It’s not unusual for a year to go by with nothing new to report on in our search for Austin. That’s true of most of us with a cold case missing person, and it may be one of the hardest parts to accept. But we’ve had some activity in the past few weeks, and I wanted to share some of what it’s like to go through the roller coaster of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe’.
One of the most respected women in search and rescue, Monica Caison had been encouraging my mom to search one specific area we never had, the property around the house where Austin and I grew up. Mom was hesitant for her own reasons, and I pushed every now and then to please make it happen. The plan was for a small group to go, just a few people from her own search team, as it’s quite a small area. Monica helped scout on a Friday, and on that Saturday, four searchers including my mom, began to work. While they worked, I wrote some thoughts, always praying that when I shared this, I’d be sharing about the day we brought Austin home. Here’s what I wrote as I waited:
“From where I stand… Birds calling, crickets chirping, occasional dog barking, leaves falling, trees towering, sun shining warm, quiet, peaceful….
As I write, a small search for Austin is underway. We’ve had quite a few, so I have a somewhat nonchalant attitude towards them usually. In the beginning, I would always think “today is the day” and be nervous. As time has gone on, most searches have been repeats of the same areas or areas we didn’t feel that strong about. So I lost that feeling for the most part. Pulling up to a team of searchers always gave me a moment of belief that today might be the day, and leaving with no results always gave me a bit of a letdown, but less and less over time.
Today is different. Today it’s just 4 people and 3 dogs. Today my mom is searching instead of organizing. Today we’re home, meaning we’re where Austin and I grew up, where I have the most feeling of home and where he did too. Though we don’t own the house or property and haven’t for years, we still visit out here because of close family friends who are still here. When I turn down the road, it still feels like going home. It’s where we made most of our childhood memories, its where we made lifelong friends, its where we were a family. About halfway through college for me, and halfway through high school for Austin, our parents split and things changed a lot. Austin still lived there for a few years, and I spent one more summer there, before Dad made the decision to sell. I don’t know if Austin’s last few years here tarnished the good memories so much that he didn’t still feel the strong connection to it that I do. I was gone, living an hour away through the worst of that, so I don’t have the same viewpoint.
I wasn’t convinced that the pull here would be strong enough that he’d come back here for his final moments. But we’ve searched everywhere else that seems to make sense.”
My kids and husband came and we played baseball and soccer for a few hours while they searched, reminding me how abnormal it is for my kids to think it perfectly normal to play yards away from a search, a search for their own uncle. My youngest doesn’t know, but my oldest is well aware. A few hours later, the team packed up and left without any find. It turns out that the area really is too grown up and too dense for that small a team, and some heavy equipment is needed. I left sad, with that feeling that this wasn’t really the place, and knowing it would likely be months before the next search happened, meaning more time of just waiting. That’s the road for a family member though, always having sparks of hope that you have to allow and have to feel, while wanting to instead protect yourself from the letdown that comes after you allow yourself to hope.
Fast forward a week and a half or so….
I was getting ready to walk out the door to work when I realized my husband and mom were talking and there were words like ‘serial number’ and ‘police’ floating to me. I stopped and listened.
My mom had been awakened about 3:30am by a phone call from someone who scavenged for metal, and had found bones in carpet, almost buried in dirt the night before. He’d called the police and they’d sent uniformed officers, but they hadn’t taken him seriously it seemed, and he couldn’t sleep. So he was searching online for information about missing people in that area, and came across Austin’s info. On that was the Finder’s Hope logo, and from there he found my mom’s phone number- not realizing she was also Austin’s mom. He’d read about the shotgun we were also looking for, and was startled by the fact that he’d found the barrel of a shotgun (same brand) months ago, broken down and half buried, in another nearby spot that we had searched very near to. The bones were several blocks away, but also between the Pawn Shop (where Austin purchased the gun and was last seen) and where he’d found the gun. He still had the gun, including the serial number and would be glad to hand it to police.
We couldn’t piece together how both could be related to Austin, but one or the other very possibly could, and if not him, it could be someone else’s missing loved one. I let work know I’d be only partially available as we figured out what to do, and my mom started calling the missing persons unit, leaving messages and calling back until she was able to speak to someone who listened. Thankfully, the detective said he was jumping in his car to go check it out right then. He asked us to wait till we heard back.
That lasted about 10 minutes, until Michael and I drove by the entrance to the site where the bones were found, and then by the house where the guy lived. Once we realized the detective was indeed there, we went on, waiting anxiously for any word. We lasted a little bit longer, before my mom left and sat at the entrance where there were now two empty unmarked cars, leading us to believe they were looking for the site. I tried to be somewhat productive, with a few work phone calls and emails, as I had something fairly large and difficult going on there to deal with too. I knew that it was unlikely to be the day we had answers, but as my husband reminded me, “it has to be one day.”
My mom and I returned to the site, with both of my boys in the car and my husband off to class, because even in the midst of days like that, we have to continue on with life, though I knew he was keeping his phone close and would rush back if needed. By this time, another search team member and friend of my mom’s was on her way with her dog, in case help was needed. And I’m sure though she didn’t say it, in case the gun was his or the bones confirmed human, to be there with us.
As we pulled up, I told my oldest, “we’re going stopping by a search to talk to some police, I need you to stay in the car” and almost laughed as we saw once again how normal these things were to him. We approached the officers, six in total, and introduced ourselves. They shared that the bones had been located, and that their dog was on the ground to determine if they were human, as it was a small amount of bones. They were large enough to be human potentially.
Four of the six plainclothes officers immediately separated themselves away once we introduced ourselves, not even acknowledging us. We didn’t know the remaining two but were told that the detective we’d talked with, along with the K-9 and his handler were a bit beyond view. We were probably some of the most composed family members they’d seen, as we tried to chat with them about search and rescue, laughed about my fear of snakes that kept me from being a searcher, and discussed the fact that we were out there for us, but also for any family who might be about to find answers.
It was probably no more than 5 minutes later when the detective, the K-9 and handler walked in to the clearing and started towards us. My mom kept chatting, while I realized that we were either about to have hope dashed, or have the start to the longest few weeks of our lives while we waited to learn who it was.
They were dashed. The remains weren’t human. The gun’s serial number didn’t match. We thanked the detective and walked back to our car where I cheerfully told my son that the search had found some bones, but just an animal and we were going home.
I returned home for an afternoon of conference calls and work, and mom picked up to do whatever she had planned for the day. The searcher friend was turned around, and our lives went back to normal.
But our normal is not that normal and I’m always aware of that.
Last night I heard an inspirational message from a singer who had lost his voice and had it restored through a risky surgery that threatened his career and his passion. When his voice did return, it was better than before, and he learned a lot about trusting God when all seems bleak. I’ve heard so many other stories with similar messages, and I sometimes feel the weight of wondering when our turn to have a completion to this ‘story’ is. When I’ll be able to tell about our struggles, but with a conclusion to our years of searching instead of this open ended story. But I heard so clearly last night, that the longer we search, the more powerful our story of keeping hope no matter the situation becomes, and the more people to know of Austin, and be able to celebrate with us when there is an end to the search one day. I’d still like it to be today. The roller coaster is no fun.
But I share because that is the only action I can take, I share that someone may see the HOPE we still have, and will always have. And I share that when we do find Austin, even more will know the struggle to get there and be able to see how God worked.
Thank you for those who ride the roller coaster with us, and for those whom we know we can call when we need you, even if you never knew any of this was going on. We did keep all of this fairly quiet for a variety of reasons, and often have to. But do know, that when the day comes that there is a different end to this story, we’ll be so thankful you’re there.
“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31