By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — For four long months, hundreds of volunteers and investigators wielding state-of-the-art equipment had combed through Middlebury in an effort to find missing Middlebury College student Nicholas Garza.
That search came to a cathartic end in the Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury on Tuesday with the chance discovery of Garza’s body by the very man who had coordinated the massive search since the college freshman disappeared on campus during the evening of Feb. 5.
“There’s no feeling of exhilaration,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, who spotted Garza’s remains submerged within a mound of floating wood and other debris that had gathered on the Marble Works side of the Otter Creek, near the base of the falls.
“There’s no celebration here. This is a tragic story with a tragic ending.”
An autopsy performed at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington on Wednesday tentatively established that the remains were Garza’s, though a final determination could not be made until a comparison of dental records was completed. Police expected that to happen late Wednesday or early Thursday.
But a wallet found within clothing on the remains yielded Garza’s ID, leaving authorities little doubt that the long search for Nick had ended with the anticipated but dreaded results.
The discovery ended a longsuffering vigil for the Garza family, including Nick’s mother, Natalie, and his younger brother, Damon, who had relocated to Middlebury from their native Albuquerque, N.M., to monitor, and participate in, the search.
“On May 27, 2008, our beautiful Nicholas was recovered from Otter Creek,” reads a statement posted by the family on the Web site nicholasgarza.org. “We are filled with unspeakable grief and sadness with the loss of our beloved boy. We thank everyone for their prayers and support.”
Natalie Garza was at the scene on Tuesday evening as firefighters, police officials and other authorities carted her son’s shrouded remains up the creek embankment to a hearse parked among a collection of police cruisers, fire utility vehicles and media vans that had jammed the Marble Works parking lot. Passersby gathered outside of the yellow police tape to catch a glimpse of the commotion, the soul-wrenching conclusion to a well-chronicled tragedy that was now ironically unfolding before their eyes along the backdrop of one of the community’s most serene and picturesque locations.
Garza’s disappearance had generated many weeks of sadness and intrigue among members of the college community, with the denouement of the mystery — at least that surrounding Nick’s whereabouts — occurring just two days after commencement ceremonies on May 25.
Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz shared his sentiments following Tuesday’s discovery.
“I have shared my deepest sympathies with Nick’s mother, Natalie, and let her know that the thoughts and prayers of the entire Middlebury community are with her, the Garza family, and with Nick’s many friends,” Liebowitz wrote in a statement posted on the college’s Web site. “I want to express thanks to the police and to the search teams who have worked so tirelessly over the last few months.
“May the unity that comes from the terrible sadness we all feel at this time be a source of comfort and strength for the Garza family.”
Liebowitz said details regarding a gathering in remembrance of Garza will “follow soon.”
Nick Garza was last seen alive on the Middlebury College campus at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 5. He had been at a social gathering with friends and was walking back to his room around 500 yards away. The college, at the time, was in the midst of a weeklong winter break and there were few students on campus.
Natalie Garza alerted the college when she hadn’t heard from her son for several days and a search began.
Searchers spent the ensuing winter weeks probing snow banks throughout campus and Middlebury’s downtown, fearing Garza had gone for a walk that fateful evening and had succumbed to the cold. They broadened that search to include the Otter Creek, suspecting that Garza had fallen into the water near a suspension footbridge near the high school lacrosse playing fields off Creek Road. Recent weeks have seen authorities use underwater and aerial photography along various stretches of the creek in an effort to spot human remains.
The search for Garza caught the public’s attention and many people followed the case closely. More than 100 civilians took part in a search of the area east of the campus along Otter Creek at the end of April.
Ultimately, more than 50 organizations — from the Vermont State Police and FBI to a group called Texas EquuSearch and the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” — and hundreds of people provided technical, logistical, staffing and other assistance to the Middlebury Police Department in the search.
Hanley conducted a 40-minute news conference late Wednesday afternoon, during which he recounted details of the investigation, and a breakthrough that occurred on April 17. On that day, an overhead photo yielded an image in the creek behind Middlebury Union High School that seemed consistent with a human form.
A subsequent search with cadaver dogs tracking Garza’s scent led authorities on a path to the suspension footbridge on the Trail Around Middlebury near Creek Road. Hanley said the dogs picked up Garza’s scent on both banks of the Otter Creek leading police to intensify the search there.
Believing Garza’s body had made its way downstream and over the falls, Middlebury police had scheduled a comprehensive dive — involving 70 to 80 people — near the base of the falls for this coming weekend. Hanley and Vermont State Police Lt. Jocelyn Stohl (head of the Vermont Search and Rescue Unit) were in the midst of doing some preparatory water tests for that search — including current and temperature checks — on Tuesday afternoon when Hanley decided to gauge the depth of the water underneath a pile of wood near the bank of the creek adjacent to the Marble Works.
“I did it the old-fashioned way; I picked up a cedar branch that was there — a good straight one that was around 8 feet long — did a test depth at one spot and Lt. Stohl suggested that I try to get a depth out in front of the pile,” Hanley recalled.
Hanley had already taken such a measurement earlier that day, but decided to walk out to the edge of the pile to take a new reading at approximately 3:50 p.m.
“At the edge of the pile I took a look in the water and there’s a shirt submerged in the water,” Hanley said of red fabric that caught his eye. “From there … moving some debris and the foam on the water out of the way, we were able to identify an arm and a shoulder.”
“The body was wedged in between logs; very little was visible,” said Middlebury police spokesman Tom Scanlon. “It was just by chance that Chief Hanley was there.”
Although police had searched the area before, Scanlon said the water was considerably lower now and moving much less rapidly than it was when searched by the Saranac (N.Y.) Fire Department Technical Rescue Team in April.
At that point, Stohl called for recovery forces, including the VSP dive team and Colchester Technical Rescue, to come to the scene. After moving boats into position and cutting away some of the debris with chainsaws, officials removed the body from the water and pulled a wallet, containing Garza’s ID, from a pants pocket.
But Hanley stressed the Garza case does not end with discovery of the young man’s body. Authorities — with the aid of forensic research — will now try to determine the circumstances leading up to Garza’s death.
“We’ve got work to do, still,” Hanley said. “This just allows us to close one of those parallel tracks on the investigation.”
Scanlon — a former, longtime crime scene analyst — said Wednesday’s autopsy could yield some important clues. For example, the autopsy could reveal whether Garza was alive or deceased when he landed in the creek, as well as the extent to which he may have had alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of his death.
In the meantime, officials will now be able to call off scheduled searches and pay their respects to the Garza family.
“It’s not a sense of joy, in any sense of the imagination,” Scanlon said, echoing Hanley’s sentiments about Tuesday’s discovery. “A young man’s life has been lost and that young man had siblings, parents and grandparents. It’s a tragic event that has drawn to a close and there is a sense of closure for the family.”