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Hot on the trail

Leroy Aho tracks through all kinds of weather and ground. In this photo, Leroy shows his tracking stick, which, he said, “never lies.” Photo by Bill Vossler

Babbitt man has been a ‘mantracker’ for 20 years

If you are on the lam, the one man you don’t want on your trail is Leroy Aho. But if you’re lost, you definitely want him searching for you. Leroy, 76, of Babbitt, Minn., is a mantracker.

In 20 years of tracking he has never failed to find his quarry. “Everyone I tracked, I found. Unfortunately, for some it was too late. They had died of exposure, or heart attack, or other medical conditions.”

Leroy started 20 years ago through tracking deer, noting the damage that showed where the animal had passed.

“Everybody knows the deer’s small footprint, with sharp points on the ground. But human beings leave many more signs than deer, and that intrigued me. When humans walk through vegetation, they damage it. If you turn over a leaf they stepped on, you can find a signature print on the other side, which can show the type of shoe, and the direction they’re going.”

Tracking on a gravel road is more difficult.

“You can see rock rolled over with moisture that hasn’t dried off. Even heavy rain on gravel rocks will wash into the grooves of the footprints so you can see where an individual has walked.”

In woods, shoes might bruise logs, or force moss off. But the most difficult tracking is in a pine forest, Leroy said. “There are so many pine needles on the ground, and you have to scrape them away to find cracked pine needles underneath, or a signature print, so it’s very slow going. A pine forest is very difficult to track.”

Finding a Murderer

Leroy was called in to find a murderer after the Minnesota BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) took plaster casts of prints, but couldn‘t get any further with them.

“It’s one of several crime incidents I’ve been involved with. It happened in Eveleth a few years ago, where I asked them to ribbon off the entire area where the person was killed. I said ‘You don’t want deputies walking all over the murderer’s tracks because with a hundred other tracks there’s no way I can follow the murderer’s.’”

Leroy examined the plaster casts. “I said, ‘These prints never went into the building,’ where the murder was committed. They asked how I knew that. I said the angle of the sun revealed that those prints just went down the alley, not into the building where the murder had been committed.”

With photos of every print in the building, Leroy said, “I found one print entering the doorway and coming out, and then across the parking lot 50 feet away.”

A signature print, because the person had stepped on something hot, which left a scar mark, Leroy said. Police discovered that a book salesman had visited, and with a search warrant, found the boot with the scar in the guy’s house, and charged him with murder. “When he saw the pictures of his boot bottom, he admitted he’d done it.”

Danger Ahead

Sometimes tracking can turn dangerous. “One time during a family hostage situation, I was following a set of tracks of a guy who had a gun, with five police officers with weapons behind me. I stopped, thinking, ‘I’m between the police with guns and the guy ahead with a gun. Guess who’s going to get shot first?’ I quit that tracking operation on account of the danger.”

Usually, Leroy knows the name from the car license plate that was found indicating someone is missing. Rarely is someone else driving that vehicle.

“In 99 percent of the cases it’s a deer hunter or blueberry picker. A family member will call because somebody went out hunting on the Echo Trail and hasn’t returned home, so I form a team, usually with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, and we find the vehicle and start from there.”

Sometimes common sense aids the tracker.

Winter or summer, measuring the distance of the stride is useful in mantracking. Photo by Bill Vossler

“If they’re walking a fence line, a special tracking stick with o-rings can measure the size of the footprint from heel to the toe, and the size of a stride, so you can walk a quarter mile further to pick up tracks there, which speeds up the tracking process. It’s very useful in an area that has been contaminated by other footprints. The stick never lies,” Leroy said.

Dogs can be useful at times, Leroy said. “But they can get distracted. One time I was following a set of prints with a dog, when it veered off. I told the handler the individual didn’t go that way. Dogs can pick up a deer or rabbit trail and want to follow that. If I’ve got a signature print from near a vehicle I can follow the print wherever it goes.”

Five-and-a-half miles is the farthest Leroy ever tracked somebody, a partridge hunter who got lost.

“I found him alive at 1 a.m. in the middle of a swamp. ‘How the heck did you find me in the middle of this swamp?’ he asked. I said, ‘I followed your tracks. It was like a bull moose going through the forest.’”

The easiest tracking, Leroy said, is in winter, even with 8 or 10 inches of snow on top of the prints.

“You can actually see indentations where a little bowl was formed where the individual stepped.”

In one case a missing person’s car had 8 inches of snow on it on a remote, little-traveled road. “I followed the dents in the snow until I found him, frozen to death. He wasn’t dressed for the weather, wearing thin clothes and tennis shoes. Really, in the winter anybody should be able to track anybody without much training at all.”

Sometimes tracks might lead to a pond, where the perpetrator tries to get rid of evidence. “I used to dive and find evidence, including bodies, but now I can only say they might have thrown something in, and others have to dive.”

In the Beginning

Leroy began taking mantracking classes from a national service two decades ago. “You start off mantracking as a novice. The first few years is pretty tough going because you have to be on your hands and knees picking the track apart and telling the teacher what you see, and explain it. It requires so much patience at the beginning. During those early years I thought about quitting many times. But if you hang in there, and climb up the ladder, you see how beneficial it is. You can save people’s lives.”

Now Leroy is licensed for a higher step: teaching classes in mantracking.

“I put on tracking classes for fire departments, or anybody else who wants one, starting from the knowledge they already have. Some at novice, others higher.”

Mantracker, Know Thyself

Leroy said he learned a lot about himself when he was mantracking. “The biggest one I learned is that you have to have lots of patience. At times you want to throw up your hands, but you have to have patience and keep at it.”

The end results are not always easy. “I found an individual that passed away probably three or four days earlier during the hot summertime. Those things kind of bother me, but even if I’d found him right away, it wouldn’t have made any difference because he had passed away due to a medical issue.”

Leroy has been called all over Minnesota–St. Louis County, Itasca County, Carlton County, Aitkin County, Thief River Falls, and others–as well as Wisconsin and Michigan.

“It’s all volunteer work. For me it’s a hobby. I tell that to whoever calls me that I would appreciate it if they would pay gas to get there and back, meals, and lodging. That’s all I want. I could get paid for teaching classes at a fire department or police department. But I’ll go anyplace, as long as they pay the expenses.”

Anybody who is interested in mantracking should remember that they are saving lives, so they need to have lots of patience.

“It’s getting to be a lost art, and very, very few of us still do stuff like this anymore.”

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