search for the missing - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Group brings wealth of experience to search for the missing

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Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011 3:24 pm | Updated: 4:04 pm, Tue Feb 22, 2011.

With a police dive team in the water behind him, Jerry “Kelly” Snyder stood near the edge of Tempe Town Lake on Thursday and watched with intense, impatient eyes.

The retired federal agent and associate member of Arizona Search, Track and Rescue watched as the crew worked under the Scottsdale Road bridge, the focal point of a search for Willie Jigba, a 24-year-old man that had been missing since Jan. 16.

“I think he’s in here,” Snyder said, turning toward the water. “I just don’t know where. I mean, where else would he be?”

Snyder’s suspicions appeared to be validated on Friday, when Tempe police announced the recovery of a man matching Jigba’s description from the water west of the Scottsdale Road bridge. Police indicated that information from Arizona Search Track and Rescue, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization whose members boast years of law-enforcement experience, was vital in the find.

The group of about 28 members and 22 search dogs has worked about 40 cases a year, at the behest of law-enforcement agencies and families, since it was formed in 1998. Arizona Search Track and Rescue has assisted Mesa police in the search for Hugh Turner, an 85-year-old man who has been missing since Christmas Eve.

Search coordinator Kristi Smith has no law-enforcement experience, having learned the trade while in the Kentucky Search Dog Association, a similar volunteer organization.

“Police know that we are out there to utilize if they need our assistance,” Smith said. “We are another resource that can be used. ...

“I enjoy working with the dogs. I enjoy the challenges. There is a big reward in the community-service aspect of it. As a mother and a sister, if one of my loved ones was missing, I would want as many people as possible looking for them.”

Snyder stressed that Arizona Search Track and Rescue does not compete with law enforcement agencies, who typically have no more than a handful of search dogs. Rather, the organization complements the police work.

In the Jigba case, dogs picked up a human scent at Town Lake.

“A couple of agencies don’t use us because they think we want to compete with them. That’s not the case at all,” said Snyder, whose own search organization, Find Me, has partnered with Arizona Search Track and Rescue since 2003. “Call us up; we have 22 dogs. Why come with one or two dogs when you can add eight or 10 more?

“We’re professionals — retired cops, feds, everyone is dedicated. We got no money for what we do, so it’s all for the right reasons that we’re here.”

In January 2004, Arizona Search Track and Rescue was summoned to aid in the hunt for Pedro Corzo, a 35-year-old Del Monte produce executive who disappeared while visiting farms near Dateland. After just two hours of searching, Corzo’s vehicle was located a half-mile from a road in a remote area of western Maricopa County.

About 45 minutes after that, Corzo’s buried body was found by Smith’s dog. Later, three Missouri men were charged with his murder.

“There are more that we find what we are looking for than we don’t,” Smith said. “The live finds are the most rewarding, of course. But if it turns out to be a homicide, in some cases, we can help bring law enforcement the information they need to charge somebody with a crime.”

The organization usually does training exercises four times a week. Smith and her colleagues spend much time fundraising to pay for training and equipment.

But those financial realities, Smith said, have not impacted the group’s readiness.

“If it is a quick call-out, we start sending teams as they become available — two or three to start, then others,” Smith said. “We have people around the state that have to get off work and travel, which can take time.

“But when someone needs to be found, we try to get as many people on the team rounded up for the long haul.”

CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6301 or dzeiger@evtrib.com

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