A Sheriff's Volunteer Posse

Presented By

Bonnie M. Wells


June 6, 2004: Sheriff's Volunteer Posse: Finding those who lose their way in Humboldt

By Chris Durant The Times-Standard

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Volunteer Posse doesn't have an official slogan, but if it did it could rival the Postal Service's.

No matter what time of day a person is reported missing or what the weather is like or if it's a holiday, posse members respond to the call.

"Our mission is to aid the sheriff in carrying out his duties of evacuating and finding the injured or lost people in the wilds of Humboldt County," said posse member Rick Nicholson. "We're like a big fire department. Instead of being in one district, we have the whole county."

California law requires sheriffs to be responsible for search and rescue in their county.

The liaison for the posse in the sheriff's department is Sgt. Phil Buihner, the special services deputy.

"The posse is the department's search and rescue," Buihner said. "We couldn't do searches without them."

"We do everything from boats, to hikes, horses and we have three dogs on our team," Nicholson said.

The posse has been involved with nearly every search in the county. Some of the more recent searches came to Nicholson's mind.

"Our boats were involved with the Keith Murphy tragedy (Murphy drowned in Big Lagoon in March when his boat capsized), we had that lost mushroom picker in Little Lost Man Creek for three days and mushroom pickers on Black Mountain in '98," Nicholson said.

Nicholson's experience has led him to identify one common denominator among people who get lost.

"What we see in the county is people not being prepared," Nicholson said. "Exposure kills. Hypothermia is a big problem in this county. People can prevent that by using common sense."

He said a cheap poncho, a candy bar, a bottle of water and a lighter could make a lot of difference to someone lost in the forest.

"Also, people should tell someone where they're going and when they're due back," Nicholson said. "There is a myth that you have to wait 24 hours to be reported missing. That's not so. If you're due back at 4 o'clock from a hike and the people picking you up or loved ones haven't heard from you by 10 and they're really getting worried, call."

Posse members say even a gut feeling can be a cue to report a missing person.

"Sometimes, that can be the best guide," said Nicholson's wife and posse member, Janis Nicholson.

Time is always a big factor in search-and-rescue efforts.

"We'd rather get canceled then have someone get a big head start on us," Nicholson said.

"The less time gone, the better chance we have at getting them back," Janis Nicholson said.

Some of the rescue operations the posse has responded to include airplane crashes, rope rescues and swift water recovery.

The posse also assists other divisions of the sheriff's department, like the detectives bureau.

"Sometimes body recoveries, like car wrecks, and evidence searches," said Janis Nicholson. "We provide the manpower."

"Say someone pitches a gun into the brush, we go look for it under the direction of the detective," Nicholson said.

Posse members have helped other public safety agencies.

"We've been out on the (Karen) Mitchell case a couple times," Janis Nicholson said. Mitchell disappeared from Eureka in 1997. The case is being handled by the Eureka Police Department.

"We've been up to Redwood Park and worked with the Arcata and Humboldt State police departments," Nicholson said. "We also work with BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) and the Forest Service quite a bit."

Missing children are a call the posse responds to frequently and the Nicholsons have advice for parents.

"If you've looked everywhere and you can't find them, call," Janis Nicholson said. "Like I said, we'd rather be canceled then have a parent wait. And don't ever feel stupid. No parent should ever feel stupid for activating a missing child report."

A current, seasonal concern for the posse are the local rivers, which are running higher and colder than usual.

"We usually have a couple of drownings a year, and those are all preventable," Nicholson said. "It's just common sense. Like in the winter, people think they can drive across a flooded area because they got four-wheel drive and they can't and get stuck. We have to go get them."

Training is ongoing for members.

"Everybody's trained or cross-trained," Nicholson said. "And if someone isn't particularly fond of rope rescue, then they can stand on top and hold a rope. People are always helping out, it's a pretty good crew."

Posse members train together at least once a month and take part in special training sessions, like recently with the Red Cross.

Presently, there are about 35 members in the posse, which is a nonprofit organization.

"We rely solely on donations from the public," Nicholson said. "We don't receive tax dollars."

Donations can be sent to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department Posse at Post Office Box 410, Eureka, CA 95502. Donations can also be sent to the sheriff's department.

"Everything donated is 100 percent tax deductible," Nicholson said. "We're not political and we don't do any lobbying. The money is used to maintain equipment, purchase new equipment and training."

Some of the training isn't covered by donations.

"Some of the individual training, like the dog teams, they pay out of pocket," Janis Nicholson said. "Those of us that have horses, it's out of pocket."

When the missing person call comes in it doesn't take long for the posse to activate but, depending on where it is, getting on the scene may take a while.

"We carry pagers and we get paged out," Nicholson said. "We meet in a general area, that's pretty instantaneous, but it's the driving time that kills our ETA."

Anyone can become a posse member.

"They range from mechanics, commercial fisherman who are in town eight months out of the year, a few ranchers, a fair amount of retired people who aren't ready to sit down yet, a lot of office people and a couple nurses," Nicholson said. "We've had every gamut of employment, and if we haven't had them we'll probably have them some time soon."

Nicholson said that most California counties have a sheriff's posse.

"And most of the time it's all volunteer," Nicholson said. "All of the rural areas have one and even the Bay Area counties have search and rescue."

Another aspect of the posse is public relations. Members can be seen at most North Coast parades atop their horses.

The horses, about 10 of them, belong to the individual posse members. Most of the horses strictly attend the events and parades but about five are able to assist in searches.

"They're our most visible PR," Nicholson said.

"And kids love them," Janis Nicholson said.

The specialty vehicles, like the Snow Cat and an airboat, are also big hits when displayed at events.

"It's (the airboat) is basically for flood rescues because it can go where other boats can't," Nicholson said.

Special events like the Kinetic Sculpture Race or the Tour of the Unknown Coast have members in attendance in preventative safety roles.

"We're just there, hopefully we're never needed, but we're there," Nicholson said.

The posse is always looking for new volunteers.

"To join, people can either send a letter to our address or call Sgt. Buihner at the Sheriff's Office at 268-3638," Nicholson said. "I actually recruited two co-workers recently."

"People can also contact a current member for information on joining," Janis Nicholson said.

The only requirements to join are a current driver's license and certification in first aid and CPR.

"We're always looking for new talent," Nicholson said. "If you like to hike, or have an interest in the boats, that's basically it. The more active members the better, you never know when you're going to need that talent."

Janis Nicholson mentioned if members get a call but are unable to participate, it's OK.

"So the more members we have, the more availability we have," Janis Nicholson said.

"Our main thing is, take care of your family first, then your job and then come out with us," Nicholson said.

He said most employers are understanding of posse members' duties and there's no problems with letting heir employees leave.

The posse was recently honored with the Star of Life Award from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

Nicholson has simple advice for people so they won't be the subject of one of the posse's searches.

"Use common sense," Nicholson said. "If it seems like it may be a bad idea, it probably is."


Imagine That!

I remember a time when a sheriff in this area {Robert Schlicher} wanted to form a 'volunteer posse' of sorts. He called them reserves, but they were all volunteers.

In the beginning I thought it was a fabulous idea. I saw the potential for unlimited assistance in the event of an emergency of any kind, but especially were missing or lost people were concerned.

I thought the volunteers could help the police in many ways ..... organizing parades; directing traffic; attending neighborhood watch meetings; etc. etc. the possibilities were endless.

Then I learned that I was mistaken again. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be. Instead it gave certain people another opportunity to reject; ridicule; defame and outright lie on innocent people who had done nothing more than try to help an idiot.

Oh well, nothing ever works here .... never has, never will. So be it. They simply cut their own throats, and some day, everyone will know what they are.



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