Editor’s Note: This is the Sierra County Sun’s final story.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, at around 11:30 in the morning, the phone rang in a home in Hillsboro, New Mexico. Elisabeth Rauschenberger, 75, answered the call. Her husband Richard had set out that morning in his pickup truck to go hiking in the Percha Box canyon east of town. Rick was calling Betsy on his cell phone from the desert.
It had rained earlier in the morning, and his truck had gotten stuck in the mucky sand. Could Betsy drive out and get him? Rick told his wife that he would walk up to State Highway 152, where he would meet her by the side of the road two miles east of Hillsboro.
Betsy had confided in friends that she suffered from early-stage dementia. When she went out to the family car, she fatefully left behind her phone and wallet. The 2002 Honda Accord had a full tank of gas, but was not equipped with GPS.
As he hiked north to the highway, Rauschenberger experienced what he later described as “delirium” because of the extreme heat. Temperatures reached the mid-90s that day. Rick thought he saw Betsy’s Honda whizz by “at a pretty good clip,” heading east toward Interstate 25. Sometime after he reached the highway, he got a ride home. Although two hours had elapsed since he had called her to come rescue him, Betsy was not there.
Rauschenberger immediately called 911, reaching the Sierra County Regional Dispatch Authority at 1:32 p.m. My wife, he told the SCRDA dispatcher, “has kinda disappeared. If you could help me look for her, that would be great.”
The Sun’s account of what happened before this call was placed and afterward has been pieced together from SCRDA logs and recordings of its radio and phone communications with police and sheriff personnel and the public regarding the Rauschenberger missing person case. This documentation has been supplemented by interviews with Rick Rauschenberg, law enforcement principals and friends of the couple. Hillsboreans’ emails about Betsy’s disappearance have also provided information and insights.
Unlike what we’ve learned from police procedural novels and dramas, in New Mexico a person does not have to be away from home for 24 hours before being declared missing. Once a New Mexican is two hours overdue, law enforcement will respond, according to Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton. In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.
At 3:03 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 10, 25 and a half hours after the 911 call that launched the search, Sierra County deputy found Elisabeth Rauschenberger unresponsive in her car in the desert about 200 yards east of Ladder Ranch Road. This is a private, graveled side road leading north off Highway 152 15 miles east of Hillsboro. Betsy may have realized that she had driven past the meeting point and exited 152 onto Ladder Ranch Road, intending to turn around. Why she drove off the road east into the desert until the car came to a stop, its tires reportedly shredded by thorned saltbush, will never be known. A possible explanation lies in a remark made by Rauschenberger to the 911 dispatcher. Describing the extent of his wife’s cognitive decline, he said: “She isn’t like out of her mind. She just occasionally gets confused.”
Believing it important to know how and when Elisabeth Rauschenberger died in assessing the lessons to be learned from the case, the Sun submitted an Inspection of Public Records request to the New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner for the results of the deceased’s autopsy, which took place on Sept. 12. Released to the Sun on Dec. 17, the OMI’s postmortem report stated that the cause of Betsy’s death was accidental “hyperthermia due to environmental heat exposure.” “Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” or calcification of the blood vessels, was a “significant contributory factor” in her demise.
The report explains why. “Hyperthermia,” it states, “is a dangerous condition in which the body temperature rises to an abnormally high level. The heat causes blood vessels to dilate in an attempt to cool the body; this can stress the heart to work harder than usual in order to supply blood to the rest of the body. If the heart cannot adapt properly, the blood pressure drops, leading to weakness and disorientation. Ms. Rauschenberger’s dementia also likely placed her at an increased risk for death in this setting, as she may not have been able to appropriately remove herself from the situation. . . .”
The OMI report does not estimate time of death, but the takeaways from Betsy’s demise, which came no more than a day after her disappearance, are clear. Response time is of the essence, especially when it is a vulnerable citizen who has gone missing and/or weather conditions are adverse. Unfortunately, procedures for immediately acting on the report of a missing New Mexican are not fail-safe. This is especially true in large rural jurisdictions, where law enforcement personnel and resources are often stretched thin.
The public in general and rural Sierra Countians in particular need to be more keenly aware of how to be of meaningful assistance—the motivation for this article. Silver Alerts, which are emergency distributions of notices to law enforcement and the public of the disappearance of a person 50 years or older with irreversible cognitive impairment, should be treated by every citizen in the vicinity as a call to be actively on the lookout for the missing person.
The public also needs a better understanding of the avenues by which an official search and rescue (SAR) mission can be activated and the conditions that must prevail in order to justify organizing such an intensive effort. There is even a productive role for family and friends of the missing person and other concerned citizens to play—with proper supervision—in supplementing law enforcement tracking. In the aftermath of the tragic loss of a neighbor, the close-knit Hillsboro community has realized the need to augment law enforcement’s search capacity and taken steps to do so (about which more will be said later in this article).
SAR CAPACITY AND PROCEDURES
The New Mexico State Police has the exclusive authority to initiate and coordinate an official search and rescue mission for a missing person. The SAR is conducted by members of well-trained volunteer teams who are from the vicinity and able to respond, explained David Price, chair of the New Mexico Search and Rescue Council and a member of the Organ Mountains Technical Rescue Squad based in Las Cruces. There is no SAR unit in Sierra County, but teams from Las Cruces and Grant and Socorro counties can be called upon to conduct a search here.
One of the NMSARC’s services is to educate the public about how to activate a SAR mission. According to Price, NMSARC encourages the family of a missing person to call 911 and ask to be patched through to state police dispatch to request a SAR. A state police officer with SAR training will then be assigned to interview the “reporting party” and gather the information needed to determine if a search is warranted. The “Mission Instigator,” as the officer is called, needs to make sure the person has truly disappeared and “hasn’t just fallen asleep on a friend’s couch,” as Price put it. In addition, the Mission Instigator must try to establish what Price terms the “last known point” at which the person was seen. SARs are not conducted in urban areas, he said, and only activated when the last known point is in the wilderness or on its edge. Another determining factor is whether the individual was last seen driving or was on foot.
Even had Rick Rauschenberg directly contacted the state police, it is unlikely that a SAR would have been initiated to find his wife. “If a person is in a vehicle, a search will not be too productive,” Price observed. Given that the Rauschenbergers’ Honda was fully gassed and possibly last seen headed toward I-25, Betsy could have, in confusion and panic, driven as far south as, say, Las Cruces, the home of her sister, or as far north as the outskirts of Albuquerque within the two hours it took her husband to return home and call 911. She could have gone in any direction from either of those cities or some other point altogether as the afternoon wore in. “You need to have a point of departure,” Price reiterated, “like where you find the person’s car or evidence of where they set off on foot, and then you can mount a SAR covering the area within a 100-mile radius of the last known point.”
Sierra County Regional Dispatch Authority worked proactively over the critical early hours after Betsy’s disappearance to help mobilize all of the other law enforcement resources and tools available to look for her, the Sun’s review of SCRDA logs and more than 80 recorded calls shows.
The dispatcher who answered Rauschenberger’s 911 call efficiently gathered as much identifying information as Rick possessed: Betsy’s date of birth (Mar. 26, 1946), height (5 feet four), weight (104 pounds), hair (white-blonde, cut short), clothing (unknown) and the description of the make, model, year, license plate number and color of her car. Rauschenberger described the Accord as “light blue”; the car’s registration indicated that it was silver.
The dispatcher also elicited the unfortunate news that Betsy did not have her cell phone in her possession, so her precise location couldn’t be pinpointed by pinging the phone. Nor could a vehicle tracking device be employed because the 19-year-old Honda lacked the GPS equipment that is a standard feature on newer model cars.
The dispatcher’s question about medication elicited Rick’s acknowledgment of his wife’s medically diagnosed dementia—a requirement for issuing a Silver Alert. Rauschenberger expressed his hope that Betsy was “out riding around and maybe not aware of the time.” The dispatcher several times offered him reassurance that “I’m going to see if I can find someone to go looking for her.”
Rauschenberger provided his cell phone number and mentioned his plan to stay at home in case his wife returned or law enforcement called to say she had been found. At 2:45 he called SCRDA back to say he had changed his mind and “might just go out and run around and look for” his wife. Satisfied with the dispatcher’s report that all appropriate law enforcement personnel had been notified and were trying to find her, Rauschenberger did not immediately tell friends about Betsy’s disappearance. A tennis pal of Betsy’s called him after seeing the Silver Alert on Facebook, but stood down after learning the particulars. “I see no sense getting in my car since she’s not on foot,” she emailed another friend at 8:36 Thursday night. “I’d never find her.
Only after learning that the police had nothing to report in a call he placed to SCRDA at 9:16 the following morning did Rick personally begin to ask for his friends’ help.
The delay limited the effectiveness of a natural “neighbors helping neighbors” response that might have resulted in their prompt and thorough scouring of Hillsboro proper and all the secondary roads and tracks leading off 152 east of town. “Several people went out on 152 and down some forest roads with binoculars” on Friday morning, Linda Seebach later remembered. Her husband, Ted Caluwe, was among them. “But they didn’t think to look north [of the highway] because when Rick called Betsy he was south.” Friday evening, a group of Hillsboreans were still out searching, according to a group member who called SCRDA at 8:14 p.m. to ask for an update on the case.
LAW ENFORCEMENT’S RESPONSE
“Central to any available Sierra County deputy, we have a missing person,” SCRDA radioed at 1:37 on Sept. 9, five minutes after Rauschenberger’s 911 call. SCRDA also phoned state police dispatch at 1: 42 to ask that agency to issue a BOLO (Be on the Look Out) that would go out statewide to all “dispatch and patrol.” At 1:57 Central advised “all vehicles monitoring” SCRDA radio communications to stand by for a “one vehicle/one female” BOLO. This bulletin placed active-duty officers with the City of Truth or Consequences Police Department on alert. The sheriff’s department called SCRDA about 20 minutes later with a request that dispatch directly contact the T or C police to suggest that they check for Betsy at Walmart and other local stores, in case she had decided to head for a familiar destination.
By 2:20 a sheriff’s deputy driving vehicle Sierra 10 had reached mile marker 55 on Highway 152, near the entrance to the Copper Flat Mine. The road to the mine was located to the west of Ladder Ranch Road, meaning the deputy had already passed the site of Betsy’s car, which was not easily visible from the flat stretches of the highway. Sierra 10 reported to SCRDA that he intended to continue his search for the missing woman by driving westward on the highway all the way to Kingston. He first stopped in Hillsboro to interview Rauschenberger and make a visual check of unnamed “back roads” in town.
Typically, four to six Sierra County deputies are on duty during the day, according to Sheriff Hamilton, who later said at an early December meeting of concerned Hillsboreans that “all the resources I had” were assigned to the Rauschenberger case on Sept. 9. Sierra 10 was the only deputy on the case until 4:16 p.m., when SCRDA, noting that Sierra 4 had just come on duty, alerted him to Betsy’s disappearance.
The sheriff department’s search was augmented by that of a state police officer who reported to SCRDA his intention of hunting for Betsy on the southern stretch of State Road 187 through Caballo and Arrey to Two Counties Road. The officer reported back to SCRDA at 4:01 p.m. that he had also driven I-25 south from Truth or Consequences to the county border, but hadn’t been able to check I-25 north of T or C because he had been rerouted to a couple of other calls. The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search.
SILVER ALERT “BROUGHT ALL EYES TO BEAR”
Having thought to check the car’s registration, Sierra 10 called SCRDA at around 3 p.m. to correct the misinformation about the Honda’s color. The Silver Alert that was subsequently issued had this detail right. However, it had taken longer than usual to get the alert out to the public. Protocol requires that all the particulars about a missing person be entered within two hours of the case’s reporting to authorities in the National Crime Information Center, a centralized database containing information about suspects’ criminal records, stolen property, fugitives and missing persons.
The entry of Betsy’s case into NCIC would have automatically triggered a Silver Alert issued by the New Mexico State Police—the sole law enforcement agency with the authority to broadcast the emergency notification. Unfortunately, on the afternoon of Betsy’s disappearance, the NCIC system was down in seven states, including New Mexico. It would be 9:54 that evening before SCRDA was able to enter the Rauschenberger missing person case into the nationwide database.
Confronted with what one SCRDA dispatcher called this “big, stupid outage,” Central Dispatch personnel took it upon themselves to phone the New Mexico State Police to request a Silver Alert. The person who answered the call advised SCDRA to contact a certain public information officer the department had charged with handling such alerts. Repeated calls to the PIO reached only his voicemail.
SCRDA then called state police dispatch for assistance, only to receive the advice to keep trying to reach the PIO.
“His voicemail says to contact you,” the SCRDA dispatcher calmly responded.
“Okay, I understand that,” the state police dispatcher said, “but we can’t put out that information ourselves . . . so, give me a second, okay?”
A minute later the state police dispatcher returned with the name and phone number of another PIO.
At 6.07 on Thursday evening, the Silver Alert for Elisabeth Rauschenberger was issued. Had the NCIC system been “operational,” as promised by an online FBI description of this criminal justice clearinghouse, “24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” the bulletin would likely have gone out sometime earlier. Whether the delay made a difference to the effort to find Betsy alive will never be known. But the Silver Alert proved instrumental in locating her car. As Sheriff Hamilton later said, it “brought all eyes to bear” on the search for the silver Honda Accord.
A SCRDA log entry with the timestamp of 11:02 p.m. on Thursday noted that Sierra 4 had been advised of the case’s entry into the NCIC database. SCRDA recorded no other communication with local or state enforcement regarding the Rauschenberger case between late Thursday afternoon and Friday mid-afternoon.
The silence was broken at 2:40 p.m. on Friday, when SCRDA received a phone call at its non-emergency number. On the line was a woman who had been driving west on 152 with her mother, when, at the top of a crest in the highway, they happened to look north.
“Hi, yes, my mom and I saw the Silver Alert for the lady from Hillsboro,” the woman caller said.
“Uh-huh,” the dispatcher said encouragingly.
“And we were driving toward Hillsboro from Caballo,” the woman continued, “and we see—there is a silver sedan out in the desert off the highway. . . .
“What mile marker are you at? the dispatcher interrupted.
“Oh gosh,” the woman replied. “I don’t know, it’s east of the Ladder Ranch exit.”
“Will you do me a quick favor and hang up and dial 911 so I can get the coordinates,” the dispatcher said.
“I have the coordinates on my phone,” the woman said, rattling them off to the dispatcher.
“And you have eyes on the vehicle?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“Don’t know if it is a Honda, but it is silver, a silver sedan,” her mother interjected, demonstrating the importance of the Silver Alert’s having had an accurate description of Betsy’s car.
Twenty-six minutes later, at 3:03 p.m. Sierra 22 arrived at the location indicated by the coordinates. The sheriff’s deputy called SCRDA to run a check on the license plate of the car he found sitting there.
“Oh, damn,” the SCRDA dispatcher said almost as soon as the deputy provided the license plate number. “I don’t have to run it . . . that’s it.”
INVESTIGATING THE SCENE
On Sat. Sept. 11, at a little after 3 a.m., Richard Rauschenberger answered a knock on his door to find Lieutenant Joshua Baker from the Sierra County Sheriff and an Office of the Medical Examiner field technician on his doorstep. They were the bearers of the bad news. There had been an excruciating 12-hour delay in notifying Rauschenberger of Betsy’s death, during which time SCRDA had deflected, at the sheriff department’s behest, several phoned-in requests from Rick for news. The delay had been necessitated by the department’s reliance on other agencies to complete work at the scene, and it had taken many hours for the needed personnel to be mobilized and make the trek out to the middle of the desert.
Sierra 4, driven by Lieutenant Joshua Baker, arrived at Ladder Ranch Road shortly after Sierra 22. At 4:23 p.m. Baker asked SCRDA to have a New Mexico State Police supervisor call him. There were some seemingly unusual circumstances at the scene he wanted the state police to investigate. Throughout the evening several other deputies had come and gone, helping Baker keep the site secure. The requested crime scene investigation unit from Las Cruces arrived at 9:57 p.m. After examining the scene, the CSI unit advised the deputies that the “circumstances were not suspicious,” according to Sheriff Hamilton.
The OMI field technician was then dispatched. The technician who usually responded to Sierra County Sheriff calls was away from the area on a hunting trip. It had taken some time for SCRDA, again taking the lead, to locate a substitute. “Tom”—nobody caught his last name—drove up to Ladder Ranch Road from Las Cruces. He pronounced at 11:28 p.m.
Sheriff’s deputies stayed at the scene until the early morning hours, coordinating recovery efforts with Kirikos Family Funeral Home and Karr’s Towing, both of Truth or Consequences.
Hillsboreans took the news of Elisabeth Rauschenberger’s death as a wake-up call. Not content with merely conveying their thoughts and prayers to the widower, a small group of residents—Linda Seebach, Ted Caluwe, Judy Majoras and Harley Shaw—met to consider how to improve local response capabilities. “We are a community of elders and have others in the community with various forms of cognitive impairment,” Shaw, who had once worked for an agency whose mission included search and rescue operations, explained to the Sun. “We need some kind of quick response to people that wander off.”
On Sunday, Sept. 19, barely a week after Betsy’s death, Seebach sent out an eblast with the subject line: “Hillsboro Emergency Location Patrol.” The H.E.L.P. organizers sought volunteers for a standing “search patrol” that would respond immediately to notification of a lost or missing Hillsborean. They did not intend to form an official SAR unit, because that would require volunteers to undergo a year of intensive training. They did, however, recognize the need for “search events” to be “planned and organized . . . with a base of operations.”
To that end, the H.E.L.P. organizers arranged as a next step to meet with Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton. They wanted to ask whether the sheriff’s department would be willing to establish a protocol that H.E.L.P. would be called whenever a Hillsboro child or adult was lost. Hamilton was “thrilled” by the request, according to emissary Linda Seebach. He recognized, Seebach said, that “this will be an asset for me and an asset for you.” The H.E.L.P. organizers left the meeting with Hamilton’s pledge that his department would act as the coordinator for any needed “search events.”
Some 25 Hillsboreans came out for a H.E.L.P. organizational meeting with Sheriff Hamilton held at the Hillsboro Community Center on Saturday, Nov. 11. The first order of business was to make sure that every attendee had filled out a “volunteer asset form,” providing their contact info and listing any skills or search equipment (such as all-terrain vehicles) they possessed. The information would be entered into a spreadsheet that a sheriff’s deputy, acting as Incident Commander, would consult to mobilize the appropriate resources needed for a particular search.
H.E.L.P.’s role, Hamilton explained during his orientation,” would be “ground pounding.” He elaborated: “We’re not putting this together to go into the brush. You’re going to be driving up and down roads, spreading out in all four directions and covering broad areas within the first three hours.”
The Incident Commander would use the sheriff department’s reverse 911 technology to alert volunteer searchers to meet at the community center, where county and forest service maps would be consulted to assign specific territory to pound to teams of two. Other volunteers would take shift at the home of the missing person, in case he or she returned on their own. As a prevention against searchers themselves going missing, every volunteer’s assignment area would be written down, and every volunteer would be called back in by sunset. “We don’t need more people getting lost,” Hamilton said.
The sheriff proposed that H.E.L.P. volunteers meet again in January for rudimentary first-aid training, possibly provided by a professional emergency medical technician. He said he would try to come up with an “emergency pack” containing water, MRE crackers and basic first aid supplies for every ground pounder. Finally, he intended to investigate the availability of grant monies to purchase personal ID locators for all the volunteer searchers. “There’s no expense you should have to bear except for gas,” Hamilton said.
The sheriff congratulated the attendees for stepping forward to offer this much-needed assistance. He described the organization of H.E.L.P. as “novel,” but consistent with the unusual closeness of the Hillsboro community. “I call this ‘my Mayberry’ out here,” he confessed, comparing Hillsboro to the fictional small town presided over by a TV sheriff played by Andy Griffith in the 1960s.
Other communities in Sierra County should watch with interest to see whether Hillsboreans can develop a model “ground pounding” program. If the rural tradition of neighbors helping neighbors can eventually be harnessed throughout the county to meaningfully augment local law enforcement’s capacity to mount an effective missing person’s search, it would constitute a silver lining in what Ted Caluwe said at H.E.L.P.’s organizational meeting was a “possibly preventable tragedy.”