Police search along I-77 in Fairfield County for missing NC teens

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 24, 2012 

  • How to help The missing teens were in a green 2006 Pontiac G6 with the N.C. license plate BBD-8844. Anyone with information is asked to call the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office at (828) 465-8301.

— The last place anyone can pinpoint two missing North Carolina teenagers is somewhere between mile markers 48 and 41 on I-77 in Fairfield County.

But it’s now doubtful the boys will be found there after authorities spent two days walking along the interstate and driving nearby rural highways that the two teens possibly could have taken on their trip to Myrtle Beach, said Chief Deputy Keith Lewis of the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Department.

“We feel comfortable the car is not off the interstate in Fairfield County,” Lewis said.

Jake Ziegler, 18, and Ray Pierce, 17, have not been heard from since about 2:44 a.m. Oct. 13 when Pierce sent a text message to his girlfriend. That signal was relayed by a tower off I-77 near mile marker 48, Lewis said.

“After that, there were no more signals,” he said.

The teens had attended an Oct. 12 high school football game in Catawba County, N.C., and then went to a party after the game. At the party, a group decided to drive to Myrtle Beach to watch the sunrise over the ocean, Lewis said.

When it came time to leave, everyone had backed out of the beach trip except Ziegler and Pierce. The two left about 1:30 a.m. in Ziegler’s newly purchased green Pontiac G6.

The Ziegler and Pierce families have mounted an intense search since the afternoon of Oct. 13 when Pierce did not show up for his job at a restaurant in Catawba County. That search has included helicopters, the use of social media, press conferences, and an extended trip to Horry County, where the Ziegler family set up a search command post in a hotel.

One theory on the teens’ whereabouts is that they may have driven off the road and wrecked the car. Because their last cell phone hit came from a tower in the county, it made sense to search along the interstate, Lewis said.

The Fairfield County Sheriff’s Department began its search Monday after being contacted by the State Law Enforcement Division. The search included more than 30 officers from the sheriff’s department, SLED, the S.C. Highway Patrol and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The trip from Catawba County to Myrtle Beach takes about 4½ hours. And there are multiple routes from which to choose, Lewis said. One common route is to drive I-77 south and exit at S.C. 34, a two-lane road, that leads to I-20 outside Lugoff.

On Tuesday, the Fairfield County sheriff’s department established a command post on county road 41 underneath an interstate overpass.

Officers walked along the north and south bound sides of I-77 from the Chester County line to the Richland County line, Lewis said. They peered into ravines and hiked through dense foliage to search for signs of the teens and their car.

After the interstate was searched, officers began driving along back roads just to make sure Zeigler and Pierce had not exited the interstate. They rode in the backs of pickup trucks and on all-terrain vehicles.

If the Pontiac left the road, it could be hard to spot in thick woods because it is dark green, Lewis said.

“From the air, all you see is pine trees that are green,” he said. “If the car is overturned, all you will see is the bottom, which is all dirty and brown, and it looks like the ground from the sky.”

The Richland County and Kershaw County sheriff’s departments have not conducted searches for the teens.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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