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

(Continued from page 3)

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

Terrain, temperature and environment must also be taken into consideration.

On the rainy day that Wakeman and Nelson disappeared, heavy rain and thunderstorms complicated the search.

Wardens searching for Wakeman noted that any trace of footprints or other evidence would have been washed away or lost in the mud while more than two inches of rain fell in the area.

Nelson's family, who searched for their brother and son with flashlights, believe they may have missed him because of the low visibility and fog that was setting in.

In the case of missing Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay, MacDonald said the terrain made the search among the most difficult they've done and meant that only qualified and trained searchers were used for a majority of the search.

"We have to have highly skilled and trained people searching, because if we don't we may end up searching and rescuing other people during the search already going on," he said.

When three snowmobilers disappeared into the frigid waters of Rangeley Lake in late December, the search to recover their bodies was prolonged months because of extreme wind, cold and changing lake conditions that included thin ice and open water. The bodies of the men, Glenn Henderson, Kenneth Henderson and John Spencer Jr., were recovered from the lake in mid-May, months after they were lost. John Spencer Sr., father of John Spencer Jr., said at the time that the time in between was agonizing for family members of the missing men.

"For parents and loved ones, it is hard to just sit here and wait. Words can't even begin to describe it," he said.

Decisions to scale back or stop searching for someone are made with the families based on the likelihood of finding the person, said MacDonald.

"When the likelihood that all reasonable efforts have been exhausted, that may be the time we stop searching," said MacDonald. He said wardens are still searching for Largay, who disappeared in July.

MacDonald said that 95 percent of people are usually found within 12 to 24 hours of when they are reported missing. The search for Wakeman took place within what is a typical time frame for a search, but authorities had extra concern because of his age, he said.


Dale Lancaster, deputy chief of the Somerset County Sheriff's Department, said that on September 11, his department received a call around 9:45 p.m. from Sheila Nelson saying her son had taken his dog for a walk and hadn't returned. He said the department filled out a missing person report and that the two deputies that responded searched the area but couldn't find Nelson.

Lancaster said police have filled out a preliminary report saying there was nothing suspicious about the death. The cause appears to be a medical issue, he said.

Lancaster said there is no time parameter for a missing person case. It is imperative they are reported right away so deputies can fill out a missing person report, notifying all agents in the agency to be on the lookout for the person.

He said the department probably would have started a search for Nelson, nicknamed Shemp by his family, the morning after he was reported missing. In any case, he said it is necessary for authorities to look at the state of the person and the many unknowns. Had Nelson been a child they probably would have started searching immediately, said Lancaster.

"There was nothing that would indicate this person had mental issues, and it's not illegal for an adult to not come home at night," he said. A comprehensive search would have begun in the morning, less than 12 hours after Nelson was reported missing, said Lancaster.

For Sheila Nelson though, any amount of time was too long to wait for searchers. Nelson stayed up all night on September 11. She watched the sunrise with her daughter and as soon as it was daylight they resumed their search, eventually finding Sully, her son's dog, who had his baseball hat in his mouth. Not far away they found Chris Nelson's body.

Police believe Nelson died of a medical issue, but won't know for sure until the test results from the autopsy are returned.

Nelson said that for the rest of her life she will wonder if a search could have been launched earlier that may have found her son alive and could have brought him medical care.

"It may not have been forever, but it seemed to be a long time by the time anyone got here," she said.

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)