Getting to the bottom of unanswered questions in the Madyson Middleton search
It’s been almost two months ago now since the fliers were taken down. Paintings and songs have been created in her honor, and the feeling of immediacy that surrounded the memorial event for Madyson “Maddy” Middleton—with performances from James Durbin, Tess Dunn, Nick Gallant and others—has begun to fade. Santa Cruzans haven’t forgotten the night the 8-year-old Middleton’s body was found after a 26-hour search, nor the moment Adrian “A.J.” Gonzalez, her 14-year-old neighbor at the Tannery Arts Center, was arrested shortly thereafter. But the shock and despair that followed the horrific July 28 tragedy has at least subsided.
Still, as Gonzalez readies for his second court appearance on Monday, Sept. 21, there remain loose ends that have never been fully explained.
One of the question marks has to do with the search on that frantic Monday morning when friends, family, local officers and even the FBI searched for Middleton. Local and national reporters stood by giving frequent updates and dispatches from the front lines.
Both KRON and the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that a K-9 unit followed what was believed to be Middleton’s scent down a river levee path to Main Beach by the Boardwalk before losing the trail. Her body was found in a recycling bin later that night back on the campus, a startling two miles from the beach, and police say they think it was there even before they were called the night before.
Some may wonder how trained dogs could be off by a distance of 10 or 11 football fields in a missing person search, and question the reliability of K-9 units. Are they as useful in searches as they are perceived to be?
The short answer is probably still yes, under the right circumstances.
The longer answer is that really, there are a number of things that could have gone wrong, starting with simple miscommunication. SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel tells GT he can’t comment on the search, having turned over his investigation to the district attorney’s office.
Perhaps more likely, though, is the possibility that the dogs really were a couple of miles off. After all, there are things that can go wrong with a K-9 search—several, actually, according to K-9 expert Roger Abshire. “There’s a lot of variables. It could be many things. The dog could be trained incorrectly,” says Abshire, who runs an award-winning dog training school in Louisiana.
There are also different ways dogs can be trained. Abshire says he trains his dogs to follow crushed vegetation, instead of human scent, which dissipates very quickly. He says it’s much easier to follow that kind of trail over grass or meadow than it is on a paved asphalt surface, like the courtyard where Middleton was last seen—a surface that extends past the campus onto the levee paths. “A hard surface would be much more difficult than a field,” he says.
Training techniques aside, it turns out that, in general, when the dogs don’t get to the scene first, they’ll have little shot of tracking much down, anyway. And on that seemingly typical Sunday afternoon when Middleton went missing, no one knew it was a crime scene. People had been playing, strolling, jogging and cycling in and through the public courtyard for an hour before anyone realized Middleton was gone. Of course, once Tannery residents and visitors did realize something was wrong, they immediately began searching all over the campus, up and down the levee path and anywhere else they could think of.
“If there was already a bunch of people on the crime scene, it probably won’t be successful,” Abshire says of a K-9 search. “It’s already been contaminated.”
Retired SCPD officer Jim Howes stresses that the important thing is not where the dogs went. It’s that officers found Middleton’s body a mere 26 hours after Middleton’s mom, Laura Jordan, called 911. Those initial hours of a search are critical, and there’s a reason detectives in departments across the country put an emphasis on the first 48 hours, those initial two days before the case often goes cold.
“They were able to solve this case in a relatively short period of time,” Howes says, “by utilizing a number of resources, including community members and residents, the Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies and volunteers, the FBI, and many others.”
Another unanswered question is the confusion which stems from a Sentinel article over whether residents of the Tannery must be artists. The July 30 article suggested that Reggie Factor, Gonzalez’s mom, was not an artist, and reported that federal housing guidelines prevent the Tannery from discriminating against non-artists. Tannery leaders say that isn’t true.
“It’s completely incorrect,” Artspace’s Greg Handberg tells GT. “Artist preference—which we use—means that so long as an artist candidate exists, we can give preference to an artist candidate over a non-artist candidate. It’s fully allowed under federal fair housing laws.” Handberg was instrumental in creating the Tannery and other campuses like it for Artspace across the country.
Handberg says Factor went through a committee evaluation years ago like other artists who apply to live in the Tannery, and she was approved.
“There’s no judgment about the quality of their art. They need to demonstrate their commitment to their specific arts discipline and talk about their future commitment,” Handberg says. “We don’t ask them next year whether they’re still doing their art. We talk about their plans for their art. They have to talk about how they’re willing to work within a community setting, which means that they’re going to respect the rights of others to create their art, and they’re going to respect the rights of others peacefully when they’re creating their art. And we talk about the volunteerism they do inside a community, and it’s been a good model for us.”
IN MEMORY In the days after Madyson Middleton’s death, the Rio put this tribute up on its marquee. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE