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Searching for clues; Michigan Backcountry Search & Rescue shares how they work on cold cases

Local News

STEPHENSON, Mich. (WJMN) – Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue (MibSAR) works on long-term missing person cases to help find clues.

Michael Neiger, lead investigator, says they work for free on long-term missing person cases and unsolved murders in the Great Lakes area up to the Arctic Ocean.

“We work on a variety of cases, we’ve worked on bank robberies you know traditional missing person cases about half of our cases at some point in time are murders and involve foul play and what not so we work mainly only cold cases,” said Neiger.

Michael Neiger and Todd Theoret look at a map of the search area to discuss what areas they will cover next.

Neiger says they often work closely with families while on their cases.

“Since we’re working on cold cases a lot of times families don’t really have any place to turn they really don’t have anyone you know actively working on the case unless there’s leads or evidence that’s been developed it’s difficult for the police to spend you know a lot of time on a cold case so we work for the families in support of the families many times in support of law agencies and trying to find evidence or clues or get the case going again and give the police something to work with,” said Neiger.

Neiger worked as a trooper and detective sergeant in the Michigan State Police for 26 years. He’s also guided wilderness trips for nearly 40 years.

“Those two skill sets merge to allow me to work on these types of cases in remote wilderness areas,” said Neiger.

Todd Theoret also works with MibSAR as an investigator. He says he began working with Neiger because he knew someone who had a child go missing and he had been following the case.

“A few years later I had moved here to Marquette and found out about Michael’s organization Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue, so I reached out to him to see if I could be of any assistance and help out with some of the searches and eventually he let me come with him on a search, actually that one was by Munising, so I did some searching with him and stuff and he got to know me a little better and then I’ve been searching with him ever since on multiple cases including that one in the family I knew,” said Theoret.

Michael Neiger and Todd Theoret walk through a wooded area looking for signs of disturbance from animals that may indicate a lead in their search.

Theoret grew up off the grid, he says this gave him a connection to nature and understanding of what people may be doing when they are out in remote areas.

“I do also have a little bit of formal training in tracking through a couple different classes and stuff I’ve taken but I didn’t get real interested in the specific tracking as a kid it was more recently with Michael and stuff and a little bit before that I had taken a couple classes to do with tracking but I wasn’t really using it in a search and rescue sense more just nature observation, following animals, learning about their movements and stuff,” said Theoret.

Neiger says how they conduct their searches depends on case and time of year.

“At this time of year we have snow on the ground so that affords us an opportunity to sometimes some pretty fruitful tracking and looking for evidence in wilderness areas using wildlife whether it be predators or scavengers or birds so that’s one of the things we do this time of year,” said Neiger. “A lot of the work we normally would do we can’t do with snow on the ground but snow on the ground allows us to do a lot of tracking.”

When there isn’t snow on the ground, Neiger says they look at the case to see what work has been done and check the two-tracks, single tracks and game trails.

“We work a lot of linear features like power lines and along river banks and it all depends on the case what the facts are of the case but we generally are looking for spore related to the case that gets moved around over time by wildlife and once we can find something then we can really focus in on that area,” said Neiger. “We do a lot of metal detecting on what we find, a lot of trace evidence work a lot of sifting stuff of that nature.”

Todd Theoret uses a metal detector to check a spot on the Cedar River for metals.

Theoret says a lot of their work is observation.

“A lot of the cases we work on are cold cases or long term missing person cases so you really got to observe a lot of different things in the woods and things that are going on you know movement of animals is one of them and then that’s you know tracking,” said Theoret. “There’s a lot broader sense of tracking than people think it’s not just following footsteps you’re observing movements of animals over long periods of time and whether they’re avoiding people or maybe being attracted to something whether it’s something people put out or bait or any other stuff like that the movements of animals can tell a lot.”

Currently they are working on a case in the Escanaba State Forest at Cedar River North State Forest Campground. In November, a hunter went missing from his campsite and has not yet been found.

Signs for missing person, Vladimir Ivanovic, in Cedar River North State Forest Campground. Photo Credit: Michael Neiger

“On Vladimir Ivanovic’s case this time of year we’re doing a lot of tracking, over there tracking cougars, and that’s what we were doing on Sunday, tracking cougars and bear and wolves and coyotes, fox, any kind of predators and looking where birds, what birds are doing where they’re landing what they’re doing and looking for any type of disruption in the snow that might indicate that something is going on there and most of your animals especially your predatory scavenger animals they know what’s going on in their range,” said Neiger. “So when we have snow on the ground like we did this weekend we see where the animals are going and see what they’re up to see if they’ll give us a clue or something.”

MibSAR spends years working on some of their cases and often spends days out in the wilderness observing to find small traces that could help locate a missing person.

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