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Investigation into missing student taxes police budget

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — A shorthanded Middlebury Police Department is working overtime — and a lot of it — in its efforts to locate missing Middlebury College student Nick Garza while continuing to meet the law enforcement needs of the community.

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said the his department will probably exceed by a substantial margin the $27,000 that had been budgeted for special investigations, including overtime, in the fiscal year ending June 30. The department had run through $15,000 of that budget through the end of January — a week before Garza, 19, disappeared from the Middlebury College campus.

Since then, several Middlebury patrolmen — along with officers from other agencies — have been putting in 16-hour days following up on the scant leads that have emerged since Garza was last seen on campus at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 5.

Local officers worked a combined total of more than 400 hours on the case during the first week Garza was missing, according to Hanley. That number of hours has tapered off only slightly during ensuing weeks as a result of weather factors and thanks to other agencies pitching in.

Local officials pledged to keep up the search at all costs. It’s a search that at the same time is taking a toll on a weary, short-staffed Middlebury Police Department with limited resources.

“It’s going to be fairly extraordinary,” Hanley said of the looming deficit in the department’s overtime budget.

The financial impact would not have been lighter had Middlebury police been at full staff. But the 14-member force is currently light three officers, as a result of two vacancies and one officer now serving with the Vermont Air National Guard.

As a result, the department doesn’t have the flexibility to reassign officers to the investigation while covering shifts. That means off-duty officers are being asked to work overtime.

“We are out of places to pull people from,” Hanley said. “Because we are a 24/7 agency, we can’t have people gone and not replace them.”

Officials do expect to be able to apply some of the savings from carrying two vacant positions to defray some overtime expenses.

There are currently five investigators assigned to the Garza case full-time, according to Hanley. They include two Middlebury police officers and a sergeant, along with two former Vermont State Police (VSP) troopers.

Hanley said Middlebury College is underwriting the costs of the former VSP officials, along with providing “a lot of the logistical support.” That support has included meals and other services for those searching on campus, along with the costs of hiring excavators to dig through snow piles that may conceal clues or remains.

The college also makes an annual contribution to the Middlebury police budget for any extraordinary public safety expenses. The college’s contribution this year was $13,000, according to Hanley. Middlebury College also has a 20-year “fair share” agreement with the town through which it pays the municipality an annual sum in recognition of the services it receives as a nonprofit entity.

Hanley said he appreciates the considerable help the college has provided during the investigation of a very unfortunate incident that no one could have predicted.

“The college didn’t make this kid disappear,” Hanley said.

He also expressed his thanks to the more than 20 state, local, federal and private individuals and organizations that have helped in the effort. They include the VSP, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Stowe Mountain Rescue Team and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said that while the local police department budget may come in over budget, “it is simply the nature of a sudden need like this. It happens. You try to build a budget based on what the anticipated need will be.

“We’ll be alright,” Tenny added.

Police were busy last week following up on a report about a person fitting Garza’s description who was seen walking north on Route 23 in Weybridge between 3:30 a.m. and 3:40 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 6, about 1.6 miles north of Pulp Mill Bridge Road.

The person was described as a white male, early to mid 20s, around five-feet, eight-inches tall, thin build, dark hair almost to the shoulders, wearing a light-blue coat with two dark vertical stripes. The young man’s footprints indicate he came from the area of Weybridge Street in Middlebury.

On Thursday investigators located and identified the man, determined that he was not involved in the Garza disappearance and closed that line of investigation.

Anyone with any potential leads in the Garza case should call Middlebury police at 388-3191.

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