Search called off for missing woman
The ground search for a missing woman whose abandoned car was found Sunday in a densely wooded portion of Conecuh County was called off at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
According to Conecuh County Sheriff Randy Brock, a father and son riding four-wheelers Sunday on an unnamed road about three miles off the Range Road in the southwest corner of Conecuh County discovered a red 2010 Toyota Corolla belonging to Shari Christine Saunders, 67, of Norfolk, Va., who has been missing since Sun., Aug. 5.
The father and son, who were part of a group of 10 to 12 people riding four-wheelers in that area on Sunday, contacted the Conecuh County Sheriff’s Department, and law enforcement officers arrived on scene around 11 p.m. on Sunday night. Investigators found the car stuck in the mud and aside from the car’s own tracks they found no clues as to Saunders’ whereabouts, Brock said.
“We could see her car’s tire tracks and where the car’s tires had been spinning, but we did not find any tracks belonging to her,” Brock said. “By this time, she’d been missing eight or nine days, so we’re not sure what the rain may have washed away.”
Brock said the car was found in “a heavily wooded area” on an unnamed dirt road about three miles south of the Range Road and four to five miles from Exit 69 on Interstate Highway 65. The road where the car was found was dotted with numerous mud holes and standing water that made travel very difficult, Brock said. Brock noted that the car was found in the extreme southwest corner of Conecuh County, not far from the county’s borders with Monroe and Escambia counties.
Shortly after the car was found, state law enforcement agencies launched search helicopters equipped with heat-sensing monitors used to detect the body heat of individuals on the ground. Despite a thorough search of the area, the helicopters were unable to find Saunders due to the dense vegetation, Brock said. The search continued all day on Monday and Tuesday with helicopters, tracking dogs and 25 law enforcement officers, but they found no sign of Saunders, Brock said.
“No purse, no shoes, nothing,” Brock said, noting that the ground search for Saunders was called off around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. “We did all we could do, but this is a densely wooded area. There’s nothing around for miles and miles, so we’ve got to come up with a better game plan.”
Brock said yesterday (Wednesday) morning that investigators have subpoenaed phone records in an effort to determine exactly when Saunders’ phone “pinged” off cellular towers in Repton, Ollie and near I-65’s Exit 69.
“Hopefully, this information will help us better determine exactly when she was near those towers, if and when she stopped to possibly talk on her phone, anything that might give us a lead on where to continue the search,” Brock said.
Law enforcement officers have been searching for Saunders since Monday of last week, just hours after she disappeared after leaving a gas station in Evergreen. Saunders was traveling from Virginia to meet with the family of her brother-in-law Bill Hagar, who lives on Cowboy Road, south of Monroeville. This was her fourth trip from Virginia to the Monroeville area, but when family went to meet her at a prearranged meeting place near the intersection of U.S. Highway 84 and State Highway 21 at Ollie, Saunders was nowhere to be found.
During the ensuing investigation, it was determined that she last used her credit card at the Shell-Marathon gas station at Exit 93 on Interstate Highway 65 in Evergreen. When investigators checked surveillance footage from the gas station, they watched as Saunders pulled into the parking lot just after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. Saunders entered the station at 1:08 a.m., prepaid the clerk for $20 in gas and then went outside to pump the gas into her car.
Three minutes later, at 1:11 a.m., Saunders pulled out of the parking lot, turned left and headed west on U.S. Highway 84, towards Monroeville. She has been missing since that time.
Investigators watched the surveillance footage closely to see if anyone entered the missing woman’s vehicle when she went inside the store, but no one did. Investigators also detected no movement inside the car, which might indicate that someone was hiding in the backseat.
Investigators were initially able to obtain records from Saunders’s cell phone, which showed that the phone “pinged” off the cellular towers in Repton and Ollie as she traveled west on U.S. Highway 84. Oddly, about an hour after her phone “pinged” off the tower at Ollie, it “pinged” one last time off a cell tower behind the Yellow Hammer Travel Center at Exit 69 on I-65, west of Brewton. That occurred at 3:36 a.m. on Sun., Aug. 5, and since that time, there has been no other activity on her phone, officers said.
On Monday of last week, a missing persons report on Saunders was issued nationwide and numerous law enforcement agencies became involved in the ongoing search for Saunders, including the Conecuh County Sheriff’s Department, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department, the Monroeville Police Department and many others.
Saunders is described as a white female with no known mental or physical problems. She is 5-foot-1 and weighs 117 pounds with blonde hair and hazel eyes. Anyone who believes that they have seen Saunders or anyone who has any information related to the case is asked to call the Conecuh County Sheriff’s Department at 578-1260.
“Right now, we’re seeking any information that will give us an idea on where to continue to search,” Brock said. “Anyone who thinks they have any information that might be of help, please call the Sheriff’s Department.”