Border Patrol

Author: David Devine '94

Everything turns on a dime.


Two hours into the search for a missing 15-year-old boy on the sprawling Tohono O’odham Indian reservation southwest of Tucson, Arizona, a garbled voice on the pickup truck radio utters two letters that immediately transform the mission from a rescue to a recovery.

“At those last coordinates,” the voice crackles, “we’ve, ah, got ourselves a D.B.”

In the sweltering cab of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement truck, where the wheezing dashboard vents barely touch the 117-degree temperature outside, all eyes shift to the driver, Sloan S Satepauhoodle ’89. Satepauhoodle, one of three female agents in an elite Native American customs unit known as the Shadow Wolves, disregards the probing glances and narrows her focus to the hitching radio transmission.

A journalist wedged in the backseat angles forward. “D.B.—is that . . . ?”

“Dead body,” Satepauhoodle confirms, scribbling the revised coordinates onto a water-buckled notepad before punching them into her GPS device.

Sobered by the news, the three passengers—all members of a media ride-along—fall silent as Satepauhoodle (pronounced SAY-paw-who-dle) accelerates the pickup across a desert wash and powers up the far bank. The search for the missing boy is a departure from her normal routine, which typically finds her trawling the back country of this massive reservation for drug runners sliding across the porous border.

Since 1972, the Shadow Wolves have patrolled the Tohono O’odham Nation with the acquiescence of the tribe, which allowed the government to station officers on their land with the stipulation that all members have at least one-quarter Native American ancestry from a federally recognized tribe. The first recruits were drawn directly from the Tohono O’odham Nation, seven specially trained agents charged with using modern technology and traditional tracking techniques to combat drug trafficking on tribal lands. In the years since, the number of officers has varied and the unit has shifted between several governmental agencies, but the mission has remained the same.

Currently the Shadow Wolves reside under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a close-knit contingent of 15 officers representing eight tribes. Their name refers to the way the unit operates—when one “Wolf” finds its quarry, he or she summons in the rest of the pack. Despite ready access to such high-tech law enforcement assets as night-vision surveillance equipment, all-terrain vehicles and helicopter air support, the Shadow Wolves are still best known for their ability to follow a trail on foot for miles across the desert. That training, combined with the hard-earned trust they’ve garnered through years of interaction with the local community, is why they’re routinely asked by reservation police to assist with efforts like this one: finding a tribal teen who disappeared the previous night while walking home in the dark.

Angry over some perceived slight, the boy had apparently left a recreation center in a neighboring village late in the evening, attempting a shortcut home through the hills rather than waiting for his ride. He never made it to his destination. The hope was that the Shadow Wolves could apply the same tracking skills they utilize when hunting drug smugglers to pick up the boy’s cold trail, but the latest radio broadcast suggests the search may be drawing to an unfortunate close.

Intuiting her way along unmapped, double-rutted trails, Satepauhoodle attempts to zero in on the reported location of the grim discovery. At the crest of the next rise she idles her truck to scan the horizon, then cautions her passengers that things are about to get bumpy.

“There’s only two roads out here,” she says, “and one’s barely better than the other.”

A CNN cameraman, braced against the cracked vinyl of the passenger door, asks her to notify him when she reaches the better road, so he can adjust his equipment.

“This is the better road,” Satepauhoodle says, throttling the pickup across another desiccated creek bed.

Cutting for Sign

It begins with a single thread. A weave of burlap caught on a greasewood branch. A denim fiber snagged on a cholla bush. A fluttering scrap of next to nothing that almost anyone would fail to notice—if they even had reason to venture into this desolate stretch of U.S.-Mexico borderland.

Unbelievably, there are many who do. On any given day, dozens of people may pass through this sun-baked landscape, one of the busiest drug-smuggling corridors along the embattled frontera. They are either slipping the border in hopes of a new life somewhere in the glowing lights of El Norte or hauling illegal narcotics bound for the same vague geographic location. They leave behind footprints, crumpled water bottles, soiled blankets, Enfamil tins, Fix-A-Flat canisters, sundry items of clothing—too hurried or weary to care about the loss.

Even the more assiduous smugglers, chary about covering their tracks, fail to detect the minute evidence they cast off in their nocturnal crossing. But Satepauhoodle, scouring the tangled brush a hundred yards from the road, can’t help but notice each incongruous strand. It’s exactly the sort of thing she’s trained to detect.

“Everything out here is so natural,” she says. “But humans don’t really belong. If you start slowing down and looking at the details, you can see what belongs out here and what doesn’t.”

Skilled in the Native American technique of “cutting for sign,” she’ll squat for long minutes next to a branch, thoughtfully fingering a castoff thread. She’ll comb the thicket for additional signs of disturbance. Snapped twigs. Broken cactus. Collapsed ridges in the sand. Hints at direction, movement, numbers, presence. Like many Shadow Wolves, it’s not something she grew up knowing how to do. While “cutting for sign” is a time-honored tradition in many tribes, Satepauhoodle learned the technique the same way she learned to fire a weapon and carry out arrests—during intense training prior to starting with the unit. She further honed her abilities under the tutelage of veterans on the squad who’d grown up tracking for the practical purpose of hunting game.

It took a while, she says, but now the attentiveness and the scrutiny and the patience are second nature to her. She’ll cup her hands alongside the lowered brim of her blue ICE ballcap, squinting through the narrow tunnel of shade for scuffs on the desert floor indicating smugglers with carpet squares tied around their shoes to obscure their tracks. Or the wide indentations beneath palo verde trees that betray exhausted backpackers who’ve set down their marijuana bales to rest. She’ll scowl into the distance and press her hands into her knees and straighten again into the brickoven wind, trying to decide.

Like all threads, this one ravels off in two directions. Following it forward is an act of faith. It could lead to crisp footprints or promising tire treads or a huddled crowd of immigrants, abandoned by their coyote. It could lead to a burlap sack with 50 pounds of marijuana bandaged in packing tape, or a stripped-out SUV draped in camouflage and guarded by gunmen hopped up on meth. Maybe there will be assault rifles. Maybe machetes. Maybe a day like April 3, 2002, when everything went to hell. Maybe there will be nothing. A dead end. It’s a reservation of 2.8 million acres straddling New Mexico and Arizona. Anything can happen out here.

So perhaps it makes sense to follow the thread backward first—back into the dusty four-wheel-drive truck, and back along the swerving gravel trails that pass for roads, and back out onto the two-lane highway pocked with memorial crosses, and back over the rumbling cattle guard at the gate of the ICE office near the tiny Tohono O’odham town of Sells, Arizona.

And then back even further.

Tracing the thread that is Satepauhoodle’s life back through her two-year stint as a customs inspector at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., and her eight years as a Secret Service intelligence specialist and her four improbable years at Notre Dame.

Cut for sign in South Bend and you’ll find the clarinet and the marching band and the close friends and the academic challenges and the catering jobs to make ends meet. You’ll find the parental promises and the phone calls home and the tears shed next to the unloaded Chevy Cavalier with the waving mother who has to get back to work.

Climb back into that Cavalier and take it back across the Midwest, back through Indiana and Illinois and Missouri to a tribal trust town near the center of Oklahoma. Travel down Main Street past the parked El Caminos with guys drinking beer in the back and the single movie theater and the hopeful storefronts, all the way to a warm kitchen in a red brick house at the end of a dirt road, where a mother is dancing with her three young daughters to whatever song comes on the radio. Follow that discarded thread backward, instead of forward, and you arrive here, in Carnegie, Oklahoma, at the home of a glowing girl with a stutter and a dream of being a Sooner.

The would-be Sooner

“I never thought I’d get into Notre Dame,” Satepauhoodle says now. “I was all set to go to the University of Oklahoma. My whole life, I thought I’d be a Sooner.”

The large state school in Norman, Oklahoma, was affordable and realistic, within range of a kid from Carnegie with college aspirations. But something made Satepauhoodle spend the Christmas break of her senior year filling out an application to a university in Indiana she’d never even seen.

Maybe it was her Catholic upbringing, attending a parish so small that Mass wasn’t offered on Sundays because there was no priest available to celebrate. Maybe it was the example of her parents—her mother, Gayle, a member of the Caddo tribe employed as an administrative assistant for the Indian Health Service, and her father, Cletis, a Kiowa who worked for the Department of Education. Maybe it was the Sunday dinners where all three girls were required to share something they’d learned the previous week. Maybe it was her mother’s subscription to The New Yorker magazine, something Sloan took for granted as a child but shakes her head in disbelief at now.

“I never really understood the impact of it until later,” she says. “I mean, who would read The New Yorker in Carnegie?”

The Satepauhoodle sisters did. Sloan, in particular. She’d wait for the magazine to arrive every week, pouring over the profiles, the book reviews, the cartoons, the ads for Broadway musicals. Though more familiar with the fields and creeks of Carnegie, Oklahoma, than the balcony seats of Carnegie Hall, she was well-versed in the shows, books and concerts being digested in more cosmopolitan corners of the country.

“My mom gave us a window to the world with that subscription. We had access to a place we otherwise wouldn’t have experienced.”

Years later, Sloan would find herself in New York City for the first time, on a Secret Service assignment. Alone, she’d take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, walk out to the observation deck and break down in tears, so stunned was she to find herself in this place she’d read about as a child.

“I just couldn’t believe I was actually there. Me—a Kiowa girl from this little town called Carnegie.”

It’s a common refrain in her life—arriving in places she had no reason to imagine she’d ever reach. The big world beyond her small trust land town. Who can say where that comes from, that hunger for something out past her own Oklahoma horizon? Maybe it was that magazine subscription. Maybe the Sunday dinner conversations. The parents who gave her wings. All of it blended together into something closer to mystery than motivation. Whatever the reason, Sloan Satepauhoodle completed the Notre Dame application, mailed it in, barely beat the deadline, and got ready to attend the University of Oklahoma.

Her father was working in Dallas when the admissions envelope arrived. By the catch in his daughter’s throat on the other end of the phone, he figured she was either calling to say she was pregnant or getting married. Perhaps both. But she was calling to say that she’d been accepted to Notre Dame.

Once again, Sloan shakes her head in disbelief. “I’d only applied to see if I could get in, if I’d actually be accepted. But I began to think this could actually happen.” She sat down with her parents and decided that despite the financial obstacles and the geographic distance and the fact that she’d be a distinct minority on campus, she had to go for it. “I knew I’d been given an incredible chance,” she says, “and I’d better take it. My mom and dad said, ‘Sloan, you have to do it. We’ll make it work somehow.’”

So Sloan and her mother packed up the family’s Chevy Cavalier, unfolded a map to find South Bend, Indiana, and beelined for campus a week early so Sloan could try out for the marching band.

“My mom had to be back for work on Monday,” Satepauhoodle says. “She literally dropped me off and left early the next day.”

When they parted ways in a tearful goodbye the following morning, an already homesick Sloan made a solemn pledge to her mother. “I promised her a year,” she says.

She almost didn’t make it.

Shots fired!

“There was an incident on the job,” Satepauhoodle begins. “It was back in ’02. April 3rd, actually.”

She closes her eyes, leans forward and runs a thumb along her temple, recalling the emotions associated with that day. Exhuming a five-year-old memory like it happened last week. Remembering how that day started out like so many others—patrolling the reservation with her fellow Shadow Wolves, responding to an anonymous tip, swinging by a shack along the border to check things out—and then how everything dissolved into desperation.

Satepauhoodle and three other agents were pursuing a familiar lead: several expensive—and thus, incongruent—SUVs had been spotted near a local Tohono O’odham village. The four officers cased the area, spotting a clutch of vehicles matching the description at the rear of a dilapidated house straddling the border.

They were knocking on the front door when one of the officers drifted toward the rear of the property. “It was almost like a compound back there,” Satepauhoodle says. “My partner saw all these men and started motioning to us as we were trying to talk to the homeowners. Then it seemed like all hell broke loose.”

The men in the backyard—a startled group of drug backpackers—bolted from the compound, which only served to panic the residents at the front door.

“The people I was talking to froze, and then one of them tried to run. We were like, ‘Get down! Get down!’” Weapon drawn, Satepauhoodle stayed in the vestibule covering the homeowners while two of her co-workers ran to the back and scuffled with the fleeing backpackers.

“I really couldn’t see what was going on, because I was trying to watch the people in the front. I had them on the ground at gunpoint and the next thing I know, I hear shots coming from the back of the house. I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know if it was bad guys . . . if it was my co-workers . . . if anyone had been hit . . . I didn’t know.” Satepauhoodle kept her gun trained on the prone residents. "I was trying to stay calm, but I could hear myself screaming, over and over, Stay down! Stay down! Stay down! "

Then a Ford Excursion barreled around the side of the house.

Satepauhoodle left her third co-worker covering the homeowners and sprinted to her own truck, but before she could give chase the SUV crashed into a neighboring shed. When Satepauhoodle reached the wreck, she saw that the interior of the vehicle was stripped bare, crammed with marijuana bales front to back. The driver, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, had to be extracted through the shattered passenger-side door. Satepauhoodle dragged him past a machete, an assault rifle and a stash of methamphetamines, then attempted to save his life. His wound, while not mortal, was well beyond her capabilities.

“And our backup,” she says, “was still almost an hour away. This guy was bleeding everywhere, there wasn’t much we could do for him. At this point we hadn’t even cleared the back of the house. We didn’t know if there was anyone else inside the house . . . it became a waiting game. We had to be ready for whatever might come out.”

The homeowners were still sprawled at gunpoint on the ground. The remaining vehicles in the compound were still unsearched and unsafe. The drug runners were scattered and uncounted. The sole gunshot victim—the SUV driver—was bleeding out on the desert sand. In the midst of this chaos, Satepauhoodle spent nearly an hour on full alert, fingering the trigger of her weapon, muscles tense, sweat descending her back and pooling at her belt line.

Waiting for backup.

“I’ll always remember the sound of our truck arriving,” she says. “The sirens going. It was like hope arrived.”

In the rear of the compound the reinforced unit found three more Excursions loaded with marijuana bales, automatic weapons and supplies for a planned nocturnal trip across the desert. Hiding in one of the vehicles was a drug smuggler who managed to fight off four officers attempting to pin him to the ground.

Satepauhoodle was the fifth.

“After that, I was finally just done,” she says. “I was like, ‘I gotta go home.’”

Here she closes her eyes and hesitates a moment, finding the words.

“It was so weird to take my vest off—I had my Kevlar vest on the whole time—and when I took it off, it felt like 50 pounds. The release physically, but mentally too. The sense that, ’I’m safe now. I can take this off and . . . go home.’ That’s one thing I’ll always remember them telling us in training: You go home at night. You’re the one who goes home.”

A promise to keep

There were many days that difficult first year of college when all Satepauhoodle wanted to do was go home. Leave behind the confusing textbooks and the difficult tests, the financial concerns and the odd looks—even the beloved marching band—and call it quits. Pack it in and head back to the comforts of Carnegie. Several days before Christmas break she dissolved into tears on the phone with her mom.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” she says now.

Accustomed to academic success at her small public high school, she soon discovered the curriculum hadn’t entirely prepared her for the rigors of Notre Dame’s freshman year. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to overcome obstacles in school. As a child she’d struggled with a stutter that never fully vanished, despite years of therapy and speech exercises. She’d come up with coping mechanisms and verbal tricks to beat that one, but this was different. This was calculus class moving at breakneck speed and marching band in the midst of football season and mounting questions about teepees and totem poles.

“Most students had never met an Indian before,” she says, “much less lived next door to one. The questions were so far from reality.”

By the time that late-semester phone call rolled around, the Kiowa girl from Carnegie was ready to go home and not return. As always, her mom listened and supported her through the tears, then reminded Sloan of the promise.

Give it at least a year.

“That spring,” Satepauhoodle says, “I met a group of really good girls and we became friends. Some of my classes weren’t as bad as they’d been the first semester. I picked up the system, and it slowly started to work. At the end of the year I knew I was coming back.”

She spent her sophomore year on academic probation, seeking tutoring and assistance whenever she could. She enrolled in summer school and worked odd jobs to pay for it. But she stayed in the marching band and stayed at Notre Dame. She realized that the changes in her small town that first summer home after freshman year weren’t changes in the town, they were changes in her.

“That was part of me deciding I was going to graduate. I had experienced so much in one year. I was beginning to have that awakening that there’s a whole world out there that I have to see. Coming home—or staying at home—wasn’t going to help me do that.” The other factor in her decision was a fierce resistance to failure. “I refused to go back to Carnegie a failure. It wasn’t going to be, ‘Oh, Sloan gave it a good effort.’ That was not going to be me.”

And it wasn’t.

Four years after arriving at Notre Dame in that Chevy Cavalier, Satepauhoodle left with a bachelor’s degree in American studies, searching for the next challenge. When her mom attended a conference in Oklahoma City and noticed a recruiting table for the Secret Service, she encouraged her daughter to check it out. That led to an October 1989 interview, which translated into a job offer and an eight-year career as an intelligence researcher with the Secret Service in Washington, D.C.

In 1998 Satepauhoodle took a new position as a customs inspector at Dulles International Airport, where she eventually came across an internal job posting for an elite customs unit known as the Shadow Wolves. The requirement that applicants have at least one-quarter heritage from a federally recognized Native American tribe caught her attention.

“I was always kind of unique at Notre Dame and in the Secret Service,” Satepauhoodle says, “but with the Shadow Wolves there was the 25 percent blood quantity requirement. Being Native American was part of the job. I knew I had to apply.”

Once again, she plunged into a world of unknowns. She’d never been to southern Arizona, where the Shadow Wolves were based. She had no experience in Native American tracking techniques. She’d never cut for sign or run down a drug smuggler or hunted a “carpet walker.” But she was familiar with the male-dominated world of law enforcement. She was comfortable with the vastness of rolling landscapes. And she loved the research, the solving, the unraveling of mysteries. Loved tracing found threads, investing faith in eventual outcomes.

So in February 2001, when she was offered a position as the second female member of the Shadow Wolves, she packed up all of her earthly belongings and accepted it.

The gathering threat

Everything turns on a dime.

In a gravel pullout along a two-lane reservation road, four pickup trucks convene for a mid-search summit. Officers from several agencies mill around, squinting at the unforgiving hills, nicking the ground with their boot toes. They’ve just received word from the scene of the discovered body that it’s not the missing boy. The heat-withered corpse is someone shorter and older, another victim of this indifferent land. Perhaps an undocumented alien trying to slip the border or a drug runner who never made the drop point. It’s hard to say; the elements haven’t been kind to the remains.

Soon it will be dusk in the desert. Somewhere in the gathering night is a missing boy who may never make it back to his village. On a distant ridge lies an unidentified body that will have to be retrieved by helicopter in the morning. Within hours, a cavalcade of carpet walkers will scuff their wares across the border, obscuring their footsteps as they go. More will come tomorrow. And more the next evening.

This is hard, dispassionate country, the sort of place where you can go searching for one body and find another. Where camouflaged SUVs rumble through the night and Kevlar vests weigh 50 pounds at the end of the day. Where there used to be a reliable ebb and flow to the drug trade, but now there is only flow. No ebb.

“The old guys tell me there used to be seasons,” Satepauhoodles says. “But now it’s all the time. Even with this heat, you just know it’s coming.”

She is matter-of-fact about this gathering threat but also undaunted. In order to do the job every day, she has to believe she’s making an impact.

“I like what I do, so I have to see it that way. I really want to believe that we’re making a difference here. This is a never-ending job, but we’re going to do it until something happens where we don’t have to do it anymore.”

She takes one last look at the surrounding hills, climbs back into her truck and flicks on the headlights. In a land like this, sometimes all you can do is be the one who makes it home at night.

David Devine lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.