MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (AP) – Dashing from storefront to storefront, yellow “Missing” fliers in hand, Natalie Garza was a woman on a mission.

Starting at the Post Office, she made her way down Main Street on Thursday afternoon, stopping at Green Mountain Shoe and Apparel, Main Street Stationery, Woody Jackson Fine Art and Blue Moon Clothing and Gifts. At each, she ducked in, asked for the manager and held up one of the 8-by-11 sheets showing her son’s smiling face.

“Volunteer searchers needed 4/26,” it said above Nicholas Garza’s image. “Search volunteers will gather on April 26, 9 a.m., Kenyon Arena, Middlebury College. Searchers must be over 18 with no health concerns.”

“Could I ask you to post this in your window?” she said. “I’m the mother of Nicholas Garza, and this Saturday, we’re organizing a volunteer search. If you would post it in your window, I would really appreciate it.”

So it went, all down Main Street and back up the other side. Accompanied by sister Tanya Sierra, 38, of Barcelona, Spain, she stopped into Middlebury Mountaineer outdoor store, Middlebury Market and Middlebury Town Hall, always just long enough to get permission, get the flier up and get going.

Many of the shop windows already had “Missing Person” fliers describing the 19-year-old Middlebury College freshman and his disappearance. Every shopkeeper, store clerk and waitress she encountered already knew about the disappearance.

No matter. She pressed on, a heartsick mother funneling her creeping sense of dread into action.

Frustrated by a series of unsuccessful searches by police and search-and-rescue teams, Garza, 40, of Albuquerque, N.M., is taking matters into her own hands.

“I do pray for a sliver of hope,” she said Thursday, wiping tears away with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I do believe God creates miracles. I know that if my son were alive, he would have been concentrating on getting in contact with me.”

“It’s very slim, but there’s still a chance,” she said.

Nicholas Garza, a handsome 6-foot-2 inch teenager with black hair, vanished Feb. 5 after walking out of Stewart Hall, during a winter break at the college. His wallet and cell phone have never been found, nor has any trace of him, despite a series of searches.

Many on campus hoped that the melting of snow would yield clues or a body. It hasn’t.

Searches of Otter Creek – a river near campus – have come up empty. Earlier this month, aerial imaging showed an unidentified object in the water, and it triggered another search. Still nothing.

“It’s just been all kinds of leads that don’t pan out and make you feel like “Where to, then?”‘ said Sierra, who is Garza’s aunt. “If this isn’t a lead, then what? We never believed that Nick was in a snowbank. The original thought was that he wandered off and hit his head, but that wasn’t our thought.”

Garza, a financial analyst, moved to Middlebury five days after her son’s disappearance and hasn’t left. The college is housing her at Hadley House, a campus residence normally used by visiting dignitaries or speakers. Garza’s 9-year-old son, Damon, is now enrolled in school here.

She has misgivings about the way authorities have handled the case, and says she got the idea for Saturday’s search after Vermont State Police postponed one last week, on the eve of the search, because of other demands on their search-and-rescue team.

Foul play? It’s possible, she thinks. There’s no evidence of it, and yet: “Somebody knows something. He didn’t just wander off.”

The search Saturday – led by paid missing persons consultant Gary Peterson – will be conducted by volunteers. As of Thursday, more than 100 had signed up.

A separate search in different areas will be conducted by Middlebury police, Police Chief Tom Hanley said.

“I don’t mind more people searching,” Hanley said. “They’re volunteers, and hopefully they’re well-organized and briefed. I hope if they find anything, they consider the rules of a crime scene and the rules of evidence.

“Meantime, we have our own search. The volunteers are doing their own thing,” he said.

AP-ES-04-24-08 1822EDT


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