By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — The Maine search and rescue organization that took more than 700 aerial photographs of the Otter Creek last month in an effort to locate missing Middlebury College freshman Nicholas Garza, has confirmed that a suspicious object identified in the river during that search could have been the 19-year-old’s body. Officials said it was the color and shape of a pair of blue jeans attached to what could have been a white shoe at the end of each leg that led them to that determination.
Garza was wearing a red, button-down shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes on Feb. 5, the night he disappeared from the Middlebury campus.
Down East Emergency Medical Institute (DEEMI) has known about this detail since its photographs were analyzed on April 17, but until this week the public and the Garza family knew only of an “object of interest” that prompted an unplanned search of the river behind Middlebury Union High School on April 18, resulting in no new leads.
DEEMI director Richard Bowie said his organization has a policy not to reveal details of the aerial photographs it takes in missing persons cases, in an effort to be sensitive to the family and to ensure general searching doesn’t stop.
This detail became public after news leaked out.
“We want the public to continue to look,” Bowie said. “We don’t want to say, ‘He’s in the water; stop looking.’ You have to continue looking elsewhere because what if it isn’t him?”
Still, Bowie stressed the object, which searchers have not been able to locate, is well worth tracking down.
“We look for colors,” he said. “We’re looking for jeans … it’s pretty easy to pick them out among Mother Nature. So when you’re looking at this thing in the river, you start associating shapes, sizes, dimensions. Nothing about this looked natural.”
Garza’s mother, Natalie Garza, is thankful the information came to light, but wishes the content of the photographs had been revealed to her sooner.
“Had I known the pictures were so detailed, you better believe I would have been out there on a different path,” she said. “I am on a search for my son, I don’t need to be hidden from any details … I don’t think anything was done to protect my family.”
Middlebury police have yet to see the same high-resolution photos taken by DEEMI and analyzed at an Ohio lab — the mega-pixel images must be reduced to a lower resolution file to be sent over e-mail. So police chief Tom Hanley is not jumping to any conclusions about what they reveal.
“It’s still conjecture at this point,” he said. “(The object) was good enough to at least get us going on a search … but I don’t want to assume that it was a person.”
DEEMI and Middlebury police are fairly certain the object — whatever it is — is now cordoned off between the falls in downtown Middlebury and the CVPS dam below the Pulp Mill Bridge. Considering how the water in the river moves, and how a body would move within it, the object is most likely either stuck in the tangled debris beneath the falls or on its way to the dam, officials said.
Hanley said he is currently developing an action plan for searching the debris piles. The water levels rose another six inches last week, and he stressed it is still too dangerous to attempt such a search.
It has been at least a decade since the chronic logjam in the river has been cleared out, and a crane was used that time. Such equipment would be too disruptive for this search, Hanley said. Also the debris lies on private property, for which police will need permits to search.
Natalie Garza, who has been out searching on her own every day, said she is frustrated that it is taking so long to get another group of searchers into the water. She has been in touch with Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety Tom Tremblay in an effort to accelerate the process.
“I know it has to be safe and everything but I believe somebody can get in there quicker,” she said.
And she continues to pursue the New York investigators looking into a slew of college student deaths believed to be connected by smiley face graffiti painted beside the bodies of water in which they drowned. When the story first broke, Natalie Garza said she thought it was ludicrous to make a connection to the disappearance of her son. But as it has become more likely her son could be in the river, her suspicions have grown.
“My main concerns are that the police aren’t open to looking into this,” she said. “If that is an image of Nick’s body in the water, I don’t believe Nick just walked into the water.”
Middlebury police have contacted the investigators, but said there is no reason to believe Garza’s case is related. Graffiti that was found by the river during the volunteer search on April 26 has been there for two years, they said.
NEW DOG SEARCH
This weekend a Virginia-based trailing dog team called Volunteer K9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery Unit will attempt to recreate Garza’s route of travel the night he went missing.
Unlike dog teams that have previously participated in the search for Garza, the V-K9 dogs are looking for a trail of movement, rather than human remains. Julie Jones, the officer in charge of the New England region, said her dog will track skin cells starting at Stewart Hall, the dorm at which Garza was last seen, to determine where he went that night.
The V-K9 dogs specialize in “aged trails,” and Jones said her dog has successfully tracked people who have been missing for as long as eight months. The fact that Garza’s trail was covered in snow for months shouldn’t hinder the dogs’ ability to track, she added.
If the dogs lead to the river, searchers will switch back to cadaver-sniffing dogs.
“We’re just an additional tool,” Jones said. “We’re not coming in to disprove anyone else’s efforts … If we don’t come up with Nick, there will be another tool brought in to help.”