Troopers aid in search for girl, 11
Specially trained Mass. unit combs through remote area
CANAAN, Vt. - Massachusetts state troopers picked their way through thick thorny bushes and towering spruce trees yesterday morning, hunting for any clue to the disappearance of 11-year-old Celina Cass, who has not been seen since last Monday night in her home in nearby West Stewartstown, N.H.
The Massachusetts State Police Special Emergency Response Team pored over the ground, searching for the smallest telltale sign: a partial footprint, a snapped branch, a discarded bubble gum wrapper.
“If someone is lost in the wild, they leave hundreds or even thousands of clues,’’ said Lieutenant Robert Leverone, the commander of the Special Emergency Response Team. “We don’t go looking for a person. We go looking for clues.’’
As of last night, they said they had found none.
Local authorities have given little indication of how the investigation is progressing, and Celina’s mother and stepfather have not spoken to the news media.
But the girl’s father, Adam Laro, made a brief appearance yesterday at a late-afternoon media briefing on the investigation, pleading for anyone with information about the case to contact authorities.
“We’re all wondering where my daughter is,’’ he said, “and we want the best for her safety.’’
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young told reporters at the briefing that she could not release any updates about the investigation.
When asked during a later phone interview about reports of a red pickup truck being investigated in connection with the case, Young would only say that police took a vehicle that had been parked in the driveway of Celina’s home into custody Friday or Saturday.
Young would not say who owned the vehicle or whether authorities have recovered any evidence from it. She said the case was still being treated as a missing child investigation, and authorities have no suspects in the disappearance.
Law enforcement agencies from Canada and elsewhere in the region - New Hampshire and Vermont state police, the FBI, the US Border Patrol, and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department - have assisted in the hunt for Celina.
On Saturday, they were joined by 10 members of the Massachusetts State Police, six of them from the emergency response unit, who brought with them all-terrain vehicles and an amphibious vehicle designed to maneuver through brush and swampland.
Trooper John Fanning, 30, a member of the special response unit, said he was called at 11 p.m. Friday and told to be ready to travel to help with the search for Cass by 5 a.m. the next day. He packed quickly and quietly at his Hanover, Mass., home, trying not to wake his wife and three sons.
Yesterday, he said he was optimistic that the unit’s search would yield clues that might help in the investigation.
“There are too many miracles that can happen, too many good stories you hear,’’ said Fanning, as he scanned the bushes around his knees for signs of disturbance. “Personally, you have to believe there’s still a hope.’’
The State Police’s Special Emergency Response Team functions as a catch-all crisis response unit. It is made up of 50 troopers specially trained in tracking, land navigation, clue identification, wilderness survival, crowd control, riot suppression, and response to chemical and biological weapons.
Recently, the special response team was deployed to help with post-tornado recovery efforts in Springfield, the search for evidence in the killing of 18-year-old Lauren Astley in Wayland, and crowd control after the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup win.
“It’s something different all the time, and it’s a different way to help people,’’ said Leverone. “Yesterday, we were slogging knee-deep through swamps.’’
State Police are paying for all costs associated with their contribution to the search, according to State Police spokesman Dave Procopio, who said he could not provide a cost estimate because it is not known how long the deployment will last.
“Money is not an issue,’’ Procopio said in an e-mail. “All we care about is finding Celina.’’
Yesterday, the troopers - dressed in combat boots and armed with hydration packs, hiking sticks, and bug spray - performed line searches in teams, sweeping along 50-yard swaths of brush along roads and checking secluded cabins in the woods. They used software to track their path, matching their GPS coordinates with topographic maps. And they outlined the areas they searched with blue markers.
It was slow going. The troopers took about two hours to clear one stretch of road about a mile long. Officers left about 10 yards of space between one another, searching for anything out of the ordinary. They pointed out spots where they noticed a subtle part in the tall grass, a sign that the area has been traversed. But they quickly identified each disturbance as an animal track, maybe a deer, or a dent too overgrown to be made within the past week.
And while the troopers are accustomed to trudging through the woods in search of missing persons, they encountered some unfamiliar challenges.
“Watch out for bear traps,’’ warned US Customs and Border Protection officer Kevin Voigt, who lives in this neighborhood and helped guide the Massachusetts troopers. “They might be around.’’
A trooper swore loudly.
Voigt also warned troopers to approach isolated cabins slowly, shouting out greetings. People here protect their property, Voigt said. They might shoot if they see someone snooping on their land.
Moments later, a partridge fluttered up from the ground with a whirr. The troopers all jumped.
“Bear traps, crazy people with guns,’’ Leverone muttered.
Finally, the troopers reached the end of the dirt road, which forked off into smaller snowmobile paths that cut through a Christmas tree farm. They paused. A person could weave through the rows of trees without leaving disturbed brush.
But then they looked at the freshly trimmed trees. The farmer would have noticed someone hiding out in his field. They marked off the site, in case other investigators wanted to search the field later.
Then they moved on.
Travis Anderson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.