MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A faint whimper in the darkness was all it took.
Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Ross Jessop and U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Nick Scholz rushed toward the sound after hours spent searching the Montana woods for a missing infant.
Jessop was about to take another step when he heard a stick crack underfoot. He looked down to find a cold, wet, soiled 5-month-old boy face-down under a pile of debris.
“I abandoned any police training or any chance of saving evidence there — I didn’t care,” Jessop, a father of three, told reporters on Tuesday. “I scooped up the baby, made sure he was breathing. He had a sparkle in his eye. (I) warmed him up, gave him a couple of kisses and just held him.”
The baby, who had been abandoned for at least nine hours before Jessop and Scholz found him at 2:30 a.m. Sunday, was cold, hungry and had scrapes and bruises, but was otherwise in good condition. They wrapped him in a coat and carried the boy out of the woods to safety.
“It was the happiest 15-20 minutes of my career,” Scholz said of the walk out. “I was just stunned. Walking in to this situation, you were mentally prepared for the worst.”
The baby drank a whole bottle of Pedialyte in under a minute, then drank two more, said Missoula County Sheriff’s Capt. Bill Burt. The baby’s tiny, dirty hand grasped Burt’s finger with surprising strength, then he fell soundly asleep as hospital officials hooked him up to an IV, Burt said.
The rescue that Sheriff T.J. McDermott called a miracle was recounted moments before Francis Crowley, 32, appeared in court to hear charges against him that included assault on a minor and criminal endangerment.
Crowley told investigators he left the boy in the woods after crashing his car because the baby was heavy, according to court records. He appeared in Missoula County Justice Court from jail by video, and he broke down repeatedly as he heard the allegations against him.
Crowley doubled over, then fell to the floor and covered his face with his hands, sobbing. He exclaimed twice, “I love that (expletive) kid,” and implored the judge not to take him away.
Public defender Ted Fellman said Crowley had no money and was living near Lolo Hot Springs. Sheriff’s officials said Crowley, the child’s mother and the boy were living in a camp near the hot springs in Lolo National Forest.
Crowley is from Portland, Oregon, and was previously arrested in June in Missoula on a fugitive warrant from Oregon for a probation violation, Missoula County prosecutors said. He has a string of prior arrests that include burglary, assault, drug and criminal mischief charges, Deputy County Attorney Brittany Williams said.
The nature of Crowley’s relationship to the baby was not immediately clear.
Crowley did not enter a plea during the court hearing. Judge Marie Andersen set bail at $200,000 and scheduled his next court date for July 25.
Deputies were called to Lolo Hot Springs at 8 p.m. Saturday because Crowley was creating a disturbance and threatening to fire a gun, Missoula County prosecutors said.
Crowley was disoriented, likely because of drug use, and unable to help officers find the baby or say how long ago the crash had occurred, charging documents said. He variously said the baby was lying on the side of the road or had died and was buried in the woods.
But Crowley described crashing along an abandoned road that Jessop recognized as one that he started searching a little while earlier until it got too rough. He called for a four-wheel drive vehicle and he and Scholz found the wreck beyond the road’s end. They followed a trail of items that included baby formula and a diaper bag before hearing the child.
The baby was taken via ambulance to the hospital. On the way, the baby coughed up small sticks, the charging document said. He was treated for dehydration, lack of food and scratches, cuts and bruises and was placed in the custody of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
For Jessop, who has three daughters, the rescue gave him encouragement in what he described as an emotionally draining job. In 2010, a coroner’s inquest cleared Jessop in the fatal shooting of a man who had tried to shoot the deputy during a late-night traffic stop.
“To experience this, to have God help me, let me experience something like this, just gives me an extra boost,” Jessop said. “You know what? Cops actually do matter sometimes. We actually do a good job. So it’s pretty encouraging for me.”