September 22, 2013

Time is of the essence for missing people

Investigators have to weigh a number of factors as they determine the response to a report.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

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Melissa Nelson and Jeremy Nelson recall their brother Christopher Nelson’s life as Jeremy clutches his brother’s remains at the family’s home.

Photos by Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Sheila Nelson, mother of Christopher Nelson, recalls her son’s life and death at the family’s Pease Hill Road residence in Anson.

Sometimes a missing person may disappear on purpose or run away, said MacDonald of the warden service. In March, 12-year-old Micah Thomas, a Hall-Dale Middle School student, never arrived home after he was dropped off by the school bus. Police and the boy's family hasn't commented on how or why the boy disappeared, but his grandfather said at the time that an incident on the school bus may have spurred Thomas to avoid going home when he got off.

"He decided to take a little walk," said Rob Morris, Thomas' grandfather. "It wasn't a great decision, but he seemed to make one or two good decisions after that."


Depending on the background of the person and what clues there are about their disappearance, a physical search may take shape. For example, if the missing person is elderly and has dementia, searchers might ask if the person enjoys walking. Searchers look for medical information and records of past thoughts, such as if the person is suicidal, or has a history of mental illness.

"Based on searches we've done in the past we can usually draw some conclusions as to where they are and what a likely behavior might be for that person," said MacDonald. Interviews and investigation help to find them sooner, he said.

Sometimes physical evidence can lead to recovery, as in the case of 17-year-old Nicholas Joy, who disappeared off the backside of Sugarloaf Mountain while skiing last winter. His footprints in the snow led Joseph Paul, a 44-year-old firefighter trained in search and rescue, to find Joy in the woods.

Other times, individual circumstances dictate the parameters of the search, said McCausland. One of the first things needed for a search is a sense of the geographic area where a person might be.

"In many cases there is not a search because there is no area in the report. There needs to be specific information on an area, and many times there isn't -- Maine is a big state. There needs to be additional information about where to look," he said.

MacDonald said the warden service averages 450 search and rescue calls per year. The service is generally not the first to be notified of a missing person, but is called in to make sure that the person is not lost or missing in the woods or wilderness, he said.


A search usually begins at a point last seen, the place the person was last spotted, if there is one. In August the disappearance of Vaughn Giggey III, 40, of Skowhegan, from his Main Street apartment provided a starting place to search for him.

Skowhegan police and family members searched for Giggey from the time he was last seen on a Friday night, when he left to walk to his mother's house about two miles away, until game wardens and state police joined the search the following Monday. His body was found that Tuesday.

There is no formula for how many searchers are sent out, but as time goes on, the search becomes more intense and more people are involved, said MacDonald. If a young child is missing, the outpouring from the community is usually greater than normal, said MacDonald, which means authorities would have to manage volunteers who want to help.

One of the most well-known searches missions in Maine was the search for 12-year-old Donn Fendler, who became separated from his family while hiking Mount Katahdin in 1939. Fendler's disappearance launched a hunt that became front page news around the country and involved hundreds of volunteers. He was found alive nine days later by the owner of a camp, who heard him moaning and crying in underbrush along the Penobscot River, 35 miles from where he was last seen.

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