FWC Officer Meade uses a Polaroid photograph while looking for a suspect’s tire track at the corner of an intersection. Sometimes it helps to lay the photograph on the ground next to the track to see if you have a match.Photos Bob Lee
In this photo, the photographer faces the sun and gets a good look at the footprint.Photos Bob Lee
The tires of a vehicle going uphill will often slip, leaving no discernable tread pattern.Photos Bob Lee
A clean, unbroken track shows downhill movement.Photos Bob Lee
This vehicle went left. Look at the peak of the wave and note how the sand falls away at a shallow angle to the left and a sharp angle to the right. The side with the shallow angle indicates the vehicle’s direction.Photos Bob Lee
This vehicle drove through a patch of clay in the background then drove toward the camera as pieces of clay fell from its tires onto the roadway.Photos Bob Lee
If tire tracks shine in the grass, they are headed away from you.Photos Bob Lee
Tire tracks coming towards you will show faintly as an off color to the surrounding grass. This color can vary from light green to dark depending on the light.
A vehicle passed through some slurpee-like mud the day before as it traveled to the left. The mud was forced out in front of the tires, splattering onto the sand at roughly a 45-degree angle.Photos Bob Lee
When a vehicle crosses through water, it will drag water with it.Photos Bob Lee
When the vehicle exits, the water pulled with it will fall away and wash out the exiting tracks. Examine the water crossing and find the side where the tire tracks are washed out. The vehicle always left the water crossing from the washed-out side.Photos Bob Lee
Water droplets will break then disintegrate in the direction the vehicle traveled. This vehicle went to the left.Photos Bob Lee
This is a good example of a directional tire. Note how both outside lugs in this tire track mirror themselves while angling out in one direction. This vehicle went to the left.Photos Bob Lee
FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
Many law enforcement officers respond to burglary calls in unpaved subdivisions that occurred hours, or perhaps even a day before their arrival. And many times they leave the victim s residence frustrated because they couldn t do more. Yes, they dusted for prints and did the normal routine. They even carefully examined the last clue left behind by the culprits. That clue was most likely a set of tire tracks leading down the victim s driveway. The officer followed these tracks until they entered a main road in the subdivision, only to find that they were completely obliterated by passing motorists.
While these circumstances certainly merit frustration, they shouldn t necessarily end in failure. With just a little more patience, the aid of a good photograph and a close examination of the subdivision s intersections, there s a chance the officer can find the suspect s vehicle.
Officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have used vehicle tracking in various forms to catch bad guys for years. Some people may think of this skill as an arcane endeavor considering all of the tools and gadgets available for modern-day crime solving. However, in the right set of circumstances it can prove very useful.
As the patrol supervisor for officers in Putnam, St. Johns, and Flagler counties in northeast Florida, I ve had ample opportunity to practice vehicle tracking. Putnam County alone has over 1,100 miles of dirt roads and has historically been a target-rich environment for poachers.
When most law enforcement professionals think of tire-track evidence, what first comes to mind is an intricate and thorough analysis of a crime scene. The actual tracking of a vehicle i.e., visually following tire tracks on unpaved roads from a crime scene to where the vehicle stopped next is seldom discussed. Obviously, if they see a continuous set of tire tracks, most officers could successfully connect the dots. But what happens if the tire tracks are partially erased by traffic or appear to be entirely lost? Those dots become much harder to connect.
Understanding tire tracks is really a study of how a vehicle s tires move through different soils under a variety of conditions. FWC officers have had time to experiment, and at times have successfully followed tire tracks that at first blush would appear very difficult to follow. Their observations have led to the development of a series of techniques for tracking and reading tire sign that should prove helpful to many officers whose patrol area includes unpaved roads and streets.
Here are 10 tips for vehicle tracking that you may find useful while on patrol.
1. How to View Tracks
Position yourself so that the track is between you and the sun. If you re in the right position, you should face the sun with the track in front of you. This position best reveals the shadows in the track, making it easier to see.
This is easy to try. First place a foot track in the sand. Then walk around it in a full 360-degree circle until you reach the spot where you most easily see the track.
The tires of a vehicle going uphill will often slip, leaving no discernable tread pattern (left). A clean, unbroken track shows downhill movement (right).
3. Wave Pattern
Tires can slip in many different ways depending on soil conditions. But when you see a series of waves spread roughly 6 10 inches apart, you can determine vehicle direction. These waves have peaks and valleys that repeat themselves. The sand will fall off sharply on one side of the peak and fall off at a shallow angle on the other side. To determine direction, look at the track from the side. Using your eyes, start an imaginary arrow at the peak of the wave, and draw the line back across the side where the sand drops off at a shallow angle. Your imaginary arrow points in the direction the vehicle headed.
Transfer of sticky soils is a good way to determine vehicle direction. Wet sand, mud or clay will initially stick to tires. As the vehicle continues moving, this material will fall off the tires in the direction the vehicle is headed.
If tire tracks shine in the grass, they are headed away from you (left). Tire tracks coming towards you will show faintly as an off color to the surrounding grass (right). This color can vary from light green to dark depending on the light.
6. Wet Road
When roads that have been rained on reach the consistency of a good slurpee (light mud), a vehicle s front tires will force the mud out in front at about a 45-degree angle. Just imagine sticking your left hand out your driver s window, then moving it toward the front of your vehicle about 45 degrees. This is the angle the mud will fall forward when it hits the road.
7. Water Crossing (a.k.a., mud hole)
When a vehicle crosses through water, it will drag water with it. When the vehicle exits, the water pulled with it will fall away and wash out the exiting tracks. Examine the water crossing and find the side where the tire tracks are washed out. The vehicle always left the water crossing from the washed-out side.
8. Water Dripping
If you want to double-check yourself on the water crossing, follow the tire tracks for a few yards in the direction you think the vehicle has gone. You should see where water droplets dripped from the vehicle s frame onto the ground.
9. Directional Tires
A few passenger cars feature directional tires these days, but most are found on trucks for off-road use. The tire is designed so that mud and water are forced from the center of the tire to the outside by specific lug patterns that face one way. By examining these lug patterns, you can tell which way the vehicle is headed at a glance. The key: Examine the outside lugs, which will mirror each other and angle to the outside of the track in the direction the vehicle is headed.
10. Aging a Track
There are different ways to do this. First, learn how the critters move in your area. Worms, insects, animals and birds will leave tracks at different times of day. By studying critter tracks left on top of tire tracks, you can get a rough time frame of the tracks age. In Florida, we often find where a series of small ant beds are built across dirt roads. When one of the beds is run over, it takes about an hour for the ants to rebuild it. If we can still see part of a tread pattern in the ant bed, it s a good bet the vehicle passed through less than an hour earlier.
Catching a Poacher
Putnam County is scattered with sparsely developed subdivisions that were sold to unsuspecting northerners in the early 1970s. Many of the people who originally purchased lots are still waiting for them to appreciate, resulting in thousands of lots that have sat idle for decades. These subdivisions create a poacher s paradise when surrounded by State Wildlife Management Areas and private hunt clubs.
Officer Eric Meade and I found ourselves in one of these subdivisions one afternoon during hunting season. The locals refer to it as the Estates a 50,000-acre sprawl of dirt roads, poor soil and tired mobile homes.
We had received information of a possible illegal deer kill and had just arrived at the location (dirt road next to vacant land) to check it out. We had little to go on, except that an orange Ford Ranger pickup truck had been seen parked at this location and that a gunshot had been heard. Shortly after the gunshot, the truck disappeared. All of this occurred earlier that morning.
Meade and I found the truck s tire tracks and also noted two different sets of foot prints around where it had been parked. The foot prints had come and gone from a wooded area. We followed the tracks into the woods and stopped, hearing a familiar sound buzz of blowflies. (The buzzing of blowflies is very distinctive and well known to game wardens working a blood trail.) Casting about with our eyes, we finally saw them clustered in and around some oak leaves. Bending down for a closer look, we saw a spot of clotted blood mixed with a few deer hairs. Just beyond the blood, we could see a trail of turned-over leaves from where a deer had been dragged out of the woods. Curiously, the drag marks ended right in front of us. Meade and I concluded that our two subjects had intentionally picked the deer up at this spot then carried it across the sandy road right-of-way to their truck so they wouldn t leave any drag marks that someone driving by might see.
The drag marks led us to a kill site, where we recovered a 12-gauge shotgun shell. We returned to the truck, where we measured and photographed the tire and foot tracks.
When the truck left, the rear tires slipped in the sand, leaving a wave pattern that showed us the truck s direction. Meade and I decided to follow these tracks because they were the freshest. As soon as we pulled onto the main road, the tracks disappeared, completely erased by passing motorists. We continued onto the next intersection, where we stopped and got out. Using the photograph of the tire track we had taken before, we carefully examined all four corners of the intersection, trying to spot just a piece of the truck s tire track. An intersection corner is more likely to retain a track because it receives less vehicle traffic than the main roads.
Not finding anything, we continued on to the second and then the third intersection, where we finally found a 2"x3" piece of the truck s tire track. We made the turn just as the truck had done, and repeated this process for more than two hours as we weaved through the subdivision from one intersection to the next. After traveling four miles, we saw where the tire tracks turned into a driveway that led to a mobile home. Parked in the front yard was an orange Ford Ranger pickup truck. A camouflaged jacket was lying on top of the cab, and a bloody cooler sat on the ground near the truck s tailgate.
A tattooed man in his 40s stepped out of the mobile home and walked over to us. He told us he was the owner of the truck. We briefly chatted with him, and he ended up admitting he and his son had killed an illegal deer earlier that morning whose antlers were undersize. We seized the now-butchered deer and a 12-gauge shotgun, then issued him a notice-to-appear citation for the violation.
Wrapping It Up
If these techniques work for us, they can work for you. Experiment with some of the tips offered and see how they work. It s all about staying on the right track.