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MISSING ASHLAND TEEN: 'Why?' still unknown in Thomas-Garner case

Jeff Garner picked up his phone Saturday morning and was dumbstruck by what came across the line. It was a voice he had not heard in more than three months, frantically apologizing:

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry for putting you and everybody through all this.”

“And then,” Garner said, “she said, ‘I’m ready to come home.’”

And just like that, Hannah Thomas-Garner, the Ashland High School senior who had been missing since Nov. 30 — a disappearance which set off a police investigation, a separate volunteer-led investigation, the hiring of a private investigator and inspired scores of social media posts and a BringHannahHome Facebook page — came out of hiding.

“I was like, ‘OK, just calm down, let’s talk about this, it’s OK’” Garner said of the short conversation. “She said, ‘I’m ready to come home,’ and she kept crying and said a word, and I don’t remember what the word was. The whole thing was a blur. And I looked at my wife, who was on the phone as well, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s her.’ And she said, ‘I know.’

“It was so exciting,” he said. “I can’t even think of the word. It was shocking, actually. I was in disbelief because I didn’t think it would be possible. I was just elated.”

A few hours after he hung up the phone Garner was on a plane that took off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. That night, he was driving through a quiet neighborhood in Santa Cruz, Calif., following directions, when he saw Thomas-Garner standing on the sidewalk, waiting.

“I don’t even know if I pushed the brake, but the car stopped,” Garner said. “So the car’s in the middle of the road and I went over to her and gave her a big old hug, and we started crying, of course. I just said, ‘We’ll get over this, it’s OK.’”

It was the first time he had seen her since last summer, and Garner said she looked tired and appeared to have lost some weight, but otherwise fine. “She did not look like she was in distress,” he said.

Garner phoned the Ashalnd Police Department that night to report that the search was over and provided a photograph to prove it, then arranged to take Thomas-Garner back with him to his home in Texas. As far as disclosing why Thomas-Garner decided to run away and where she was staying, Garner said as of Monday afternoon those topics had not been discussed yet. Thomas-Garner, through Garner, turned down an interview request.

“Her and I haven’t talked about what happened,” Garner said, “because I’m trying to give her time to realize that it’s OK to open up to us. … We don’t’ know why (she ran away). We have no idea. Only she knows and I don’t want to start bombarding her with questions and then we’ll never know the real reason.”

Both Garner and Thomas-Garner were interviewed by Newswatch 12 on Sunday. During the 10-minute segment, Thomas-Garner said that she was in California the entire time she was gone, knew about the public’s interest in the case and broke her own car window after accidentally locking her supplies inside — the broken window led to speculation among volunteers that she had been kidnapped. When she was asked with whom she stayed with, she declined to answer.

“I don’t really want to talk about, too specifically, where I was because I do have people I’m protecting,” she said, before quickly correcting herself. “Not 'protecting.' Sorry, wrong words. Yeah, I’ve been safe. I’ve been helped by a lot of people.”

Later, when asked about the response to her disappearance by the Ashland community, she said, “After a little bit I did see them, but I still had things that I needed to figure out for myself before I felt comfortable coming home.”

That was about as in-depth as Thomas-Garner was willing to go, as a follow-up question asking for some elaboration on why she stayed away for so long and another asking her to explain why she left in the first place were both answered the same way: “I don’t really want to talk about that.”

Garner said that Thomas-Garner has no plans to return to Ashland High School to complete her diploma.

Ashland High principal Michelle Zundel sent out an all-staff email on Saturday announcing that Thomas-Garner had been found after the BringHannahHome Facebook page made it official. The AHS staff then met Monday morning and was brought up to speed. Later, Zundel made an announcement to the student body over the PA system.

“I would say that the Ashland High community has breathed a huge sigh of relief today,” Zundel said. “We have been consumed with worry and concern for (Thomas-Garner’s) welfare and our hearts are a little lighter today. A lot lighter today.

“One of the things that I would like to emphasize is that we know that not all runaway stories have a happy ending, and that there are teenagers that are really vulnerable when they run away. There are so many other ways that this scenario could have ended.”

There are still some loose ends Thomas-Garner must tie up with the Ashland Police Department. Ashland police chief Terry Holderness said that the department will interview her soon, but whether or not that meeting will be handled in person or through Skype he could not say. The interview, he said, will be used in part to narrow down her motive for running away and may be conducted by a “local agency” which has experience dealing with distressed teens. “It’s just a standard thing we do,” Holderness said.