A day after a volunteer opportunity was announced for an organized search for clues in the disappearance of Heather Elvis, nearly 100 people braved frigid winds Friday morning to search a wooded area near Myrtle Beach.
For many volunteers it was an opportunity to physically do something to help facilitate a resolution in the 20-year-old’s disappearance, but for others it was a call to help their neighbors and a family struggling for answers as to what happened to a loved one.
“It tugs on your heartstrings. We’ve got to bring this little girl back,” said Tricia Ross, who with her husband John, spent Friday helping search for Elvis, who is 5 feet 1 inch tall, weighs about 118 pounds and has brown hair and brown eyes. “We have to give police and CUE as much help as we can. . . . We continue to pray for her, her family and everybody.”
Tricia and John Ross have a 28-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son and live in the Socastee community, she said. They also struggle with John Ross’ illness because he’s been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, “so this is our first time doing this because he’s usually sick,” Tricia Ross said walking down Tidewater Road before searchers fanned out in the woods.
“I think this is awesome that everyone came out to help,” she said standing shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers awaiting instructions.
Members of the Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons or CUE Center along with local police organized Friday’s search and will be hosting another one at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday along Tidewater Road.
It wasn’t the first search for Elvis, who was last seen about 2:30 a.m. Dec. 17, but the first one opened to the public, said Monica Caison, founder and director of the CUE Center based in Wilmington, N.C.
Because of potential crime scenes and sensitive information about the case, searches aren’t always open to the public, Caison said.
“It’s challenging with making searches public,” Caison said Friday. “But we’ve really gotten a lot of calls from people in the community wanting to help, so we organized an effort.” Searchers have been out everyday working with law enforcement since Elvis’ disappearance, Caison said.
In an Horry County police report filed late Dec. 19, an officer on patrol saw the 20-year-old’s vehicle parked at Peachtree boat landing and called her father, who is the registered owner, to inquire why it was parked there. Her father said he last heard from Elvis about 10:43 p.m. Dec. 17 when she sent him a text message. There is a $20,000 reward for information about her whereabouts.
By 9:30 a.m. Friday, CUE Center volunteers had registered 80 people to search an area along Tidewater Road. They included four ground teams of more than 15 people, five K-9 teams, and eight riders on horses and eight riders on all-terrain vehicles, Caison said. CUE Center officials also had a boat for ponds and underwater camera capabilities along with various police support.
The searchers were divided into groups, paired with an experienced CUE Center volunteer and given a section to search. The areas were about 1,200 feet long and 300 feet wide, Caison said.
“We have a vast area we really want to cover, and whether Heather is out here or not, we will get this area covered,” Caison said. “We want to make sure we cover all the angles. We have current and retired law enforcement officers with us.”
Searchers not affiliated with the CUE Center were in an area along Tidewater Road a week ago when they found human remains that were later identified as being from a man at least 20 years old, according to authorities. The bones have been sent to experts for examination and DNA testing, which is expected to take several weeks.
Norm Gagne, who moved to the area about two years ago and is a former police officer and Marine, said he came out to volunteer his time because his ”heart aches for the family.”
“I feel like I should contribute, give back, even if it’s a few hours of my time,” said the Massachusetts native.
Caison isn’t surprised by people like Gagne volunteering their time because she’s conducted similar searches in other areas of Horry County for other missing people.
“This is a great community and always has been for helping. South Carolina has always jumped in and helped find our kids,” said Caison, who has helped more than 9,000 families search for loved ones across the country since forming the non-profit organization in 1994.
Amiee Palmer and Holly Roesing, who are friends of Heather Elvis’ family, said they were surprised by people who don’t know the family but went out Friday to search.
“Heather’s family is the most giving people I’ve ever met,” Palmer said. “We were ready to do this.”
Roesing added: “We all feel so helpless and any way we can help, we’re ready. We’ve been waiting for this opportunity and none of us hesitated to help when we could.”
Dozens of local businesses and churches also donated supplies and food for the searchers.
Volunteer groups will gather along Tidewater Road at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday to resume their grid searches. If you want to participate, register at arrive on time, have a valid photo ID, be at least 18, and dress for the weather and terrain.
Anyone with information about Elvis should call Horry County police at 915-TIPS.
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.