LUDLOW - Only a rusted ladder and slabs of rotten wood could be seen in the tunnel of darkness that stretched 100 feet below the cold desert ground.
A bone-searing breeze blew red dust into the faces of about 50 search and rescue personnel who remained heavily bundled as the sunrise lifted temperatures just above 40 degrees.
They'd camped out the night before, just yards from the Red Dog Mine, where iron ore miners once crawled and coughed and party-goers came in their wake to hang out.
It was in this musty old mine that a determined detective hoped to find the remains of April Pitzer, a young mother who disappeared in June 2004 after deciding to move back home to Arkansas.
Pitzer, 30, was last seen by her roommate, who said he helped her pack and drove her around to say her goodbyes. A friend of the family reported Pitzer missing two weeks later.
Sheriff's homicide Det. Steve Pennington has received several tips that Pitzer was killed and hidden in a mine. Following a few fruitless searches, he began coming out on his own time to poke around the mines.
They first searched the Red Dog Mine in 2005 after discovering that it was owned by the best friend of Pitzer's then-roommate, Chuck Hollister.
"I firmly believe she's out there," said Gloria Denton, Pitzer's mother, who flies out from Arkansas twice a year for searches. "Every time I leave, it just breaks my heart. But I will never give up. It's not over until we bring April home."
When authorities first searched the Red Dog Mine, they found a white suitcase and clothing in a nearby ravine that Denton recognized as her daughter's. And though search and rescue crews have rooted through the mine looking for signs of April, they found nothing.
This particular mine was created in 1902 and is now owned by Bagdad Chase Mine Co. It stopped operating in 1979, though locals were known to party and even live in the mine that is now closed off by a metal grate.
A 30-foot metal mine head once used to pull iron ore out of its depths still towers above. Piles of lumber, a wire mattress frame, shards of broken glass and empty spraypaint cans are discarded beneath it. A bullet-riddled target of Osama bin Laden has been tacked to one frame. Another features a bumper sticker reading "Save a child. Shoot a drug dealer."
That bumper sticker has been plastered on countless trash cans, gates and mine beams in the vast desert.
The Red Dog Mine hasn't been the sole focus in Pitzer's disappearance. Detectives have scoured others, including the Golden Mine, where they found a white cross and a roach clip engraved with Hollister's name 150 feet down.
But no Pitzer.
There are about 22,000 mines in San Bernardino County. The task of pinpointing which mine she was dumped in is daunting to detectives.
"Somebody knows something, they're just not calling us," Pennington said. "It's hard to believe there are people out there who just don't care."
To make matters more difficult, both Hollister and his best friend have died. Detectives believe they may have been involved in Pitzer's disappearance, but now do not know how to prove it.
A recent tip was called in that search and discovery crews were looking in the right place but they "hadn't gone far enough."
Assuming that the caller was talking about the Red Dog Mine, they assembled Nov. 14 to try again.
For the first time, two cadaver dogs were lowered into the mine.
Crews spent two hours setting up safety mechanisms for people - and dogs - to be lowered into the mine. At 10 a.m., Peter Sellas and his black Labrador Retriever, Hunter, strapped on harnesses and walked to the mouth of the mine.
He clung to the ladder with his right hand and clutched Hunter with his left, trying to keep the dog relaxed as crews above fed more rope for them to descend into the mine.
When the pair reached the first level 20 feet below, searchers pulled up their harnesses and dropped down flashlights.
Seven minutes later, handler Sharon Gattas and her Golden Retriever, Denver, made the same trek into the seemingly endless black hole.
They unleashed their dogs and carefully picked their way over broken wires and slivers of wood that litter the mine's floor. Hunter and Denver sniffed the walls, the floors and especially a small mound of dirt on the very bottom.
"They didn't hit on anything and they searched like little mad men," Gattas said, adding that she doesn't believe Pitzer is buried in the Red Dog Mine. "It's very unfortunate. But (the mine) is very well-traveled and somebody would have seen her."
Pennington acknowledges that Pitzer may not be in a mine. In fact, a clue scribbled on a truck stop bathroom wall in Oregon indicates that Pitzer was buried in the open desert outside Barstow.
While cleaning a Love's truck stop bathroom in September 2004, an employee stumbled across a tile that read "Want to find a missing girl from Arkansas? I-15, 3 miles east of Barstow."
Searchers scoured that area three separate times, but found no sign of Pitzer.
They scanned surveillance footage of the men who came in and out of that bathroom but couldn't match them to any of Pitzer's friends or acquaintances.
Denton believes her daughter was abandoned in the desert and she refuses to give up the search. She wants answers, and she wants Pitzer's daughters, now ages 9 and 11, to know the resting place of their mother.
"What it would give me is knowing that I did my job as a mom, that I've seen it through and I brought her home to lay her to rest," Denton said. "It's the best thing I could do for her."
Anyone with information on Pitzer's disappearance is asked to call Pennington at (909) 387-3589.