By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — More than a hundred people fanned out across an open field east of Middlebury’s Porter Hospital on Saturday, kicking through dead grass, looking for a trace of missing Middlebury College freshman Nicholas Garza.
“My son had on jeans, he had on a long-sleeved, red, button-down shirt and he has a size 12 tennis shoe on,” his mother, Natalie Garza, told the crowd of volunteer searchers packed into the bleachers at Kenyon Arena before they began the full-day search. “His cell phone, wallet, his badge to his room have not been found.”
Searchers made their way north from the hospital grounds to Mr. Up’s Restaurant — some searched the Otter Creek from kayaks — turning up nothing more than a few articles of clothing that didn’t match Garza’s profile.
Leading the search was Gary Peterson, an investigator for the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office who consulted on the Garza case in March as part of Texas EquuSearch, a private search and rescue organization. He returned to Middlebury at the suggestion of Nan O’Brien, a Vermont medium and spiritual advisor working with the Garza family. O’Brien previously helped Peterson with a case in Iowa.
Nick Garza was last seen leaving a Middlebury College dorm on the night of Feb. 5. He has not contacted any family or friends, and it does not appear that he was unhappy in Middlebury. Local police have headed up the investigation and previous searches that have included sixteen organizations, more than 200 search personnel, two helicopters, two airplanes and 13 search dogs.
According to Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, Saturday’s volunteer search organized by Natalie Garza, covered very little ground that hadn’t already been searched.
Having given Peterson a map outlining areas that had been cleared to date, Hanley was surprised to hear volunteers had been led north along the Otter Creek from Porter Hospital — Middlebury police and a crew from the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife had searched much of that area on the previous Thursday.
“There are places that haven’t been searched that they might have been better off searching: south of campus, out beyond South Street Extension, out as far as the Eddy Farm,” he said.
He also voiced concern over the volunteers’ safety.
“I looked at some of the video from the news and I was mortified,” he said. “I saw people walking in shorts. Deer ticks are out there all over the place; one of our searchers found a bear trap that was set by the creek. There are all kinds of hazards.”
According to Hanley, Peterson was supposed to debrief the Middlebury police on Saturday after the search, but that never happened.
“Apparently out in the woods there are a bunch of orange flags (where objects were found), but I haven’t heard from him,” he said on Tuesday.
Hanley stressed that people who wish to search on their own should let police know when and where they’re going. That way, even if they don’t find anything they can offer investigators a snapshot of a specific site at a specific time.
Still, Saturday’s search gave many people — who drove from as far as St. Johnsbury, Northfield and New York State — their first opportunity to lend a hand to the Garza family.
Colleen Pelkey and Heather Cousens, from Charlotte and Burlington, respectively, were relieved to find out Saturday’s search was the first of its kind and that they hadn’t missed a chance to help out. When asked what brought them there, they answered in unison, “We’re mothers.”
“You just want that poor mother to have closure,” Pelkey said.
Erin Hansen, a Middlebury College freshman, was one of only a handful of college students participating in the search. She never met Garza, but the two had mutual friends. When the college’s Department of Public Safety first searched Garza’s room on Feb. 6, they suspected he was with those friends at Hansen’s cabin in New Hampshire.
“I guess I’m one of the closer ones involved because I had to talk to the police, but I still feel very disconnected,” she said. “This is the first chance I’ve got to do anything practical to help. I don’t have money to give … Before the snow melted they told us not to help because it would disrupt the police search.”
She was surprised more members of the college community didn’t show up for the search, and when asked if she thought the college was doing all it could to help out, she shook head.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s all felt kind of flaky, if that makes sense … like, ‘Write in this book about Nick.’ That’s nice, but what can we really do?”
Upon reflection Hansen wondered if there was much the college could ask of the students.
“It’s tough because what can you do?” she said. “I think they’ve done their best to inform us, they send out these e-mails so we, for the most part, know what’s happening. But because there’s been no recent development there’s not a lot to tell us. Everyone’s just waiting.”
Garza’s grandfather, Rudy Sierra, who flew in from Albuquerque, N.M., for the search Saturday morning, said the waiting was “a living nightmare.” But to see the turnout of volunteers lifted his spirits.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “There are so many understanding people here. There are people out there that do care … to give their time on a weekend. The love is here and the caring is here. I feel very, very overwhelmed with what I see here.”
Sierra flew back to Albuquerque early this week, but if his grandson is still missing by the summer he plans to return to Middlebury to support his daughter, Natalie.
“Until Nick is found, she’ll be here,” he said. “She’s been very strong. But you cope with it the best you can. We just live from day to day.”
OBJECT OF INTEREST
Middlebury police are still looking for the “object of interest” that showed up in a photograph taken during an aerial search of the river on April 17. The water has receded about a foot in the last week, and Hanley estimates it could be safe for another underwater search in a couple weeks.
He has also asked one of his officers to contact two retired New York police detectives who since 1997 have been looking into a string of suspicious college student drownings across the country. Police in five of the states where these young men’s bodies were found discovered smiley faces painted near the scene of each drowning.
Middlebury police have found no smiley faces or suspicious graffiti in this area, and have no reason to believe that Garza’s disappearance is related to these incidents. Still, Hanley said he would check in with the investigators handling the case.
The local investigation continues, with Hanley saying further analysis of all the research data will be done this week.