Why woodland police trackers should use the 'Y'

In training, ambushes are detected early by the flankers when utilizing the “Y” formation

“A runner’s strength, a hero’s courage, the spirit of a saint, and the heart of an angel” — Kris Eggle’s epitaph

Kris Eggle was one of the finest rangers I had the privilege of working with in my career. He lived life as his epitaph reads: “A runner’s strength, a hero’s courage, the spirit of a saint, and the heart of an angel.”

It was a blazing day — the temperature hovered around 108 degrees — along the southern U.S. border in August 2002 when Kris was murdered. The call that came in that day was not unusual for the park rangers stationed at Organ Pipe National Monument. The park boundary spans approximately 30 miles along the southern international border and is a major entry for both illegal aliens and drug smugglers. This makes high-risk tracking operations an everyday occurrence for the rangers. 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, where Park Ranger Kris Eggle was killed in 2002.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, where Park Ranger Kris Eggle was killed in 2002. (AP Image)

On the day of his murder, the call was for a vehicle that had illegally bypassed the port of entry. 

Border Patrol is heavy in these parts and officers from several agencies responded to the call. Calls such as this one are routine but occasionally are a decoy call designed to draw officers to one area so that drugs can be smuggled in at another. 

Upon arriving in the area, Kris met up with three Border Patrol officers. The four officers split into two groups and moved toward the two suspects who had traveled off-road by vehicle about a half mile into the U.S. side of the border. The desert here is open mesquite and creosote with washes that are the favorite travel paths for illegals traveling north. It’s thicker than most people would picture the desert. A helicopter served as a look out and directed the teams into the suspect’s vehicle. It’s a half mile movement on foot through the Sonoran Desert. 

One subject was arrested near the vehicle. Kris and his partner were directed by the pilot to move north along a wash to where the other suspect had been seen attempting to hide in some brush. It was another half mile to movement in the searing heat. Kris and his partner move up the wash anticipating contact at any moment. The helo was 300 feet over head and had visual on the suspect. 

As with any air-to-ground coordination, the view from the ground is different from that of the aircraft. Kris was on one side of the wash while his partner was flanking at about 15 yards on the other side of the shallow wash. The suspect let the two walk past — his intentions unknown. The helo called to the team and let them know that they walked within 15 feet of the suspect. The team turned back south working with one officer on each side of the wash. As Kris approached a thicket, the suspect fired and mortally wounded him. 

The Ambush: Easy to Set Up, Hard to Detect
A hostile, armed suspect has numerous advantages in a wooded or desert environment. First, the quarry often has the advantage of having time to plan an ambush. How much time is needed? Not much. How many locations are there to set it up? Innumerable. 

Most ambushes are set up using concealment, and surprise as the main elements. Usually, in law enforcement situations the ambushes are relatively simple with little planning. It may or may not be set up in an area that prevents escape of the victim but always seeks the advantage of surprise. Early detection of the ambush is paramount to team safety. 

So, what is the best way to detect an ambush during a tracking operation? 

I was first exposed to the “Y” tracking formation during a tactical tracking course with David-Scott Donelan. David has been credited with introducing the “Y” in this country. 

The “Y” consists of a minimum of two flankers placed at positions in front of and adjacent to the main element of the tracking team. The main element is comprised of the tracker and/or K-9, the team leader, and rear security. As the name indicates, the shape of the formation is that of the letter Y. The spread of the flankers and their forward positioning increases the likelihood of ambush detection by placing them outside the “kill zone.” Often the flankers will come in behind the ambush team. 

We recently reviewed and “recreated” the murder in which a K-9 officer and canine were killed in a similar ambush during a woodland tracking operation. In this incident — as in most that we have reviewed — the ambush was set up from the oblique. By using the “Y” formation in this re-enactment, it seems — as best we can determine — that the flanker would have come in behind the ambush. Of course it is impossible to predict the outcome, but we consistently see in training that ambushes are detected early by the flankers when utilizing the “Y” formation. 

Terrain, vegetation, and mission will continue to dictate the type of formation used by the team, but it is safe to say that having the cover officers out front is a better alternative than the traditional approach of the cover being at the five and seven positions behind the tracker/K-9. 

So, the question really becomes: Why not the Y?

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