Publish date:

Celebrity Stalker The skills of ace wilderness tracker Tom Brown have found an unusual stage: Hollywood

Tom Brown Jr. can track a mouse across a gravel driveway. He has
helped solve more than 600 cases involving fleeing suspects,
missing persons and lost animals. To someone with such developed
tracking skills, a muddy boot mark stamped onto a white linoleum
floor is the equivalent of a giant blinking neon sign saying HE
WENT THAT WAY. So in his role as technical adviser on The Hunted,
the new Paramount film in which Tommy Lee Jones plays a
fugitive-hunter based on Brown, the 53-year-old New Jerseyite was
skeptical when just such a boot print was used as a key clue.
"It's funny, though," says Brown. "Hardly anyone who sees the
movie notices it. That is the challenge of working in
Hollywood--you can't be very subtle."

Many of the markings in The Hunted are exaggerated for effect,
such as the set of shoeprints in pristine grass that are so deep
they look to have been made by elephants. ("Huge, absolutely
huge," says Brown.) To convey the finer points of Brown's work
would have been nearly impossible, however, considering that his
craft relies on such powers of observation so keen that at times
they seem to border on the supernatural. A professional
wilderness tracker, Brown can read signs in compressed dust,
re-create crime scenes from studying the angles at which grass
blades are bent and trace someone's movement across pavement
based on sand and dust patterns. From a single footprint he says
he can tell a person's age, sex, height, strength and emotional
state. "Inside every track there is a miniature topographic
landscape with thousands of features, and each one is an
indicator," says the trim, sturdy Brown. "Every movement of the
human body has to be compensated for. For example, do you walk
the same way when you have to take a pee or not? Of course you
don't, and from looking at a footprint, it's possible to tell
exactly how badly you have to pee."

Brown learned to track while growing up in Toms River, N.J. The
grandfather of one of his best friends was an Apache elder named
Stalking Wolf, a man Brown now reverentially refers to as
Grandfather, and the old man taught him the ways of the land. In
his late teens he began helping local police in missing persons
cases, and by his early 20s he had become an expert--once spending
an entire year living in the woods. In 1978 he was called in to
track a suspected rapist who had eluded a team of police and
search dogs for two days in the New Jersey woods. He found the
trail almost immediately and followed it a little more than a
mile to a house that, as it turned out, the suspect had used. The
discovery led to an arrest and a flurry of publicity for Brown in
the pages of national publications such as The New York Times and

Not long after, Brown wrote a book about his life, The Tracker,
and he has since put out 16 more, with themes ranging from the
spiritual to the practical. Tom Brown's Field Guide to City and
Suburban Survival includes such tips as, If stranded in a car in
a severe snowstorm, tear the stuffing out of the seats and jam it
inside your jacket to stay warm. "As soon as people hear the word
survival, they figure you're a loony in the mountains of Montana
or some deadbeat on a TV show," says Brown. "But people are
aliens to their own planet. I'm just trying to reintroduce people
to their own natural landscape."

In 1978 Brown also started the Tracker School, which is based in
Asbury, N.J. The school now offers close to 30 courses, most of
which last a week, on everything from search and rescue to
scouting. Much of the curriculum is now taught by Brown's former
students, many of whom become Brown devotees. "I came in 10 years
ago for a class and basically never left," says Kevin Reeve, who
is now the director of the school. "We've found that 75 percent
of our students come back for a second class, and those that do
usually continue on to take an average of five courses."

Tracking is an ancient art, practiced as long as humans have
hunted for food, but it has rarely been treated as a teachable
science. For years the school also taught classes on combat
survival, but it stopped in the early 1990s. "I used to train the
military heavily," says Brown. "Survival skills, how to be
invisible moving at high speeds. I thought that if these soldiers
were ever caught behind enemy lines, they could use this
knowledge to escape, but instead they were using it to kill and
attack." After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which Brown's
brother-in-law was the first officer of the United Airlines plane
that hit the World Trade Center, Brown revived the program
because, he says, "I realized the enemy we were up against." So
now there is a branch of the school that works with SWAT teams
and other elite forces. Currently, a number of Brown's former
students, "mainly in the elite units," he says, are in Iraq.

Brown is constantly working on one tracking case or another. On a
recent Wednesday afternoon he was busy mapping out a search for
an unmarked grave near the New Jersey shore. With the aid of 30
of his students, he planned to canvass a one-square-mile area for
a kidney-shaped depression in the ground, which indicates a body
may have decomposed in that spot. (Says Brown, "It's shaped like
a kidney because all killers are lazy and bury bodies in the
fetal position.") Before Brown could get started, though, he was
called in the next morning to track a 13-year-old boy who'd gone
missing in Waretown, N.J. Brown and his students soon located the
boy in nearby woods, where he was sleeping. In the process Brown
converted some skeptics. "You watch him and you say to yourself,
'This guy is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. There are no
tracks on the pavement to see. Who does he think he's kidding?'"
one of his former students, Lieut. Scott Sprague of the Ocean
Township Police, told a newspaper afterward. "Yet he was able to
do in two hours what nine cops, a bloodhound and a guy in a
helicopter could not do in twice that time."

Considering Brown's affinity for the wilderness, it is somewhat
disconcerting to visit his home on Long Beach Island, an affluent
Jersey shore community laden with summer homes. In The Hunted,
Jones's character lives in a small log cabin without heat or
electricity deep in the woods of British Columbia. The reality
looks more like something out of a TV sitcom--a three-story house,
complete with plush carpeting and a living room dominated by a
television the size of a bus windshield. "I'm rarely here," Brown
says. "Of course I'd rather be out in the woods [all the time],
but you make certain sacrifices." In Brown's case the little boys
playing pirates in the gravel driveway, his two children from his
second marriage, are the primary reason. (Brown says the high
quality of the school system keeps him on Long Beach Island.)

There are hints of his profession in the house, such as the
arrowheads strung to a wooden shaft with sinew in the living room
and the two Hummers parked in the driveway. Brown wears a pair of
brown Top-Siders, even padding around inside, because the shoes
have rounded edges that don't leave markings as square edges
would (thus helping prevent any confusion between his footprints
and those he might be tracking). "They're similar in shape to the
ones you see Tommy Lee wearing in the movie," he says. "That part
is accurate."

Brown says he has a "love-hate relationship" with The Hunted, an
at-times predictable, over-the-top action movie in which Jones's
character hunts down a fugitive played by Benicio del Toro. (The
plot is loosely based on an incident in Brown's life in which he
hunted down a former student, a case he won't talk about publicly
because the mission is, he says, "still classified.") Even to
viewers who have never ventured into the wild, it's clear that
some of the scenes--such as when del Toro's character rigs a
series of sophisticated traps in mere minutes and when Jones
follows a wounded wolf through the woods and takes a trap off its
leg--are implausible. "It would take the better part of a week to
gain a wolf's trust, and you'd have to throw a blanket over it to
get that close," says Brown. "But that's Hollywood. The mantra of
the staff during the filming was, 'Tom, it's just a movie.'"

There is much about the film of which Brown is proud. One cutaway
of Jones's hands "knapping" a knife out of stone (that is,
sharpening the edges with another stone) is actually footage of
Brown's hands. And many of Brown's mannerisms--the way he strokes
his mustache when he thinks, the way he fidgets with his hands
when indoors, the way he moves through the wilderness as if on
his toes--are apparent in Jones's performance. "He'd study me and
how I react, how I walk," says Brown. "It almost gives you a
feeling of paranoia that someone's watching you."

One thing Brown has worried about some is what he calls "the damn
movie publicity that makes it seem as if I train killers." So far
there haven't been any vigilantes showing up on his doorstep.
Says Reeve, "We don't get a lot of gun-toting, bunker-building
types. Tom's approach is a lot more balanced than macho. It's
almost an effeminate approach to survival. It's not about
fighting nature, it's about living in harmony with it."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS BISANI THE REAL McCOY The negative perception of tracking will be altered, Brown hopes, by Jones's portrayal of a fugitive-hunter in The Hunted.


COLOR PHOTO: PARAMOUNT FILM CRITIC As an adviser Brown (left) saw some scenes in the movie, which starred Del Toro (center), as implausible.


Tom Brown Jr. says that most of us walk around in the wilderness
like scuba divers--with large packs attached to our backs like air
tanks, limiting our freedom. To get rid of that tank, or at least
to learn basic tracking and survival skills, here are four
schools, for adults and for youngsters alike, that are worth
checking out.


The country's premier tracking school, now in its 25th year,
offers close to 30 courses, covering everything from scouting to
spiritual healing to making bows and arrows out of animal sinew
and wood. All students must first take the Standard Course, a
seven-day camp that focuses on tracking, survival skills,
stalking, camouflage and Native American lifestyles and
philosophy. The Standard Course is offered in southern New
Jersey, northern California and central Florida. Most other
courses are held in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Must be 18
years or older. Cost: $800 for the Standard Course, $850 for all


Classes last from four days to four weeks and are held in
Colorado, Utah and Mexico. Founded in 1968 by Larry Dean Olsen,
who helped create the original requirements for the Boy Scouts'
outdoor-survival merit badge. Must be 18 or older. Cost: from
$575 for a four-day intro course to $3,095 for four weeks.


Two options for those under 18. Both offer a variety of courses,
from kayaking to outdoor survival, some of which can be taken for
college credit. Other courses for those 18 or older, including
families. Cost: from $595 to $8,995. or

FROM A SINGLE FOOTPRINT Brown says he can tell a person's age,
sex, height, strength and emotional state.

trying to reintroduce them to their own natural landscape."