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The haystack: the deep, dark Bitterroot Mountains surrounding Lolo Hot Springs after midnight.

The needle: a 5-month-old boy left for dead somewhere up there.

Ross Jessop and Nick Scholz related Tuesday how they found the infant alive but exhausted after an hours-long search early Sunday on a remote game trail, a rescue story that has caught the imagination of the nation even as 12 boys and their soccer coach were pulled from a flooded cave in Thailand.

“The only thing I can say about this whole thing is, it was a miracle,” said Jessop, a Corvallis High School graduate and a veteran with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department. “People go through lows in their careers, especially being a cop. I prepared myself to find a dead baby, if at all. Seeing and hearing that baby overcame me with so much joy.”

“The happiest 15 to 20 minutes of my career,” said Scholz, who has been a law enforcement officer on the Lolo National Forest for six years. “To have Ross holding this baby with a twinkle in his eye was absolutely surreal, unreal.”

They spoke to reporters in a conference room in the sheriff’s office wing of the Missoula County Courthouse, and what came through most clear was the improbability of a happy ending.

Jessop, a father of three who’s on the K-9 unit with the sheriff’s department, was working swing shift Saturday, his wedding anniversary. He was among the deputies to respond to a report of man later identified as Frank Crowley, who was acting strange and claiming he had weapons in his pocket in the Lolo Hot Springs area some 35 miles from Missoula.

Crowley, who is being held in Missoula County jail on $200,000 bond (see accompanying story), admitted after he was arrested he was high on methamphetamine and bath salts, according to court documents.

As the evening developed it became clear that he had crashed his Chevy Corsica somewhere, there’d been an infant with him, and neither the car nor the baby was anywhere to be found.

Jessop interrogated Crowley about the whereabouts of the car, “but he was basically in a state of mind where we weren’t getting much information at all,” he said.

He and a fellow deputy even put Crowley in the backseat of a sheriff’s squad car to direct them to the site. Crowley couldn’t.

“The only consistent thing that (we) were getting was the fact that he crashed into a mountainside and the only thing that kept ringing true to me was he kept mentioning he drove over trees and a bush,” said Jessop.

Earlier, as searchers combed mountain roads in the area, Jessop had driven his sheriff’s rig up a road southwest of the hot springs but turned around when it abruptly turned into a game trail.

Now, he said, “I just had a gut feeling that we would find the car and the baby there.”

Scholz had celebrated his wife’s birthday that evening, and responded when Search and Rescue was called out after dark.

He was familiar with Crowley, a 32-year-old fugitive from Oregon with a long rap sheet, and the child’s mother, who works at Lolo Hot Springs. Crowley had been banished from the campground there and moved the family to a primitive campsite in the woods.

“We’d been dealing with them the last couple of months, camped in the woods, so I knew where they were, in the general area, and I kind of had a good idea of the area around the hot springs,” Scholz said.

Before he headed up the creek Scholz loaded a Forest Service “side by side” all-terrain vehicle. Once he got up there, Jessop jumped on and they headed up his road.

Scholz estimated it was 1:30 a.m. when they got to the end of it. With flashlights and headlamps they began walking down the steep trail.

“We start to see tire tread on this game trail, and then we walk a little bit further and we see a couple of trees that had been scraped up,” Scholz said. “This is a steep side hill and there’s no way there’s a car that could travel down here. I wouldn’t even take the ATV down it.”

Perhaps 30 yards from the end of the road, they spotted the dim dome light of the Corsica. Inside was a baby’s car seat, but no baby.

Further searching down the hill revealed children’s trivia cards, a container for baby formula and clothing and feminine hygiene products. But still no baby. They turned up hill on another trail as Search and Rescue help began to arrive. After 15 to 20 minutes, “both me and Ross hear, I call it a little baby murmur, little baby talk.”

“The sound I heard was an exhausted, tired baby who didn’t have the lung capacity to cry any more,” Jessop said.

They hurried toward the whimper. Jessop said he took a step, heard a stick crack. Under a pile of sticks and branches a foot or so high “like you build a fire with,” the boy lay face-down.

“I was about ready to walk on top of the baby’s head,” Jessop said.

It was 2:30 a.m., an hour after the walking search began and an estimated nine hours or more after the baby was abandoned in those woods. According to documents charging Crowley, he’d had charge of the baby since 7:30 a.m. The temperature ranged that day from a high of 91 degrees to a low of 51.

The boy wasn’t buried, per se.

“In a nonsensical way there was just sticks covering the baby,” Jessop said.

He uncovered the cold, wet and soiled infant and gently picked him up.

“To be totally honest, my father instincts came in," said Jessop. "I abandoned any police training or any chance of saving evidence there. I didn’t care. I scooped up the baby, made sure he was breathing. He had a sparkle in his eye. I warmed him up, gave him a couple of kisses and just held him.”

A search and rescue volunteer who’d joined them had a beanie hat and a down coat that they wrapped the infant in. They then began the 15- to 20-minute hike back to the cars.

The 5-month-old was reportedly doing well in the hospital on Monday, and Sheriff T.J. McDermott affirmed Tuesday that was still the case.

“What happened over the weekend up Highway 12 near Lolo Hot Springs was both horrific and absolutely incredible, a true miracle,” McDermott said. “Thanks to the dedication of our deputies, our law enforcement partners from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Highway Patrol, as well as volunteers with our Missoula Search and Rescue team, an amazing recovery was made. The life of a child was saved.”

“I’m going on 10 years in the department and I’ve got to a point where it’s just like everything is so draining, draining, draining emotionally,” Jessop said. “To experience this, to have God help me and let me experience something like this, just gives me an extra boost like, you know, what cops actually do matters sometimes. We actually do a good job, so it’s pretty encouraging for me.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian