One of the law enforcement officers who found the “miracle” 5-month-old baby in the Montana woods said the child was so well concealed under sticks and tree branches that he almost stepped on his head.
Missoula County Deputy Ross Jessop and U.S. Forest Service Officer Nick Scholz described in a news conference Tuesday how they found the baby, who authorities say had been left alone in the woods for at least nine hours in temperatures in the 40s.
Investigators described a frantic, heart-stopping hunt through pitch-black dark wilderness in search a baby that, when found, appeared to be too weak to even cry.
Jessop initially responded to a call detailing a man with a weapon at a camping site at the Lolo Hot Springs on Sunday, he said. The suspect, 32-year-old Francis Carlton Crowley, had allegedly been threatening people, saying he had a gun around 8 p.m., according the the sheriff’s office.
When deputies arrived at the site, Crowley had left the area, and the baby that had been in his care had not been seen for several hours, authorities said.
Once Crowley returned to the site, authorities said he appeared to be under the influence of drugs and “was not making sense to officers.” Crowley was then placed in the back of another deputy’s squad car so he could direct them on where to search, and he kept repeating that he had crashed into a mountainside, Jessop said.
Jessop then called for a search and rescue team to scour the area for the car Crowley was allegedly driving, he said.
Scholz said he was off duty when he got the call for a missing child, adding that he was familiar with both the area and the suspect, whom he had been dealing with him for the past couple of months.
Jessop and Scholz then climbed aboard an ATV and began looking for the vehicle. They located the car about a mile up the mountain — with the car seat still inside, Scholz said.
The pair began searching in the vicinity of the car to find the baby, Scholz said. About seven yards away from the car they found children’s trivia cards scattered on the ground. Further down slope, they found a container of baby formula and a piece of clothing in the bushes. It was obvious to the investigators that the items had only recently been discarded there, Scholz said.
Then one of the searchers caught a glimpse of a baby carrier and diaper bag further down the hill, Scholz said.
“We ran up there thinking we were gonna find a baby right there,” he said.
But, the baby was nowhere to be found.
They then noticed a freshly-trodden path near where the diaper bag and baby carriage were discovered, Scholz said. After hiking up the trail in the dark for about 20 minutes, the pair heard “a little baby murmur” around 2:30 a.m, Scholz said.
“The sound I heard was an exhausted, tired baby that couldn’t have the lung capacity to cry,” Jessop said, describing the noise as “very faint.”
As soon as they heard the noise, Jessop and Scholz started running toward it. They heard it another time before locating the baby face down and picking him up, he said.
The child was “so well concealed” under loose sticks and branches that Jessop was “about ready to walk on the baby’s head,” he said.
Jessop, who has three daughters, said his paternal instincts kicked in when he saw the child. When he picked the baby up, the child was cold, wet and soiled, but he had a “spark” in his eye, he said, adding that he gave him a couple of kisses while warming him up.
The baby was dressed in only a onesie, according to the sheriff’s office. One of the fellow searchers then wrapped the baby in his down coat and beanie hat for warmth.
“The only thing I can say about this whole thing: It was a miracle,” Jessop said.
Scholz said he and the other searchers had prepared for the worst — to find a dead baby — but he was “blown away” by how happy and healthy the child seemed to be.
“To have Ross holding this baby with a twinkle in his eye was absolutely surreal and unreal,” Scholz said.
Jessop carried the baby along a 20-minute walk to safety, and the child coughed up a few sticks along the way, Jessop said. The baby was transported to the hospital in good condition, authorities said.
Doctors treated the baby for dehydration, lack of food and scratches, cuts and bruises, The Associated Press reported. He was placed into the custody for child protective services, according to the AP.
Detectives are investigating whether the baby was intentionally concealed under the pile, Jessop said. It was not immediately clear what Crowley’s relationship to the baby is. The baby’s mother was also at the camp site, Jessop said.
Crowley has been charged with criminal endangerment and assault on a minor and is being held in a Missoula County jail on $100,000 bond, jail records show.
The Portland, Oregon, resident admitted to using methamphetamine and bath salts, according to the AP. He told investigators that he left the baby in the woods because the baby was heavy, the AP reported, citing court documents.
Crowley had previously been arrested in Missoula County in June on a fugitive warrant from Oregon, the Missoulian reported. He was released after authorities in Oregon declined to extradite him, according to the AP.
Crowley attended his first court appearance in Missoula County via video conference. He cried during the appearance, telling the judge through tears, “I love that kid.”
When asked if he understood the potential penalties associated with the charges, Crowley, still crying, responded, “Yeah.”
It was not immediately clear if he has entered a plea or retained an attorney. He was expected to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.