Forest Service law enforcement officers Nicholas Scholz and Patrick Legg helped find the needle in a 2 million-acre haystack.
The needle was a 5-month-old infant, and the haystack is the Lolo National Forest in Montana. Last week, the officers were each honored as an Unsung Hero for their work in helping to find the infant who many feared might be dead after a man reported he had wrecked his car with his girlfriend’s son inside. At one point, the man even said he had killed, then buried the baby.
“When that night was done, everyone was changed,” Legg said. “No one will ever forget what happened and how things turned out very different than what we feared.”
Scholz said, “Everything out there seemed to be trying to kill that baby that night. Between the suspect, who was high on meth, to wild animals and the weather, no one could believe that baby was alive. When we picked him up, dirty and tired, he looked at us like, ‘About time you got here.’”
The day started normally for Legg and Scholz, both off duty. Legg spent time with family at Lolo Hot Springs. Roughly 30 miles away in Missoula, Scholz celebrated his wife’s birthday.
Legg said the loud shouts of a belligerent man arguing with other recreationists pierced the late afternoon. Word got back to Legg that the man had threatened people with a gun, so he grabbed his badge and firearm and made his way toward the fracas. Although the camp host called 911, the man took off in his truck with the baby, leaving behind the woman Legg recognized as half of a couple he had investigated for illegal camping.
Legg stayed and shared what he knew about the man with sheriff’s deputies. Eventually, they learned the man crashed his truck into a tree, but when they found the truck, there was no man or baby. The man had returned to the hot springs, where a group of people held him until officers returned. When they asked what happened to the baby, he gave varying accounts, including that he took the baby into the woods, killed him and buried the body. Another time, he pointed to nothing and said the infant was standing in front of him.
“At one point, I looked at my father, who used to be a reserve officer, and we both had the feeling this would not end well,” said Legg, who added that the temperature began to chill. “But in my mind, this guy is strung out, and he doesn’t know what he did.”
Search and rescue were dispatched, adding to a contingent of local, state and federal police officers from four agencies. Officers decided to return to search where it was believed the couple had set up another camp. But the logging road was blocked by fallen trees.
That’s when a police dispatcher told Scholz they needed him and his all-terrain vehicle. Scholz and Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Ross Jessup used the ATV to get past the downed trees. Roughly 1.5 miles in, the logging road ended.
Beyond that, their flashlights allowed them to see snapped branches and tire prints, so they kept moving forward. Scholz said it would be difficult for even an ATV to move through the brush, so the driver “must have had the pedal to the metal.”
About 100 yards further, they found another crash site. Then they saw baby clothes under the car but no child. They alerted other officers and rescue volunteers, who began to climb down a ravine, where diaper bag contents were scattered on the ground.
Scholz and Jessup decided to climb uphill, accompanied by the crackle of police radios, then, suddenly, the faint murmur of a baby. They froze, listening for another sound. When they heard it, they quickly climbed toward it.
“I stepped over something and a stick moved. There he was,” Scholz said. Jessup nearly stepped on the baby, who was “dirty and soiled, but not crying or scared. No one expected to find him alive. No one. But there he was, not even crying. Just waiting.”
The man responsible for the child that day is now serving 20-year prison sentence in Montana state prison.
There are about 500 Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigation agents and officers responsible for enforcing the laws and regulations on 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. They also assist other jurisdictions in the investigation of homicides or help hunt for suspects. Their job is inherently dangerous, even on the most scenic and breathtaking of public lands.
This week, the nation observes National Police Week to pay respect to the more than 23,000 police officers who have died in the line of duty since 1918. They include eight Forest Service officers and one K-9. Those officers are featured on the Officer Down Memorial Page.
One of those officers was Brett K. Jacobson, shot and killed Jan. 12, 1989, in Bonner, Idaho. He worked for the Northern Region, where Scholz and Legg are assigned. They are active in helping to raise money for the scholarship fund in Jacobson’s name for students majoring in law enforcement at the University of Idaho.