Bill Burt

Missoula County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Burt

The photo is so simple: a close-up of a baby's hand grasping an adult's finger. 

But look closely at the details and the picture tells a chilling tale.

The finger belongs to Missoula County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Burt, who stayed with the 5-month-old boy in the emergency room after his colleagues found the infant buried under a pile of sticks in the woods south of Missoula.

The dirt packed under the baby's tiny fingernails and the soil still clinging to the ball of his little hand chillingly illustrate what happened during the nine hours the infant lay, face-down, in the forest clad only in a soiled, wet onesie.

Burt was taking photos of the baby's injuries, documenting his condition for the investigation, as ER staff worked to clean him up. When the baby tried to grab at the cleaning cloth, Burt offered his finger instead.

Juggling his evidence camera, Burt offered the hungry infant a bottle of Pedialyte. The harder the baby sucked, the harder he squeezed Burt's finger, turning his tiny fingertips white in the picture and making Burt's finger tingle.

"It was surreal,'' Burt said. "He was hungry. And his grasp coincided with how hard he was trying to eat. The bottle of Pedialyte was gone in about 40 seconds.''

Waiting for another bottle to replace it was the only time Burt heard the baby whimper.

Burt estimates he took 60 or 70 pictures that early morning. He noticed "the dirt under his little nails'' and wanted to capture that as evidence. But he didn't think about how the image of the baby's hand clutching his might touch people's hearts, and said he doesn't even remember giving the photo to the department's public information officer. 

Within hours of its release, however, Burt's image had circled the globe, appearing on websites, in newspapers and on broadcasts in nearly every U.S. state and from Japan to England. And, it's Burt's profile photo on Facebook now.

"All the pictures were extremely powerful,'' said Brenda Bassett, spokeswoman for Sheriff T.J. McDermott. But this one, she said, "gave a very small glimpse into what that baby endured during those terrible hours.''

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