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A Tale of Travel

Search Party

By Milan Bhandari

Today is the big day. You can feel it. Not only has this case reached fevered pitch on the national news level, but the last few days the growing numbers joining the search party has become almost a side-story in itself. It’s a sunny Saturday, the first since this case became such a runaway hit, and a turnout of a hundred or more is expected. The church which serves as our gathering place has a charged feel to it—there is anticipation, excitement almost. The good residents of Bolingbrook have come out to claim back one of their own.

We are all here for the same reason—to find a girl. Twenty-two year old Bolingbrook resident, Stacy Peterson has been missing for thirteen days now. She is the mother of two young children, and the wife of Drew Peterson, a thirty-year veteran of the Bolingbrook Police Department. Drew is the main suspect in the disappearance.

Carey and I silently follow the instructions offered by the group of smiling ladies seated at sign-up tables near the entrance. One of them hands us each a color flyer with Stacy’s face on it.

“Did you get a picture?” a second lady asks me as I move ahead in the registration line. “Take as many as you can. The more we get out there, the better chance of finding her!”

I grab one more to be friendly, though I’m unsure of its relevance at this point. Stacy’s been missing for more than ten days now. Alive or not, if we find her she’s not looking like this.

“Help yourself to some food,” the lady says, pointing to the far wall. “And make sure you get plenty of water bottles.”

I turn my glance to where she is gesturing, and see an impressive spread of snacks and beverages, spanning three long tables. Just a few minutes prior, when Carey and I had met at the Dunkin Donuts, I had wondered if it were inappropriate to show up at the church with a Dunkin Donuts cup of coffee in my hand. A coffee cup feels like a party, I figured. Coffee to donuts to sprinkles. But this is much more than a coffee cup. The table is littered with colorful granola bars and cookies and juice boxes and pop cans. And an endless supply of water bottles.

“After the search, we’re going to have Jimmy John’s sandwiches for everybody,” she informs us.

Regardless of the somber circumstances, this is Bolingbrook’s moment in the sun. Previous to Stacy’s disappearance, no one outside west suburban Chicago cared about this generic middle-class town of 60,000, with its subdivisions filled with vinyl siding houses, punctuated by countless strip malls. Unlike Naperville, the rich suburb to our north, which some national contest voted the “best place to raise a family” a decade ago, Bolingbrook has been waiting for its claim to fame for a long time now. And though no one says it, I’m guessing over the last week every resident has thought the very same thing: Stacy Peterson has done for Bolingbrook what Ikea was supposed to do—put us on the map.

My family moved here over twenty years ago. And even though I’ve only lived in town sporadically since moving to Chicago for college a decade ago, I still think of it as home. Thus, as news coverage of the case grew, so has my appetite to get involved.

Instinctively I called up Carey Ryan, my best friend from high school. Carey is precisely the kind of guy who should be involved in a search like this. He’s brilliant and resourceful, an almost MacGyver-esque character who could have been a CIA agent in another life. In high school he spent his free time perfecting the art of picking locks with elaborately reshaped paperclips. He and I later teamed up to form a squad known as “The Syndicate,” which we used for carrying out missions ranging from egging our enemies’ houses, to tapping their phone lines. A few years ago Carey got married and moved back to Bolingbrook, becoming my one remaining contact in town.

We find seats and sit down, taking silent inventory of our surroundings. I watch a man with sunglasses perched atop his head and an open windbreaker jacket, speaking with a group of people huddled around him. Judging by the way they’re all listening to what he’s saying, I’m guessing he’s someone in charge. But who knows. Some people deserve your attention, and some just ask for it.

The meeting is led by the head of the Texas group Equusearch, a team that specializes in finding missing persons while riding horse back, in forested areas and bodies of water. He is a gray haired gentleman of small stature, with a generally worn look to him. “Good morning everybody,” he starts, waiting for the crowd to quiet down. “I’d just like to say a few words about today. It’s a very big day for the search. We’ve been blessed with beautiful weather, we have a great turnout of volunteers, and we hope we find what we’re looking for today.” I look around and watch everyone nodding along. “We’ve been going hard for the last week, and we’re going to take Sunday off to rest, so let’s make the most of today.”

As he speaks, I think about the dilemma facing Stacy’s family. By definition, the goal of a search is to find something. But in this case finding something means the worst. It’s been two weeks, and the other night on the news someone in her family said they’re ready for resolution, just to know something definitively. This to me sounded hard to believe—that after a certain amount of time knowing someone is dead might be preferable to wondering if they’re still alive. But I’m in no position to judge. And I guess the idea of a soul at rest, rather than in peril, probably comes into play at some point. “Does everyone have a picture of Stacy?” he asks. We all nod yes.

For the first time, I really study the photo. It’s not the original one the media had been running, but a glammed up version, in which she’s wearing bright red lipstick. She is definitely attractive. But I wonder who decided to change the pictures and why. The last one was a more down-to-earth, housewife-type picture. Perhaps the thinking is that the makeup shots might keep Nancy Grace interested just a little longer, and if Stacy’s looks can keep Natalie Holloway’s at bay for a few more weeks, she might just get the attention she needs to be found.

“Now let’s remember, if you find something that doesn’t look like the picture, you should still mark it. We’ve got two more girls from the area still missing too.”

The two girls he’s referring to are the lesser known cases of Lisa Stebick, a mother from another nearby suburb, who went missing a few months back, and Rachel Mellon, a Bolingbrook middle school girl, who has been missing for over a decade. The oddity of his statement is striking. As if anyone who stumbles across a pile of human remains that don’t resemble Stacy would simply walk away.

After leaving the church, we head to the site—a large forest preserve area just a mile north of us, in Naperville. Carey and I exit quickly, eager to get started and avoid any carpool requests.

We arrive early, and stand around waiting with everyone else. Off to the side, a CLTV reporter is interviewing a man with a baseball cap. I wonder if I want to be on TV, if I’d be able to think of something witty but still respectful to say. When I told my mom I was “totally going to find her” that morning, she shook her head and turned away like it made her sad. These missing local girls have really been getting to her lately.

A neatly dressed white-haired couple approaches, led by a small brown dog, some combination of poodle and cocker spaniel. “That a search dog?” some guy’s voice yells out. Everyone turns to look.

The husband smiles and shakes his head. “No, she just likes going for walks.”

We look down at the dog again, disappointed. She seems unfazed.

Off to my left I see the man with the sunglasses from before. He is near the front, again surrounded by a small group of people. As he talks his voice gradually becomes louder, extending beyond his group until he is eventually addressing all of us.

“What’s the deal here? Let’s get this thing moving, you know!” His sunglasses are down over his eyes, and his movements are clumsy, like he can’t see behind the dark lenses. The guys around him nod in approval.

Another man, a more robust, younger looking fellow in an EMT-type outfit with a shoulder walkie-talkie speaks up. “We’re waiting for the whole group to get here. And we’re still waiting on some of the group leaders.”

The man with the sunglasses, whom we will later know as Joe, turns his back to the group and kicks around some gravel, grumbling a few words his posse finds funny. After some more minutes of waiting, his impatience once again gets the best of him. “Hey, come on! Let’s get going!” he yells, attempting to rally the rest of us. “Who needs any group leaders? I know this area backwards and forwards. There’s a girl missing out there, and she needs us. Let’s quit standing around wasting time.”

“That’s not the way it works,” the EMT guy snaps back, then begins whispering into his walkie-talkie. The group around Joe says nothing, but seems to be slowly distancing itself from him.

“Not the way it works? All I know is there’s a poor girl that’s out there, and we were told to show up at 8 a.m., and now it’s 9:15 and we haven’t even started looking yet. I only have half a day, and I’m here to find her!” Riding his own oratorical momentum, he cries out, “I don’t need anyone telling me how to look for a girl. I’ve been out in the woods most of my life. Let’s go!” And with that, he begins ascending the parking lot road that leads into the forest.

No one follows. But we all look on, as his figure gets smaller and smaller.

“Do you think I need a coat?” I ask Carey, who is shaking his head, still watching Joe fade into the trees.

“Probably not,” he answers, smiling. “Man, look at him go.”

We are instructed to get into groups of seven to eight. After failing to find a proper group, Carey and I fall in with the leftovers: a brown-haired middle-aged lady named Linda, who is wearing a pair of dressy, high-platform shoes; a tall sporty-looking man dressed in Chicago Bears gear; a shorter, carpenter-type fellow with tight jeans and hiking boots; a twenty-something guy in gray hoodie; a grizzled man in his sixties named Tom, and his aged father Henry, clad in a red jacket. Our group leader is a friendly, knowledgeable, outdoorsy type named John.

En route to the forest, the carpenter wastes no time beginning his search. Hopping like some rabbit, he bounds into the fields near the forest entrance, pushing away leaves, combing through brush. Passing drainage pipes, he gets down on his hands and knees and looks inside. We watch him curiously, wondering if he’s doing it correctly. He seems to have the right idea. Why not start looking now? The way to the site seems like just as good a spot as any to search. But the search hasn’t technically begun yet, so the rest of us hold off.

“Henry is having breathing problems,” John reports to us, speaking on his cell phone with someone back in the parking lot. We have just reached the site, and already lost two members, Henry and his son. The group begins to chatter, and I hear the words “ambulance” and “stretcher” spoken. Given Henry’s probable age, we’re not all that surprised, though I’m sure no one expected him to have problems this early on. Just as I’m picturing him being carried off, John’s phone rings again.

“It’s Henry,” he tells us, holding up a finger for us to wait. After a few words he hangs up the phone and smiles, “He wants to help too much to go home. They should be here any minute!”

A few moments later, we see them turn the corner, and begin cheering them on as they make their way towards us. Our fake smiles fade quickly.

It’s called a line search—a large section of land is divided into a rectangle, and the group forms a straight line, in our case with about 200 ft. between each person. Then we walk forward, maintaining the line, while looking in all directions for signs of Stacy. Pacing is important. One of the most critical components of the line search is maintaining the straight line, and to do so, everyone has to keep approximately the same pace. If not, the group starts to zigzag, and suddenly a whole lot of ground might be passed without ever actually being searched.

One by one, John places each of us at our starting spots. He assigns old Henry the role of our “right flank,” which means he will walk along the trail that borders our search, avoiding any potential hazards that might befall us in the woods. His bright red jacket will serve as our “flag,” so we know we’re moving in the right direction. Getting a good look at the options, I keep out of John’s sight by walking directly behind him, until he assigns Carey his place. Then I offer myself up, taking the spot just to his left.

And then we’re off. Like racehorses, each of us in his own lane. Looking down and around and everywhere within our domain for any signs. Mounds of earth. Freshly overturned dirt. Drag marks. Boot prints. Flesh.

“I got something!” Linda shouts, two minutes into the search. At first, it’s like that with all of us, no one quite sure where to draw the line between Burger King cups and “something significant.” John bounces back and forth amongst us, inspecting suspicious anthills and deer beds, which no one really believes will lead to Stacy, but no one wants to risk the off-chance that they might. Once our over-eagerness fades, however, he spends most of his time taking care of Linda, whose dress shoes have in no way equipped her for the rough terrain.

“I told you I ain’t goin’ near no water!” she screams, as we approach a stream three feet wide. “There’s no way I can walk down there!”

John does his best to keep us focused. When people start talking too loudly he says things like, “Let’s keep the socializing to a minimum.

Remember, we’re here to look for a missing girl.” Every now and then he makes random suggestions like, “Make sure to look up sometimes. A body could be hanging in a tree.”

It’s strange that we are looking here at all. Every missing person search on the news follows the same order—first the house, then the forests, and then, if nothing has turned up yet, any nearby ponds. As if there were some code of conduct all disposers of bodies strictly adhered to. And yet, where else can we look? What else can we—normal, average, untrained citizens—really do? There is an overwhelming sense of helplessness about the whole endeavor, should we actually consider it, which is only combated by people’s unbridled desire to help.

“Man, she could be anywhere,” Carey says, shaking his head and looking out at the trees in the distance. I’m thinking the exact same thing. But we aren’t anywhere, we are here. So we keep looking here.

While walking through an especially dense thicket, I hear the sound of crunching leaves off to my left. I stop and squint my eyes, expecting to see a rabbit or deer. Instead, it’s a man in sunglasses and an old blue windbreaker. Joe’s solo mission has crossed our path.

“What the heck are you guys doing?” he shouts as way of greeting. “I’ve already covered this ground!”

“We’re just following our line, man,” Carey responds.

“Well you’re wasting time. She ain’t over here—I already checked!”

Our group leader John sees us stopped and makes his way over to investigate the problem.

“Ain’t no problem, man,” Joe explains, “I was just telling these guys there’s no point in checking here, cause I already did.”

“Where’s your group?” John asks, showing genuine concern.

“I ain’t got a group, you know. Everyone was waiting, and I didn’t want to wait.”

“Are you doing a line search?”

“No, man. I’m just checking out spots I think she’d be. Bouncing around. You guys are going way too slow. I know it’s Chinese checkers, but hell, I only got half a day. And we gotta’ find her.”

“Well, I like your enthusiasm,” John responds, with the patience of a first-grade teacher. “But it isn’t safe for you to be darting around on your own like that. Why don’t you join up with us?”

“Fine by me, man. You know, I just want to help.”

And just like that, Joe is the man to my left, providing me with constant advice like, “Speed it up, man!” and “You ain’t covering ground fast enough.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I shoot back repeatedly, as my standard response.

Most people speak to the people next to them, their conversations starting about the thorns or ditches, before veering off. The main exception, being the man in Bears gear, who is constantly engaged in a battle of one-ups-manship, as he sets out to prove his close ties to the case.

“I’ll tell you who I feel the worst for,” he says, his face filling with sadness, “the poor kids. My daughter goes to preschool with one of them, and it just breaks your heart.” Later on he explains, “I used to live on the next street over from them. I was talking to my old neighbor Jim Mitchem—you know, the principal of the high school—and he was saying this guy Drew, if they get him, he’s not going to go down easy.”

We all nod along, having nothing to add.

I imagine I am the one missing, watching this search team from above, or from wherever I’ve been disposed. Listening to their chatter, it would be difficult not to hate most of them. Why are they talking? What are they talking about? Looking at each other’s faces, when they should be looking down at the ground, looking for me. Gossiping about this and that while they push aside little bushes I’m obviously not behind, peering inside old tree trunks, like I’m some kind of hobbit. And the ones who aren’t, the ones who are actually talking about me are going on as if they actually know me. Which they don’t.

I see them missing the little ditches; quickly passing over heaps of old leaves without bothering to glance in my direction. A handful of them might pass me over, and I’ll never be found again. Because that’s the way these searches go. Land is covered, a giant X is put on a map, someone tells the news, “She’s not here,” and that’s that. Until another girl goes missing and they come back looking for her. I’m sure they all mean well. They’re here, after all. Good people, good hearts, good intentions. And maybe to them that’s enough. But not to me. Not while I’m still missing.

Everyone is here for the same reason, and for different reasons. Some think they might find her. Some just want to do something good. Some are taking time out of their busy schedules, while others are looking to fill their day with something meaningful. But most are probably just here to see how things will go.

The truth is, I never really thought about finding her. Not that I wasn’t looking—I was. But what was I looking for? She’d been missing over ten days by that point, so if she were somehow to be found in the forests or fields, I’m not sure what I would be actually seeing. Bones? Blue skin? Hair? There’s the toll nature takes on a body, combined with whatever damage her killer might have caused. I was not up to the task. I’m the guy who looks away at the first sight of gore in horror movies. In fact, I probably joined knowing I would not find her. Because to find her would be terrible. To come across a dead body in the forest would be a life-altering moment, and I wasn’t there to have my life altered.

“Where’s Linda?” John calls out, halting us in our tracks. I look off to my right for signs of our lone female team member’s black fleece, but see nothing. “Has anyone seen Linda?” he asks again, as our line folds in on itself, to meet at the center.

No one has in at least five minutes, we figure, since it’s been relatively quiet for about that long. So we split up, half of us walking up to the trail to wait, while the other half retreads the area we just covered for signs of Linda. Carey and I choose the trail.

“You need to get a walking stick,” Carey tells me, showing off the one he’s been carrying for the last ten minutes. “You’re not going to find anything without a good walking stick.”

He’s joking, but still. I look around at the others, and Carey’s not alone. The guy with the gray hoodie has one too. He’s been listening in, and is smiling and nodding in agreement.

“Where’d you get that one?” I ask.

“I just found it in there somewhere.”

Carey and I introduce ourselves. His name is Dale. He’s a marine, just back from Iraq. He lives a few towns over.

“What’s it like over there?” Carey asks.

“Pretty bad. No one’s really happy to be there.”

“How do you feel about the war?” intrigued by the idea of a soldier’s point of view.

“We’re not supposed to say. But you know…”

We nod along. At this point, there’s probably not much left to say about it anyway. The Iraq War. The other big news story. The one there’s no escaping. That is, until missing girls show up on TV to distract us for a while.

“Why’d you decide to come out to Bolingbrook?” I ask him.

“I just wanted to help out,” he says, in a way that makes me feel guilty.

A shriek comes from the trees. We all turn our gazes, knowing exactly what to expect. We are not disappointed.

“Here I am!” Linda shouts, emerging from the forest with her rescuers. She is smiling slyly, as if she’s been up to no good. It’s about eleven o’clock.

“Well guys, I’ve got some good news,” John says to us, pulling a map out from his back pocket. “According to my grid here, we’ve covered all the ground we were supposed to cover. So, we can stop now, or we can turn back, and cover some new ground on our way back to the lot.”

I look over at Carey, and guess he’s thinking the same thing. Done already? It doesn’t feel like we’ve done anything yet.

“Hey, where’s Joe?” John asks us. We all look around, realizing that there’s no stopping the man with the sunglasses.

“He only had a half day,” someone quips.

“Yeah, we’ll probably see him missing on the news tonight.”

“Hey, no missing jokes!” Linda shouts.

We all laugh, enjoying our moment.

For another hour or so, most of us continue on. By now the line has completely broken down. Technically, we’ve done what we were asked to do, so now we simply do it our own way. Carey and I stick with Dale, as he tells us about his desert training out west. Occasionally the topic returns to Stacy.

“It makes no sense she’d be here,” Dale says. “You’ve got a guy whose been a police officer for thirty years. Why’s he going to bury her here, a mile from his house?”

“Man, if you’ve seen how confident that guy’s acting on the news,” Carey responds, “he either hasn’t done it, or he knows there’s no way anyone’s ever finding her.”

As we walk, we gravitate towards thick areas of brush, half-heartedly pushing them aside with our walking sticks. By now, our movements are slow and uninspired. We aren’t expecting to find anything. Sometimes I catch myself not looking, and then have to go back and double check to be sure. Just in case. Eventually, we butt up against another group, and the general consensus is our job is done.

Back at the church, a handful of tired-looking people are gathered around the Jimmy John’s sandwich table. The ladies are still at the signup tables smiling, still handing out flyers, but the excitement from before is gone.

Later that afternoon, while I’m out walking my dog Bear near some forest a mile south of our search, Carey calls me up. His voice is loud and animated. The car radio blares in the background.

“Have you heard the news?”

“No, what happened?”

“They found a shallow grave near the church. They think it’s her.”

“What? Near the church where?”

“It’s on the radio right now. Listen.”

I strain to hear, but am unable to decipher much. I suddenly can’t focus. For the first time, the reality of it what we were doing, what we were looking for, hits me.

The rest of my walk I stare at hiding spots and sewer drainage holes in a distant, uninterested way. These were all potential hiding places. All potential places of hope. Had hope ever existed. Places the body might have been, had it not already been discovered. But we were never searching for a life. It would be ridiculous to imagine we’d find her hiding somewhere alive, waiting to be found.

Still, this now all feels so final. A shallow grave means a body. A body means a death. A death means the end to her big red smile. An end to a mother, a daughter, a sister.

The grave will prove to be a false alarm, some family’s dog grave. But eventually, the search will end for the year. The weeks will turn to months, and the local news story that rose to national headlines, will become small-town news once again. And as it does, I’ll understand that urgency for resolution the family expressed last autumn. Though it seemed premature at the time, this dragging on is exactly what they must have feared. They wanted to know back when it was all still new, before any potential trails had gone cold. Because only when it’s still fresh is it even possible to envision any sort of success. The more time goes by, the more people realize how arbitrary a search site is, and that by now Stacy might be somewhere out in the vast universe, far away from the confines of our tiny Bolingbrook, the harder it gets to believe she will ever be found.

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