The search for the missing
Local couple lends plane, time and counseling skills to search and recovery operations
No one expects a loved one to go missing for any reason, so if it happens, the events that unfold are a shock. Most in this situation turn to law enforcement, and rightly so, but when the police have exhausted their resources there are groups of volunteers who keep the search going. Pleasanton residents Mike and Bridget Melson are two of these volunteers.
For the past year and a half, Bridget and Mike have donated their time and resources to help search and recovery operations for missing persons, while also providing counseling services to families of the missing.
Law enforcement can only look for a missing person so long before they need to turn their resources to another case, Mike explained. That's where he and other volunteers step in. They offer to continue the search at no cost to the family using their own planes, cameras and any other equipment needed to find the missing. However, the sad part of these missions is that by the time the volunteers step in, it is pretty clear that they are looking to recover a body, rather than rescue a person.
"These are usually not rescues; this is giving the family closure," Mike said.
That is why Bridget got involved. As a trained counselor, she saw that she'd be able to help comfort the families down at base while Mike was up in his plane searching for their loved ones.
"I got involved because we could see how I could counsel while he could do search and rescue," she said. "Helping missing teens is definitely in our hearts."
The couple's commitment started when they learned about Tim Miller at Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer search and recovery team that takes on cases across the country. Miller gained national attention through his work on the Natalee Holloway case--the teenage girl who disappeared in Aruba on a spring break trip in May 2005. When Mike saw Miller's work on TV, he thought he could help with search and recovery operations since he has a pilot's license and a plane housed at the Livermore Airport.
Mike called up Miller, saying if he was ever in California to give him a call, and a couple days later Miller responded, asking Mike to help out with a mission in the High Sierras. They were looking for a 64-year-old woman named Nita Mayo who went missing on a hike.
"What really got me with Nita's case--she was 64 when she went missing--and I thought that could be my mom. That could be anyone's mom, and I would never give up looking for my mom if she went missing, so how could I not help them look for their mom?" Mike said.
The couple went up to the High Sierras and Mike, using a regular 10 mega pixel digital camera, shot photos out his window--something he admits wasn't a great idea at the time and doesn't recommend anyone else trying. Since that first shoot, he has added a camera mount on the bottom of his airplane, so all he has to do is click a button and a photo is taken directly over the site--ensuring a better photo, as well as safety.
After taking hundreds of photos over the entire area, the crew examines them on the ground, looking for any small irregularity in the photo, usually a spot of color or shape that seems out of place. This can be a painstaking process as the team looks at what appears to be the same photo again and again all to find what to the untrained eye simply looks like another random spot.
In the Mayo case, Mike found a small, black dot in a photo of the cliffside where Mayo was missing. The team showed the local Sheriff's Department and they agreed the spot looked out of place, so they went back up to the cliffside and searched the area. In the end, the spot turned out only to be a bunch of garbage bags caught in the brush.
To this day, Mayo has not been found, but Mike keeps looking.
"I still keep in touch with Nita's family, so does Bridget," Mike said. "I was just up there in December in the area she went hiking. I had some thoughts of what might have happened, and that's a year later. I made a promise to the family that we would never stop looking, as they won't."
One case that hit particularly close to home was just the second one the Melsons worked on where a 21-year-old man named Landon Orcutt left a suicide note indicating he had ended his life some where in Big Bear Lake, northeast of Los Angeles in the mountains. The couple went down to join the search with Mike physically searching the area with Miller and his crew and Bridget spending time at the base with the family.
"That's where my heart strings were pulled," Bridget said. Adding to the intensity of the experience, Mike and Bridget's 2-year-old son is also named Landon. After days of searching, the team eventually had to go home.
"We spent four or five days in Big Bear, did a lot of flying down there, hiking and spent days on the lake with guys from Texas EquuSearch, but there comes a point where you have to say we just can't do anything more," Mike said. "Tim Miller and I were standing on the dam of Big Bear Lake and we'd had a big group of volunteers that day, did a lot of volunteer searching of the areas, and we just stood there and knew it was time to be done. Tim looked at me and said 'This is going to be a tough one to call off because when we go home, there's nothing else for these people. We are the only hope they have and we're going to have to go home today.'"
All of Mike's search and recovery missions have a similar ending. Although the team gives a good effort, they have not found any of the people they've looked for. Others may get discouraged by these continually bleak outcomes, but the Melsons don't see it that way.
"Even more difficult than stopping is not being able to start," Mike said.
And even when the formal search has to be called off, that doesn't mean the Melsons stop supporting the families who are still struggling with their losses.
"The families keep in contact," Bridget said. "They still send us cards and letters. We're Christians, so it's also nice to pray. It feels like we're doing something."
Beyond the personal relationships they've developed, the Melsons were inspired, particularly by the case of Orcutt, to help prevent such sad endings for teens and their families by getting involved with prevention. The couple co-founded Trinity Life Solutions, a Christian-based counseling and life coaching center in downtown Pleasanton that offers a variety of counseling options for teens and their families.
"We work with teen groups to try to prevent these things from happening," Bridget said. "We work with at-risk families because we see the burdens of families with missing children, and we've seen some turn up deceased, and that's horrible. So together we said let's do this, let's help teens and young families."
Mike said his next and fourth mission will probably be joining Miller on a search for a 30-year-old woman who went missing in the deserts of Southern California. On his own, Mike has offered help to families in the Bay Area whose stories he's read in local newspapers, but most decline the offer.
"I have contacted families and offered to get involved on some case I find out about out here and usually the family's reaction is, 'Who are you and what do you want? You can't be offering to help without wanting anything in return.' Well, we really are," Mike said.
But still, Mike is undeterred. Both he and Bridget bring the kind of commitment and follow through to helping others as they do to their search efforts. When asked at what point do they leave a case and move on, Mike unflinchingly replied: "Until they're found."