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Evidence supports runaway theory, officer tells crowd

In a seemingly unprecedented mass grilling of an Ashland Police Department officer by 40 members of the community, Deputy Chief Tighe O’Meara on Monday said investigators have phone records, comments of credible witnesses and other evidence they can’t reveal, all of which strongly indicate that the missing teen Hannah Thomas-Garner planned to run away from a Nov. 30 party and head down into California — and did just that.

The group of citizens behind the loosely organized Bring Hannah Home group called for a meeting on the police department steps, posing five written questions about the case — which O’Meara answered — then opened the questioning to an impatient public, who demanded police investigate the disappearance as a crime and work more aggressively on it.

The citizen group had to cancel a Sunday search of hilly country on Dead Indian Memorial Road because of snow, but when they demanded Ashland Police search the area with dogs, O’Meara said he’d just talked to Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies and they planned to do exactly that within hours. The search would include “cadaver dogs,” he said. No results were reported by 5 p.m. Monday.

Asked by Bring Hannah Home organizer Amy Couture if police had any evidence indicating Thomas-Garner is still alive, O’Meara responded, “I understand your concern. It’s very touching ... but we still feel very strongly, based on evidence ... that she did make it to Northern California” and hitchhiked from Mt. Shasta to Dunsmuir.

Thomas-Garner planned to run away with classmate Sylvia Davis, but changed her mind, said O’Meara. Davis was found as a runaway in Humboldt County, with two adult males. These men know Thomas-Garner, he said, adding that Thomas-Garner had asked to run away with Davis and one of the men, Andrew Thibert, 19, in his vehicle, but he said no.

O’Meara said Ashland Police did classify Thomas-Garner as an “endangered missing person” based on “alarm” raised by her bashed-in car and the possible “jeopardy” she could be in because of the “type of crowd she’s likely to mingle with.”

Couture privately gave O’Meara a Facebook page indicating one of the men Davis was found with worked at a pizza joint at the Mt. Shasta freeway interchange where the girl’s car was found. O’Meara said that was “curious, but I don’t know if that suggests anything. I’ll look into it.”

Police did a “cursory search” of the party area, interviewed many of the high schoolers at the party, scanned their cell phone evidence, processed Thomas-Garner’s bashed-up car for DNA and hair samples, but will not send the samples to Oregon State Police labs for processing unless the event is considered a crime.

He stressed it’s a myth from TV that such samples can be analyzed in 45 minutes. The reality, based on past experience, is that it can take more than a year, he said. If the evidence is from California, it goes to their labs and takes even longer. 

Another citizen group organizer, Susanne Severeid, whose son is a classmate of the girl, asked, “You’ve collected evidence but you don’t know what it says?” O’Meara replied that was the case. She asked if the FBI had helped on the case. He replied that they’d called but won’t be involved unless evidence points to a crime. 

Police don’t credit “emotionally charged” third-party information from uninvolved witnesses, O’Meara said, adding they base their judgements mainly on information “that could only have come from Hannah’s mouth.”

He said Thomas-Garner’s credit cards were left at home, so they’ve left no tracks. About the SIM card missing from her cell phone (the phone was found in her car), O’Meara said he believes Thomas-Garner took it. If so, this would support the runaway situation.

O’Meara said a SIM card can be popped in a different cell phone, bringing up the original phone number for the new phone to run, but that police don’t believe she did that, as it would be easy to track.

O’Meara repeatedly said police must “protect investigative integrity” and don’t reveal information that, if made public, would hamper their ability to “see if a witness knows anything.”

After Severeid began a question with, “Can you sit back comfortably in your chair ...,” O’Meara answered her question, then added, “We’re all concerned and all we can do is being done ... way above and beyond,” in large part because of the big community response — and, he noted, “that was an unnecessarily antagonistic way of phrasing that question.” 

After 45 minutes in a light, near-freezing drizzle, in shirtsleeves, O’Meara, who had worked all night, said concerned citizens can find all new information posted on the APD website (http://bit.ly/apdmedia). 

— Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.