Missing: Mystery surrounds some Vermont disappearances
Published: Sunday, October 30, 2005
By Sam Hemingway
Free Press Staff Writer
Heide Dawn Wilbur's file sits in a box next to the desk of Vermont State Police Detective Cpl. Helaine Gaiotti.
For 14 years, Gaiotti has been trying to locate the blonde-haired teen from Middletown Springs without success. Her inability to find Wilbur, to even know if she's dead or alive, haunts the veteran detective.
"There's never been a really hot lead in the case," Gaiotti said in an interview last week. "Cases like this take away a little piece of me. It's horrible."
Wilbur was 16 and under the custody of the state Social and Rehabilitation Services department. She was living in a Rutland foster home in early 1991 when she got a weekend pass to visit her family in Middletown Springs. On Feb. 11, it's believed she thumbed a ride out of town -- and into oblivion.
"She's 30-something now, if she's still alive," Gaiotti said. "Her father's deceased and her mother's had a stroke. Part of me wonders why she's not come back and said, 'I'm free. You can't touch me now.'"
Investigating the whereabouts of longtime missing persons like Wilbur is one of the most difficult jobs police do, according to Vermont State Police Lt. Tim Oliver. The trail grows cold. Witnesses move on or pass away. More urgent cases demand attention.
"It's up to the investigators to put time into the cases when they can," said Oliver, who oversees a state police Web site that features photographs and details of 11 of Vermont's bigger missing-person cases. "A couple of these will never be solved."
Wilbur's case might be one of them, but Gaiotti refuses to believe it. Gaiotti said she feels she has grown to know Wilbur by studying the young woman's missing-person's folder at her desk over the
"She was the kind of kid who could re-invent herself, you know, tell a story so well you could believe her," Gaiotti said of Wilbur. "Some days, I hope she's out there, doing well. Other days, I think she's got to be gone."
Gaiotti said she recently received a tip that Wilbur was seen at a gathering of people who live a nomadic communal lifestyle. The detective is planning to re-interview relatives and friends; meanwhile, an "age-processed" photo of what Wilbur might now look like has been added to Wilbur's teenage photo collection on www.doenetwork.com, an Internet Web site for missing persons.
There were 1,039 reports of missing persons in Vermont in 2004, according to statistics kept by the Vermont Crime Information Center. Nationally, the number of people reported missing annually is more than 800,000.
In most cases, police say missing persons eventually turn up alive and unharmed, many within a day or two of when they are first reported missing. Vermont had 631 missing person reports in the first six months of 2005, but listed only 78 "active cases" last week, according to Max Schlueter, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center.
Missing-person cases have particular significance for the Vermont State Police because of the case of Bennington College student Paula Welden, who disappeared while taking a walk on the Long Trail near Glastenbury Mountain on Dec. 1, 1946.
Vermont had no state police force at the time. The inability of local officials to find Welden forced then-Gov. Ernest Gibson to call in police from New York and Massachusetts to help in the search. It also persuaded local-control-minded legislators to finally support creation of the Vermont State Police. Welden was never found.
"My gut feeling is foul play was involved," Bennington Police Chief Richard Gauthier said last week. "It's consistent with what we know with cases involving a serial killer. Very often, the bodies of the victims in these cases are never recovered."
If Welden is alive, she would be 77 years old, not the smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed college sophomore in the photo provided police when she disappeared. "She's kind of the Amelia Earhart of Vermont," Gauthier said.
Over the years, police in Vermont have gone to great lengths in their investigations of missing persons. Police drained the Wrightsville Reservoir in 2001 after receiving a tip that the body of Audrey Groat, a Northfield mother who vanished Aug. 21, 1993, would be found there.
In the search for the remains of Grace Reapp and her daughter Gracie, missing since June 6, 1978, police employed ground penetration radar and conducted three digs between 1996 and 2000 at a Jericho homestead where the Reapp family once lived.
"We've been to that property 14 times," said Detective Sgt. Gerald H. Charboneau of the Vermont State Police. "I'll continue to pursue leads as they come in. This may be a so-called 'cold case' but it's still an open case."
The search for bodies in each case was unsuccessful, but police continue to treat the Groat and Reapp disappearances as possible homicides and Reapp's husband as "a person of interest" in that case. In the Reapp case, family members are so sure Grace and Gracie Reapp were killed that they had Chittenden County Probate Court declare the two dead.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of her," Grace Reapp's sister, Juliana Woodworth of Franklin, Conn., said of her sibling.
Woodworth praised Charboneau for his efforts in the case, but said police weren't aggressive enough in the first days after Reapp and her daughter were reported missing. "The initial investigation was horrible," she said.
Wilfred "Butch" King III of Essex Junction, missing since Oct. 24, 1980, is also suspected of being the victim of a homicide. His family has had him declared dead, too, and has erected a gravestone in his memory at a Williston cemetery.
King was 37 when he went missing, estranged from his wife and recovering from a bad automobile accident that had forced him to use crutches for two years to get around.
His blood-stained crutches were found by hunters in the woods near Colchester the day he was reported missing. Two weeks later, his truck was found in a sand pit in Williston. Essex police have always treated King's disappearance as a likely homicide, but no arrests have been made.
"If a lead comes in, we work it," said Essex Detective Sgt. Rick Garey. "Unfortunately, after 25 years people's memories fade."
Lillian King, the mother of Wilfred King III, said she's become frustrated with the lack of police progress in solving what she believes is the murder of her son.
"It doesn't seem to me they've done an awful lot," she said. "I'm 80 and my husband is 87. It's torture. You don't know what happened or where he is. You'd like to put it all to rest, but it's impossible."
The mystery about what happened to some missing persons seems impenetrable, even with the new investigative tools police have at their disposal, including DNA evidence technology and massive national missing-person databases.
Lynne Schulze was a Middlebury College freshman Dec. 10, 1971, headed across campus to take an exam when, friends said, she turned around and went back to retrieve a pencil from her dorm room.
Other than a report that she allegedly was spotted walking along U.S. 7 south of Middlebury later that day, she was never seen again. She left behind all her clothes, her wallet. Police followed many tips over the years without success. Schulze's parents have since died, but not before providing DNA samples to police, along with dental records.
Russ Bovit had recently moved to Vermont from New Jersey and bought the Last Resort Farm in Walden when he went missing the night of May 6, 1986. His empty, light blue 1974 Renault was found a day later, stuck in mud on a dirt road four miles from his home. Bovit left behind a wallet full of money and credit cards.
"We did a massive search," said Detective Leo Bachand of the Vermont State Police, who has continued to chase leads in the case over the last 19 years in conjunction with Bovit's family and private detectives hired to find Bovit or his body.
Bovit's family paid to have a two-man submersible watercraft plumb the depths of Lake Willoughby, searching for a U-Haul trailer purported to contain Bovit's body. No trailer or body was found.
The 2004 disappearances of two Vermont teenage girls are the state's latest high-profile missing-persons cases. March 19, Brianna Maitland vanished after finishing her nighttime dishwashing job at a Montgomery restaurant. On Aug. 27, Dominika Smolinski ran away from her family's Westford home.
Each girl has been featured on national television shows about missing people -- Smolinski's story was profiled on the Oct. 13 broadcast of the CBS drama "Without a Trace."
Smolinki's parents say they received a letter from her last spring, and police have two confirmed sightings of her.
"I think Dominika is out there, I think Dominika is alive," said Detective Sgt. Joe Leahy of the Vermont State Police. "I keep a spiral notebook on her in my bookcase and I pull it out daily. I'm telling you, I'm busting my butt on this case."
There are no new clues about Maitland's whereabouts, but the search for her continues. Saturday, 40 search-and-rescue workers from three states, police from around New England and 17 dogs trained in finding cadavers finished a second consecutive fruitless day of searching sites in Berkshire and Montgomery.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org