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In missing girl case, police say evidence supports runaway theory

Ashland police Deputy Chief Tighe O’Meara told 40 people gathered at the police station Monday that investigators have phone records, comments of credible witnesses and other evidence they can’t reveal that strongly indicate 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 and posed five written questions about the case, which O’Meara answered. The crowd then demanded police investigate the Ashland teenager's disappearance as a crime and work more aggressively on it.

The citizen group had to cancel a Sunday search on Dead Indian Memorial Road where Thomas-Garner was last seen at the late-night party because of snow. When members 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.

Bring Hannah Home organizer Amy Couture asked whether police had any evidence indicating Thomas-Garner was still alive.

“I understand your concern," O'Meara said. "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, O’Meara said. Davis was later found in Humboldt County with two men who know Thomas-Garner, he said. Thomas-Garner had asked to run away with Davis and one of the men, Andrew Thibert, 19, in his vehicle, but Thibert said no.

O’Meara said Ashland police did classify Thomas-Garner as an “endangered missing person” when her car was found in Mt. Shasta with a bashed-in window and because of the possible jeopardy she could be in due to 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 Thomas-Garner'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 cellphone evidence and processed Thomas-Garner’s bashed-up car for DNA and hair samples. The samples will not be sent for processing unless a crime is determined to be involved.

Police don’t credit “emotionally charged” third-party information from uninvolved witnesses, O’Meara said, adding they base their judgments 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 cellphone (the phone was found in her car), O’Meara said he believes Thomas-Garner took it. If so, this would support the runaway scenario.

O’Meara said a SIM card can be popped in a different cellphone, bringing up the original phone number, 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.”

“We’re all concerned and all we can do is being done ... way above and beyond,” O'Meara said, in large part because of the community's response.

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

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

Ashland Deputy Chief Tighe O'Meara addresses community members gathered in front of the Ashland Police Department Monday to urge a more aggressive investigation into the disappearance of local teen Hannah Thomas-Garner. Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.