Mary Vespa
March 27, 1978 12:00 PM

At 12, Brown claims he could sneak up on a deer and smack it on the rump

Footprints,” says Tom Brown Jr., “are signatures. I can tell someone’s size, weight, whether he’s right-or left-handed, and his strength.” Given a proper footprint and a few other clues plucked from the earth or foliage, Tom can also identify a person’s sex, clothing, hair color and emotional state. (“If someone is upset—he’s going to blunder more.”) Brown is a tracker, a practitioner of a skill that faded away with the frontier in this country. He stalks men and animals, mostly in New Jersey, where he lives, but also as far a field as the Virgin Islands and Wyoming. Tom, 28, has found 40 missing persons, helped investigate four murders and hunted down 1,000 wild dogs that were terrorizing nearby townships. “I consider the woods a temple,” he says, “much like the Indians did.”

When Tom was growing up in Beechwood, N.J., money was scarce. The Pine Barrens, a 665,000-acre wilderness in his backyard, was a free playground. “My friends couldn’t convince me that going to a movie was more fun than tramping through a swamp,” he notes. His parents were tolerant when Tom dragged home carcasses (he learned taxidermy from local amateurs) and didn’t worry when he stayed in the woods at night. At 12, Tom could “track a deer trail a week old. I could get within a couple of feet of them, even smack them on the backside.”

From deer stalking, the modern Natty Bumppo moved on to trailing people. Ten years ago local police forces began to use Tom—paying only his expenses—to help find missing persons and stolen cars, locate marijuana fields and keep tabs on criminals. In May 1975 Tom found eight canoeists who had been lost in a swamp for 12 hours. It took him only eight hours last year to locate a retarded man who had been missing five days and was the object of a 1,000-man search.

Not all of Brown’s quests end in glory. A case that won him national attention has wound up with Brown and authorities in the Ramsey, N.J. area being sued for $5 million. Last November, on evidence Tom helped provide, Bruce Ader, a bulldozer operator, was arrested for breaking and entering, and subsequently charged by police with the rape of three teenage babysitters. However, none of the victims identified Ader in lineups, and he was released. With charges against him dropped, he is claiming damages for false arrest and libel.

In that search, Brown had picked up bootprints 40 yards from a house where a woman was robbed and followed the track (spotting hair and bits of clothing on trees) for one and a half miles. The trail left the woods near the house of Ader’s brother. “That’s where the police made the connection, right or wrong,” Tom explains.

The resulting publicity propelled Brown onto the Today show and brought offers for movies and books. Tom can use the money. Last July, in a $15 ceremony in the woods, he married Judy Duck Ford, 33, who has a daughter, Kerry, 15, and son, Paul, 11, by an earlier marriage. Working with a writer friend, Tom has finished a manuscript dealing with his experiences, which will be published by Prentice-Hall in the fall. Meanwhile his advance pays the rent in Wanamassa. Brown has applied for a license as a private investigator, and when he receives it, he will do his tracking for a fee for the first time. Criminals should beware. Now Tom Brown really means business.

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