Shane McNeil, September 2010
The Shane McNeil SAR is more than a story of a Missing Person. It sparked within me something that has remained at the core of my being and has driven the whole Virtual Search Planning revolution. Here's why...
Shane McNeil was a 16 year old white male and a student at the local high school in the City of Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas, NV. Shane had lived in Henderson since the spring of 2010, after moving with his mother from the midwest. Shane had no siblings of note, and lived with his single parent mother. His education is, for this incident, unremarkable. As a high school sophomore, he had friends and by all accounts he was a good student. Shane was a person of deep religious faith. Shane had excellent health and fitness. In fact, Shane took immediately to walking the desert surrounding his home, despite the hot temperatures surrounding Las Vegas. a huge fan of Bear Grillis' "Man vs Wild" series, Shane's goal by the end of summer was to walk the desert from his home to the Colorado River, swim the Colorado, climb up the Arizona side in an area known as White's Canyon, and then walk to the Hoover Dam Visitors Center where his mother would pick him up.
The distance of Shane's intended route was in excess of 23 miles, but what was truly remarkable was the terrain Shane faced: open desert with temperatures of 100 degrees plus, canyons with vertical walls more than one thousand feet tall, exiting water from Hoover Dam at 68 degrees, and a wide variety of poisonous or dangerous creatures along the route. In spite of this, Shane chose his Saturday in late September 2010, and at 0700 that morning he embarked on his journey. To those who would later look for Shane, who he was, and more importantly what he was, remained a mystery. This was a critical component of this search.
At approximately 2230 hrs that evening, Shane's mother contacted 911 and reported that her son was missing. She added that at 1900 earlier that evening, she received a text message from Shane. It was a simple message, paraphrased here for the purposes of this report. " I can see the river (Colorado), It's getting dark..., I have to climb down into the canyon, meet me at the Dam Visitors Center". Because of this text she drove to the visitors center and arrived at approximately 2200 hrs. She waited for her son to arrive, but after 30 minutes, made the report of his loss.
Search efforts for Shane were directed by the National Park Service via Lake Mead National Recreation Area Staff. Additional resources were deployed from Las Vegas Metro Police Department using air assets, and other federal and State of Arizona SAR personnel. Primary search efforts were directed in the White's Canyon area on the Arizona side of the Colorado (the Colorado river is the border between Nevada and Arizona), while boats were deployed in the Colorado, and air asset in the canyon. Shane was not located Saturday night, nor Sunday, and efforts to locate him continued through Tuesday of the following week.
It was ironic that the report of Shane's disappearance made it to a local news channel in Reno, Nevada that Tuesday afternoon. I and other Staff of the State Emergency Operations Center saw the report and were disturbed at the thought of a search happening between two states, two counties, on both state and federal land, had not been reported to the State SAR Coordinator or one of the Nevada Division of Emergency Management's Duty Officers. Given the length of this search and its complexity, I contacted LVMPD SAR Unit and queried on the status of the search. Specifically, we obtained information on Shane, but also on his cell phone.
I digress a moment, but this is a critical point in this story, and what we generally describe to others as our "lightening moment". Over several years many of my SAR associates have discussed the idea of changing the way searches are always initiated. Why do they always start with such little to go on? Why do items of importance get missed, and why are we ok with efforts that seem to disregard their direct affect on finding the missing person.
With the limited information at hand, including the cell "information" and known search area, I and others put in motion what would eventually evolve into the VSP Process. Starting at approximately 1400 hrs that Tuesday, we enlisted the assistance of the Cell Forensics unit with the Air Force Rescue Coordination to obtain every piece of available data on Shane's text to his mother. We obtain the weather forensics from the initial day Shane left and throughout the search periods, geographical information on his possible routes, Lost Person Behavior data from a wide variety of sources, and the anecdotal information regarding his interest in "Man vs Wild". As we gathered this information, a clear picture of Shane and this incident became clear.
There was never a question that Shane had the physical stamina to walk this route. We found a witness at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Boulder City, NV who had observed Shane at approximately 1300 hrs on Saturday filling up seven or eight water bottles and putting them in a backpack. We knew he was keeping hydrated. Interviews with friends indicated a young man committed to his task, strong in his Christian faith, who truly believed he could complete this task, and someone who trained himself beyond what others his age were capable of. We also knew Shane was wearing clothing ill suited to the heat and protection from the sun. And then there were the Vans shoes...
As the cell forensics were returned, it verified both the initial text data, but also provided a distance the phone had been from the tower at the time of the message to his mother. Plotting this information, using the remarkable tool of Google Earth Pro to observe this spot at every angle and approach,and reviewing the messaging in this context, we discovered something remarkable. There was but one small piece of real estate on the western side of the Colorado River, from which Shane could have placed that text message! His concern over the approaching darkness, and his own text " I have to climb down into the canyon", drastically narrowed the search area. The fact that he stated he could "see the river" certainly added to the overall analysis that Shane was somewhere in this small area. This spot, above a location known to the locals as Boy Scout Canyon" was less than 100 meters wide, and it was the only location combined with the distance from the cell tower that the river was viewable. Had he been able to arrive on the Whites Canyon side, he would most likely have tex'd his mother with the remarkable feat just undertaken.
At 1600 hrs, two hours from the initiation of this process, we advised LVMPD to send a helicopter with personnel to a small dry, sandy wash just west of the point we discovered. We believed this was the route Shane had taken to enter this area, and would most likely yield footprints or other clues related to Shane. They agreed to do this but waining light and aircraft issues forced them to tackle this objective the following day.
On Wednesday, five days into the search for Shane McNeil, a LVMPD SAR team was dropped into the small dry riverbed by helicopter. Trained SAR technicians located a Vans shoe print identical to those being worn by Shane in the soft dirt leading east. Within two hours the same team located Shane at the bottom of a nine hundred foot wall of stone, hidden among vegetation at the base of the wall. When he was located, his backpack was pulled to his side and opened, water bottles were emptied and layed out in front of him, but Shane was deceased. A search of the general area located both of his shoes high up on the rocky wall, perhaps taken off so his feet would have greater traction on his decent. He also had several bibles, writing materials, and other small items but no compass or survival equipment.
The Coroners report could not detail both his cause or manner of death, but it was odd that he had suffered no broken bones. The state of decomposition was such that there may have been internal injuries but they could not be identified. The search for Shane McNeil lasted five days. It is believed Shane entered Boy Scout Canyon that Saturday evening, but expired within the following twelve hours. Temperatures within the canyon remain very warm into the evening and night due to the constant daily heat of the sun on the rock. Its likely that Shane was too fatigued, or suffered from heat injuries which rendered him unable to continue his quest.
Since the passing of Shane McNeil, I have kept this search at the forefront of my effort to improve, no, change the way I search. If we are to take up the noble cause to search for lost persons, I would hope that we simply do whatever it takes, look at every clue, gain every bit of information available, and then use it at the earliest opportunity. Shane and others deserve this.