Bones in the desert. How one volunteer search and rescue team closes cold cases

Volunteer search and rescue teams across the West often step in to save lives, solve long-standing missing person cases and provide families with answers when their loved ones disappear

The 5-acre lot next to Craig McVeay’s house is empty, except for the sand, rock and sagebrush common in Pahrump, Nevada. The 57-year-old Homeland Security retiree takes a few articles of clothing from a box destined for Goodwill and scatters them across the open space one afternoon. 

He lays a pair of jeans out on the ground, places hats and shirts around the brush. The items look discarded, remnants, or clues one might look for if they were combing the wilderness for a body. 

McVeay goes back into his house, flies two drones over the lot and runs the footage on his computer equipped with software that automatically analyzes the imagery. It’s work that, up to this point, he has been doing manually. “And it hit on every piece of clothing that I put out,” McVeay told me over the phone, a little incredulous. “It was,” he pauses for a moment, “it was pretty neat.”

McVeay and his wife, who retired from the Air Force, have decided to spend their golden years a little differently. Rather than taking up water color painting, they spend their time working with Red Rock Search and Rescue, a group of roughly 150 highly trained volunteers ranging from firefighters to stay-at-home moms.

McVeay is in charge of the drone team program, and his wife is vice commander for operations and logistics — a job which demands roughly 30 hours per week.

Search and rescue teams vary widely in the United States, the only thing that’s consistent is a reliance on volunteers, Christopher Boyer, the executive director for the National Association of Search and Rescue, said.

And while most in the West read or hear about the so-called “live” search and rescue missions that involve rescuing hikers caught in unexpected storms, or coming to the aid of an injured rock climber, a lesser known component of search and rescue work is looking for bodies of persons missing for months, sometimes years, after law enforcement has had to stop.

“Cold cases are quite a bit of work that search and rescue teams do,” Boyer said. “It sticks in your craw, because you want to bring everybody home.”

A Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Air Support helicopter flies near the Red Rock Search and Rescue command post in the Valley of Fire area as search and rescue team members look for a missing person in this undated photo. | Red Rock Search and Rescue

Their work seemingly never ends. Over 200 people are reported missing each month in the Las Vegas area alone. In 2020, the team conducted 55 missions, totaling 28,000 hours. That number was down from 2019 when the team conducted 103 missions, totaling 35,000 hours. In the early months of the pandemic, cold case missions were put on hold and the team only went on “live missions.” 

Each year, Red Rock takes on between five to 10 cold cases around the West. Team members don’t treat these any differently than “live missions,” but are able to take more time to plan and prepare for multiple outings. 

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They go wherever they’re needed — sometimes traveling to Utah, Arizona, and Washington to provide assistance. 

Red Rock Search and Rescue members also participate in routine missions of finding stranded hikers, working closely under the direction of local law enforcement. They provide on-the-ground manpower to search ravines, washes or underneath tree coverage, and spend half their time locating people with Alzheimer’s or dementia who have wandered away from home. But a key part of their purpose is providing solace to families wondering what happened to the sister, father or child who disappeared. 

“We don’t stop. We keep looking to reunite families with their missing loved ones,” Donald Moore, the commander of Red Rock Search and Rescue and a landscape designer, said. 

Red Rock Search and Rescue team members work inside their command post in this undated photo in the Nevada wilderness. | Red Rock Search and Rescue

No longer ‘rag tag’

The group formed by friends of Ron Kirk, an avid hiker, runner and mountain biker who went missing in 2012. Kirk disappeared in Calico Basin — a red rock wilderness area popular among climbers and a short drive west of Las Vegas. 

After several days, the city’s search and rescue team had to call off the search when it failed to find Kirk’s body. But Kirk’s friends kept looking and eventually found his remains near a trail leading to a particularly difficult hike. They decided to form a nonprofit that would devote the same time and effort to other missing persons cases. 

Nearly a decade later, Red Rock Search and Rescue is no longer a “ragtag” group, but a highly organized operation — with intensive education requirements, a drone team, a people’s support team trained in psychological first aid for the families of victims, and working relationships with several government agencies from Nevada’s Clark County Coroner’s Office to the FBI. Team members typically find between three to five bodies a year for the state coroner’s office alone. 

Ben Gray, an 10th grade science teacher, joined the team last year shortly after moving to Las Vegas. He’s been training for nearly a year now, although if it weren’t for COVID-19-related delays, he most likely would have completed the course work in roughly six months. 

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Gray has taken two GPS classes, a mapping class, radio communication courses, CPR training, wilderness first aid, a ropes and knots course, a compass class and is currently working on getting a ham radio operator license. 

He recently passed his SARTECH II course — part of which required spending several hours in the desert taking what Gray describes as an “awareness test.” Like a high stakes scavenger hunt, he was given coordinates and wound his way around the landscape looking for objects, writing down what he noticed.

“It’s kind of comical because if you’re just a passerby driving down the road and looking over and seeing these people in bright fluorescent yellow shirts, just looking at the ground in the desert you’d be like, ‘What the heck is going on?’”

Between completing his master’s degree in education, and training for Red Rock Search and Rescue, most of Gray’s time is now taken up by studying. 

Gray, like the other members of the team, would not admit to an out-of-the-ordinary altruistic bent. 

“I’m just a schoolteacher. I don’t think I’m anyone special, you know, it’s just something that you like doing,” he said. “It’s just a cool organization to be a part of and you get to do some good.”

His only caveat is that as far as hobbies go, it can be prohibitively expensive. From purchasing hiking boots to a GPS to a chest harness, the costs add up.  

Red Rock Search and Rescue team members are pictured with the U.S. Air Force 66 Rescue Squadron and the squadron’s Pave Hawk rescue helicopter after specialized communications training at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. | Red Rock Search and Rescue

Finding a finger

But the demands and sacrifices of being part of this team lead to results.

“We continue to go back out into known areas and look for evidence, which are bones and clothing or backpacks,” Moore, the commander of Red Rock Search and Rescue, said. “And we continue this for years.”

Just last year team members found a bone fragment of an elderly man who had Alzheimer’s and went missing over two years ago. He took a wrong turn and ended up at Lake Mead, where his abandoned car was found. Every three or four months, members of Red Rock Search and Rescue would go back out to look for him. They found the bone fragment, and eventually the rest of his remains. 

They found remains of a young man after a three-year search, also after relentlessly scouring the same ground until a piece of bone was discovered. 

“Both of these gentlemen were in dense wilderness areas, far from their original locations that they were supposed to be at. And in most search organizations that are law enforcement, the budget is not there. These people probably would have not been found,” Moore said. 

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The team’s most high-profile mission resulted in two successful convictions. 

In 2012, cab driver Keith Goldberg went missing, and the Las Vegas police were quick to charge two suspects. But without the remains, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the couple with Goldberg’s death. 

Red Rock Search and Rescue kept looking for the cab driver’s remains for over a year, combing 200 acres of desert. 

“We performed over 35 searches over a year,” Moore said. During one mission, team members found a finger. “So we zeroed in on that location, shoulder by shoulder because now we’re looking for very small evidence parts, and we were able to locate our missing person.”

With the remains located, Georgene and Christopher Ross were charged, and in 2015, convicted of the murder. The Las Vegas Review Journal reported that “a contentious love triangle had developed between Goldberg, his ex-girlfriend Georgene Ross and her estranged husband in the months before Goldberg’s disappearance.”

Not all cold cases are murders, although Moore said each scene is treated as a potential crime scene — making sure to preserve evidence and securing an area until law enforcement arrives. 

“Unfortunately, the desert is very inhospitable,” Moore said. It’s easy for a hiking trip to turn deadly. 

“If you break a leg or twist an ankle, and you don’t have communication, if you don’t have clothing for cold weather at night, or most importantly, if you don’t have extra water, you only have a few hours of time to be located before unfortunately, you’re not going to make it.”

The butterfly effect

Part of Red Rock Search and Rescue’s work is educational — members will station themselves at the trailheads of particularly dangerous hikes where ill-prepared visitors often show up without enough water. They teach children what to do if they’re separated from their parents, and provide certified first-aid courses for those who are visually impaired. 

“There’s a butterfly effect of the benefit to a community from a volunteer organization for search and rescue or volunteer firemen. The benefits are really astounding when you think about it,” Moore said. Even those who are no longer active with the organization still have the first-aid abilities to immediately respond to a crisis — like a car accident.

Red Rock Search and Rescue team members are pictured in this undated photo in the Nevada wilderness. | Red Rock Search and Rescue

AnJaneen Simenson, a dog trainer, has been a volunteer at Red Rock Search and Rescue for nearly three years. Her training has enabled her to respond to three car accidents she came upon. In one case she loaned gauze from her medical bag to an emergency medical technician who later arrived on the scene. Red Rock Search and Rescue volunteers are the “nicest people you never want to meet,” she said. 

“I have a big heart and I love to help people,” Simenson said. She’s performed a variety of tasks over the years — from on-the-ground cold case searches to providing comfort to families while a search is ongoing, to handing out missing persons posters.

Simenson is quick to laugh as she talks on the phone about why she’s looking forward to a bone identification course. Coroners, she explained, don’t appreciate driving out to the desert without a good reason. “They don’t like it when we drag them out there for a coyote bone,” she told me. 

At the end of the day, what keeps Simenson volunteering is reuniting families. 

“That’s one of the things that I focus on, that helps me when I’m dealing with families that are going through a challenge, families that are getting heartbreaking news,” she said. “I focus on the fact that they’re not going to have to keep going through months and months with the unknown.”

“You know, yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s gut-wrenching right now. But at least they’ve got their loved one back now.”