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Searchers comb campus for missing college student

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MEMBERS OF A search and rescue team comb through the snow on the Middlebury College campus Monday just after sunset. The team was searching for Middlebury freshman Nicholas Garza, who has been missing since Feb. 5. The physical search has been called off until Saturday due to bad weather conditions.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — With heavy snow expected later this week, the search team that since Monday has been prodding the snow-covered Middlebury College campus for signs of a missing first-year student has postponed its search until skies clear up this weekend.

But the investigation into the whereabouts of Nicholas Garza, a 19-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., who disappeared more than a week ago, will continue unabated, according to Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.

“The physical search is just a recovery operation, in the event that something befell the student,” Hanley said. “The other piece is the missing person investigation. We’re going to be interviewing a ton of people, primarily students and people who knew him over the next few days.”

The physical search has turned up nothing since it began, and if there are any clues out there, the snow, more than a foot of which has fallen since the morning after Garza went missing, continues to cover them up.

Garza was last seen at a social gathering in Stewart Hall, a first-year dormitory on the Middlebury College campus, around 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5, according to the Middlebury police. The campus was relatively empty that night since most students, including Garza’s roommate and many of his friends, were gone for February break, the week between J-term and the start of the spring semester.

Garza left the party alone, presumably to return to his dorm room in Allen Hall, about a third of a mile across campus, according to reports authorities got from students who attended the gathering. But a friend grew suspicious the next day when he could not reach Garza. He alerted his Commons Residential Advisor (CRA), who then reported the matter to the college’s department of public safety.

A college public safety officer searched Garza’s room, but found nothing untoward. A couple of Garza’s friends had left that morning to spend a few days at a cabin in New Hampshire, and Garza could have gone with them, students reported.

But when those friends returned on Saturday, Garza was not with them. According to Dean of the College Tim Spears, those students confirmed that Garza had not come to the cabin.

On the same day, Garza’s mother, Natalie, called the college to report she had not heard from her son since Tuesday night, Feb. 5, despite repeated phone calls, text messages and e-mails.

She had received five text messages from her son that Tuesday evening, she said at a press conference in Middlebury on Tuesday. She and Garza talk, text and e-mail each other on a daily basis, Natalie Garza said. The evening Nicholas went missing, he sent her a text message saying he was going to watch the movie “The Karate Kid.”

“Nick was not going anywhere,” Natalie Garza said. He had spent the first four days of February break visiting his aunt in Manhattan. He still had coursework to finish for J-term, and he was looking forward to having his room to himself to get his reading done, she said.

“So I had no indication that he had plans to go anywhere, and if he would have left, I would have received a text,” she said. “He just wouldn’t have left without alerting us.”

Garza’s mother had no reason to believe her son was unhappy at Middlebury and wanted to leave. He loved the college and the town, she said.

On Sunday, Natalie Garza called the Middlebury Police Department to file a missing person report.

The next day, a search team, including 45 professionals from the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team, Norwich University Cold Mountain Rescue, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, New England K-9 and New England K-9 SAR, fanned out across the Middlebury campus. Finding nothing in the stretch between Garza’s dormitory and Stewart Hall, where he was last seen, the team moved on to other areas.

Garza did not have a car on campus, so Middlebury police checked with transportation companies in the area, like Middlebury Transit, to see if he left with them. No records of Garza traveling turned up.

LEFT COAT BEHIND

Another search of Garza’s room revealed his winter coat, laptop and iPod all left behind and his cell phone charger still plugged in to the wall, according to Hanley. There has been no activity in his bank account, on his credit card or cell phone since Feb. 5, Hanley said.

An investigation into Garza’s e-mail account by the college’s Library Information Services showed the last message he sent was at 8:30 p.m. the day he went missing, Spears said. In the message, Garza asked another student if he were around during the break and if he wanted to hang out.

According to Hanley, Middlebury police on Monday began “pinging” Garza’s cell phone, a process that allows law enforcement officials to determine the location of a cell phone even if it is turned off. But Garza’s phone did not respond, meaning either the battery is dead or the phone is missing a battery.

At 11:07 p.m. the night of the social gathering, Garza used his cell phone to call a female student, Hanley said, but she did not answer the call.

The size of the social gathering and whether or not there was alcohol involved is not clear, officials said.

“When you look at everything, things are looking pretty grim,” Hanley said.

In the hopes Garza did leave campus, Middlebury police are conducting a National Crime Information Center offline search, which will check with every police department in the country to see if they ran any kind of query on the 19-year-old. The process is rare and expensive, but investigators don’t want to leave any stone unturned.

“Here we have a young man who has been missing a week and we have no leads whatsoever,” Hanley said. “We’re going to be pulling out all the stops.”

College President Ronald Liebowitz, who was in California on a fund-raising trip when Garza went missing, returned to campus Tuesday evening. More than 50 members of the college community, including Garza’s friends and family, had gathered earlier that day to offer each other support.

“One of the most difficult things to do is to wait,” said Associate Dean of the College Gus Jordan.

Outside, a search team combed the playing fields beside St. Mary’s School and two front-end loaders sifted through the snowdrifts, one pile at a time.

Anyone with information concerning Nicholas Garza’s whereabouts is asked to contact the college’s department of public safety at 443-5911 or the Middlebury Police Department at 388-3191.

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