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Still no sign of missing girl

No evidence shedding any light on the disappearance of 17-year-old Hannah Thomas-Garner was discovered Saturday during the fifth and what's expected to be final search of the teen party area by a gravel pit at the top of Dead Indian Memorial Road. Thomas-Garner slipped out of her Ashland home Saturday night, Nov. 29, and was seen at the party area early Sunday, Nov. 30. Her damaged car was found abandoned in the city of Mt. Shasta that Sunday night.

At the request of the Ashland Police Department, county search and rescue teams and search dogs on Saturday combed the area of the gravel pit and four other areas near milepost 13 that are popular for teen parties, and turned up with a very low “probability of detection” rating, said Sgt. Shawn Richards of the Jackson County Sheriff Department.

In earlier searches, the team searched the entirety of roadside and turnoffs of Dead Indian Memorial Road and found nothing connected with the missing Ashland High School student, he said. These were the areas with the highest POD, or probability of detection, he said.

The team, made up of experienced volunteers, puts in 20,000 hours a year in its search missions and did 100 such missions last year, said Richards. He and his assistant are the only paid members of the team.

Dogs aided search

The team included two search dogs who are certified in human remains detection, he said.

“We look for anything,” said Richards, standing beside an old sock and squashed beer can, both circled in green spray paint. “We start from the PLS, or place last seen, and this is it, right here.”

Several random articles of clothing and liquor or beer bottles could not be tied to the case, he said.

“What we know is, more likely than not, it (evidence) is not here,” said Richards, “so Ashland police can take their attention off this place.”

One of the volunteer search team members, Rick Klimek of Phoenix, said searchers were doing 10- to 15-foot grid sweeps for anything that might be pertinent and, though they are finding a lot of party debris, they haven’t found anything that Richards deems relevant. 

Ashland police have classified Thomas-Garner’s disappearance as a runaway case, not a criminal case. A group of community members calling themselves “Team Hannah” want the classification changed, so evidence collected from her car can be sent to a crime lab for processing.

In a recent news conference with the group and other citizens, Deputy Chief Tighe O'Meara said police classed it a runaway case because, in their investigative interviews, they learned the girl had planned such a flight with a classmate and spoke at the gravel pit party of her plans for flight. Her abandoned car was found near an Interstate 5 interchange at Mt. Shasta with the windshield bashed in and SIM (subscriber identity module) card missing from her phone. The airbag was not deployed.

The citizen group says this is evidence of foul play and fault police for not embarking on extensive analysis of forensics evidence in state crime labs. Police have said the evidence upholds their premise that she’s a runaway — but they're still on the case.

“We're continuing to follow it and it’s still under investigation,” said Warren Hensman, Ashland police deputy chief for operations. “We’re doing everything we can to find her and are still concerned.”

Investigator hired, petition started

The girl’s father, Jeff Garner of Kilgore, Texas, in a phone interview Saturday, said he has hired a private investigator, Vicki Siedow of the Los Angeles area, and is seeking financial help to pay for her and his travel expenses on http://www.gofundme.com/bringhannahhomesoo. The site had raised $2,150 from 38 people as of Sunday morning, Feb. 1.

An petition calling for testing of evidence — saying in part "We, the community and family of Hannah Thomas Garner, want all evidence tested NOW! If this was your daughter you would want answers too!" — has been started on the change.org website at www.change.org/p/ashland-oregon-police-department-test-the-evidence-they-found-on-hannah-thomas-garners-car. The petition had 3,031 online signatures as of Sunday morning.

Garner said analysis of forensics evidence has been complicated by the fact that it hasn't been declared a crime and that the car was in Siskiyou County, Calif., “and we're trying to figure out who’s in charge, to process the case. We're trying to get the blood sample from the car processed.”

Garner is in touch with the girl’s grandmother in Stockton and aunt in Modesto but, he says, they haven't heard from the girl. Police have said a credible witness gave her a ride from Mt. Shasta to Dunsmuir on Monday, Dec. 1. They also said she asked to leave with the other runaway girl and two young men, but was refused. 

Her mother, Jamie Daugherty of Ashland, has said Hannah was in good spirits the day of her disappearance. She has been a good student and well-adjusted, says Garner, with no complaints about her home life over the years.

Deputy chief responds

O'Meara, the Ashland deputy chief, addressed some of the concerns expressed by those calling for a more aggressive investigation in an email, a portion of which reads:

"From the onset we have taken this case quite seriously and we have put a lot of resources into it. We have enlisted the help of other police agencies, and we have conducted many interviews, and re-interviewed the same people if needed. We have sent our detectives into California as needed, and we asked the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office to process Hannah's vehicle for forensic evidence, which they did. We have pushed all information out to all West Coast police departments through our information sharing system. That system is what (led) to the second runaway being found in Humboldt County by a fire chief.

“... The part about us being non-responsive is just plain wrong. The part about the evidence requires a bit more explanation. Let's start with the rule that forensics labs will not test forensic evidence unless they are investigating a crime. In this case there are several points that give us a very strong indication that no crime was committed in association with that vehicle.

“We know, from Hannah's friends and her own social media account that she planned to run away;

“We know that she planned her runaway time, and the manner in which she would run away, including damaging her car and leaving her cell phone behind, but taking the SIM card;

“Her car was in fact left abandoned, damaged with the cell phone remaining but the SIM card gone ....”

“This all leads us to our strong belief that Hannah is a runaway, and therefore whatever evidence is present in the car should not be submitted for testing.

“As always, we want to emphasize that we are concerned for Hannah's well-being, and we certainly understand that a 17-year-old girl on her own, living amongst the people that she is likely to be living amongst, is in danger, but that doesn't change the fact that she seems to have started out on her own volition, and left her car behind on her own volition, which is not a crime."

Father 'will do whatever I can'

Meanwhile Garner, the missing girl's father, says his worry has deepened because it’s been two months since the disappearance and it’s not like Hannah to be out of touch more than a few days.

“I think there’s nowhere she would run away to. Maybe she did run away. It appears from the school and police that maybe she did run away. I lean to that, that she did run away,” says Garner. “I would like to think she ran away to get away from a situation in school or at home and met some people and now is hanging out with them.” 

However, said Garner, “the only reason she wouldn't call is that she can’t for some reason. I’m scared. My daughter’s been abducted or taken against her will and is in a situation she can’t control. I’m fearful for her safety. I can't protect her. 

“There are no answers and that’s the scary part ... I wish we knew one piece of evidence ... They're all hemming and hawing. I think Ashland police have dropped the ball and should turn over the case to the FBI ... I call APD every week and they say, ‘We're still trying’ and I say, ‘that’s great, buddy.’ Someone needs to take the bull by the horns. Let’s get real and someone stand up and fight for this girl. My first-born child is missing, the love of my life is gone. I will do whatever I can to get her back, even if I have to sue the city.”

Garner said he’s setting up a reward fund. Police urge anyone with information to call them at 541-482-5211. The gofundme lists other contacts as tipline@ashland.or.us and 800-THE-LOST.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org. Tidings Editor Bert Etling contributed to this story; reach him at betling@dailytidings.com.

Jackson County Sheriff Search and Rescue volunteers head for an area near where Hannah Thomas-Garner was last seen along Dead Indian Memorial Road on Saturday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Jackson County Sheriff Search and Rescue volunteers coordinate a search on Saturday for clues to the disappearance of Hannah Thomas-Garner. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune