‘Voice of the Foothills’


Thursday, October 17, 1991




by Jon Inskeep



This month the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team is celebrating 40 years of voluntary service to the community, state, and nation. More than 50 team members, past and present, will be gathering at the Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center on October 28 to reminisce, swapping stories true and not-so-true. The guest speaker will be John W. Robinson, the well-known author and San Gabriel Mountains historian.


The team, known in its early years as the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Crew, was founded in August, 1951, by Sierra Madre residents Larry Shepherd and Fred LaLone, Earl LaLone, Robert

LaLone, Don Jackson, Bill Wark, John Grippi, Boyd Keith, Charles Kassler, Jim Heasley, Vint Hoegee, George Black, Howard Miller, Bill Evans, Roland Gutherz, Bill Wolfson, Bill Adams, Ralph Shangraw, Henry Nuetzel, Al Wingate, Hubert Herrick, and Ed Wodrich.


The LaLones had already been called on to lead a number of searches and rescues in the mountains above Sierra Madre because of their extensive knowledge of the backcountry area. But a search for a missing boy in August, 1951, convinced the local men that better organization was needed.


On an August Sunday afternoon, Walter Weirich, a young teenager from Altadena, disappeared while hiking in Bailey Canyon. The next morning, a search was started by his parents, relatives and friends from Altadena, deputies from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse.


By Tuesday afternoon, Walter had still not been found. Larry Shepherd and Fred LaLone then went to help. They had to argue with Sheriff’s deputies to get into the canyon. Searching in areas previous searches had missed, they found the boy’s tracks near the Old Indian Trail as darkness fell. They marked the location and reported it to the command post so that deputies could pick up the search Wednesday morning.


Partly disregarding the Sierra Madre men’s instructions, deputies nevertheless did manage to find Walter on Wednesday, 50 feet from Indian Trail. He was severely dehydrated and near death. It was apparent to Shepherd and LaLone that experienced and properly equipped personnel, familiar with the local area could have found the boy as much as two days sooner.


Within days, the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Crew was born, the first mountain rescue team in California.


In 1956, they became the first trained “helitac’ team, able to use helicopters for transport and insertion of rescue personnel into rugged mountain areas. Helitac operations in the mountains are now routine.


In 1957, the team began the training of bloodhounds for mountain searching, the first time these amazing dogs had been used in technical terrain. There are now several large teams of tracking dogs in California. In January of 1974, the Army Aviation System Test Activity at Edwards Air Force Base landed 14 Sierra Madre team members on the summit of 14,495-ft. Mt. Whitney, in a giant CH­47C Chinook helicopter to recover the body of a fallen climber. It was the highest landing and takeoff of a load-carrying helicopter at the time. Now, helicopters land on the top of Mt. Whitney for emergencies nearly every summer.


The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team operates as a volunteer organization of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in the county, and as a nonprofit California corporation elsewhere. The team has operated all over the United States and internationally.


Four team members just returned from the Oregon border where they were part of a successful search for a missing hunter. The team’s relationship with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been tumultuous and is probably well known to many Sierra Madre residents.


In 1956, five years after the team was founded, the team joined the department under Sheriff Biscailuz as reserve deputies. In 1961, according to newspaper headlines, the then-Sheriff Peter Pitchess “fired” the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team. Team members had refused to go along with an order to replace the familiar Sierra Madre shield on their uniforms with the Sheriff’s insignia, and further to agree that the Sheriff would appoint the team leader. Within several weeks It was all straightened out and the team was back in the department.


Then, in 1967, Sheriff Pitchess “fired” the team again! This time the rift was to last long years. Following the Watts Riots in 1966, Sheriff Pitchess tightened control over his volunteer mountain rescue organization. They were now required to take law enforcement training and become sworn deputies. The Sierra Madre team, alone of those in the county, refused to go along with this, suspecting that they would now be called on for emergency law enforcement work.


The team became part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, a friendly and valuable relationship that lasted until 1973. But the team was called to few, If any, operations in the mountains of Los Angeles County outside the incorporated areas of Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and Monrovia. The team did have plenty to do though in other areas around the state and in Mexico.


In 1973, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the Sheriff’s Department to work out a mutually agreeable arrangement with the team for it to once again operate as part of the Sheriff’s Department. This was done. Team members became Civilian Volunteers, not Reserve Deputies, and as such were not required to take the training program, now up to over 140 hours of classroom time, at the Sheriff’s Academy. The team has been operating more or less amicably as volunteers in the Sheriff’s Temple City station ever since.




Thursday, October 17, 1991






1951 -  The team Is formed by Larry Shepherd and Fred LaLone as the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Crew (August).


1956 -  The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Crew becomes part of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under Sheriff Biscailuz.


1956 -  The nation’s first Helitac squad is formed from members of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team: Fred and Earl LaLone, Red Shangraw, Jon Mathews, Bill Wark and Miner Harkness.


1957 -  First training of bloodhounds for mountain search begun by Diane and Miner Harkness.


1958 -  After failure by several “crack mountaineering teams,” Sierra Madre team members reach and recover the body of a young boy on a ledge next to 700-foot Big Falls on San Gorgonio Mountain. Widespread press coverage brings national recognition to the team.


1959 -  Fred LaLone appears on national TV, CBS’s “To Tell the Truth.” Panelists Don Ameche, Tom Poston, and Polly Bergen guess who is the real Fred LaLone, right away.


1961 -  The team is “fired” by Sheriff Pitchess for the first time, rejoins the department several weeks later.


1963 -  After serving in the post for 12 years, founding president Fred LaLone moves to Yosemite National Park. Miner Harkness begins a long term as president.


1965 -  The team becomes motorized as Honda donates trail bikes for each member of the team for a large-scale search in Baja.


1966 -  Los Angeles County Sheriff begins to train regular deputies for mountain search and rescue. First field exercises appear to be secret.


1967 -  The team is again “fired” by Sheriff Pitchess, soon joins the Los Angeles County Fire Department.


The team is instrumental in the rescue of two young people (Kellogg/Dart) from near the summit of the highest peak in Baja, El Pichaco Del Diablo, 10,126 feet. Following this successful operation, philanthropist William Kellogg funds the establishment of the international rescue organization Search and Rescue of the Californias (SAROC) with Sierra Madre as a founding member.


Founding team member Billy Wark receives the first Sierra Madre Citizen of Year Award, primarily for his work on the Sierra Madre Wilderness Project.


1968 -  SM-2, a 1-ton Dodge four wheel drive crew-cab truck, Is purchased jointly be the City of Sierra Madre and the team after a lengthy fund-raising drive. The truck is still in use by the team, 23 years later.


1973 -  SMSR rejoins the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as “Civilian Volunteers,” the only one of eight Los Angeles County teams whose members are not Reserve Deputies.


1973 -  Founding team member, Earl LaLone is named Sierra Madre Citizen of the Year.


1974 -  The U.S. Army lands 14 team members on summit of Mt. Whitney in winter, a first for this altitude.


1975 -  The Los Angeles County Fire Department moves out of Station 108 at the corner of Stonehouse and Grandview in Sierra Madre and turns it over to the Rescue Team on a yearly lease.


1981 -  The team is the last to move out of the old Sierra Madre City Hall, taking over the basement of the new City Hall building.


1983 -  SM-1, a Ford van, is purchased with a large grant from the Pasadena Foundation. The value of the team ­installed radio equipment is almost equal to the cost of the van itself. The old 1972 Ford van is retired.


Past Presidents include Fred LaLone, Earl LaLone, Miner Harkness, Rae Anderson, Ray Loenzini, Jim Maclay, Jon Inskeep, Arnold Gaffrey, Steve Millenbach.