SHERRILLS FORD Just before 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 13, Catawba County teenager Ray Pierce sent a text message to his girlfriend. “We’re almost at the beach.”
That was the last time anyone heard from Pierce, 17, or his friend Jake Ziegler, 18.
Now, after 10 days of frantic searching, families of the missing teens are exhausted and are turning to law enforcement and a private investigator to bring their sons home.
Fearing that the teens might be injured in a wreck hidden off the road – or worse – the families, friends and volunteers have driven thousands of miles, back and forth, between Sherrills Ford and Myrtle Beach. They’ve rented a helicopter to fly overhead and search for any signs of the green Pontiac G6. They’ve handed out missing-persons fliers outside Bank of America Stadium to fans arriving for Sunday’s Panthers-Cowboys game.
“We’ll do what we need to do and go where we need to go,” said Jake’s mom, Sue Ziegler, in an interview Monday. “Jake has been stubborn since the day he was born. He’s not going to let this get him down. He’s going to pull through whatever this is and he’s going to come home.”
Monica Caison, founder of the Wilmington-based CUE Center for Missing Persons, said both families have contacted her organization to help find the teens. But every day that they’re missing lowers the chance they’ll be found alive, she said.
Caison said she informed the families on Sunday that chances were already slim that the teens are still alive.
“But I also shared with them that I had once rescued a woman who was missing for 11 days,” she said. “There are miracle cases.”
Caison also said she understood the families’ need to organize their own search efforts, in addition to law enforcement’s.
“Some families go the extra route because they don’t feel like things are being done quick enough so they jump in and take it on themselves,” she said. “There are a lot of people that don’t want to sit back and wait for a phone call.”
‘Testing his freedom’
Ziegler, 18, and Pierce, 17, were last seen about 1:30 a.m. Oct. 13, when they left a party in Catawba County. The Bandys High School seniors told friends they were driving to Myrtle Beach and would return home in time for Pierce to be at his job Saturday afternoon at Denver restaurant.
Authorities say Pierce sent his last text message from his phone about 2:45 a.m. A signal from his cell phone bounced off a cell tower in Rock Hill around 2:48 a.m.
Authorities say they believe the signal was sent from I-77, somewhere between mile markers 44 and 47 in Fairfield County. The teens’ cellphones and debit cards have not been used since.
Zig Ziegler recalled in an interview Monday how excited his son was to take the road trip. The friends had decided earlier in the evening to drive down in Jake’s newly bought car to see the sunrise in Myrtle Beach, his father said.
“He was test-driving his freedom,” said Zig Ziegler. “He wanted that little touch of freedom.”
Beginning to panic
By the afternoon of Oct. 13, Ray Pierce had not showed up for work and his family filed a missing persons report with the Catawba County Sheriff’s Department.
As the afternoon wore on without any word from the teens, Ziegler’s family began to panic.
“Jake is very good. If he’s not planning to come home, he always texts,” said Zig Ziegler. “It was absolutely out of the norm not to hear from him.”
By Sunday, Zig Ziegler was driving down to Myrtle Beach to search for his son with a family friend. The trip took seven hours as they stopped often at places where Jake’s car might have run off the road. They also scoured maps, plotted coordinates and tried to figure out how to access Jake’s cellphone records.
“It doesn’t matter if the police have it. I couldn’t sit here for two minutes knowing that that car could be somewhere,” said Zig Ziegler. “If I could do anything to find that car, I would.”
Zig Ziegler said he and his friend got excited in Myrtle Beach when they found a green Pontiac with a nearly identical license plate to Jake’s. They blocked the car so it couldn’t move, he said.
But it wasn’t Jake’s car.
“We had some tremendous highs … but we also had tremendous lows when they didn’t pan out,” Ziegler said. “You try to stay positive but it’s been really rough.”
On the first day of searching, a friend began posting updates on his Twitter and Facebook page. By Monday, the Twitter hashtag findjakeandray was trending.
Within days, someone who was not connected with the two families had started a Facebook page to help spread the word. As of Monday evening, that page had nearly 23,000 likes.
Army of volunteers
Jake’s father returned to Sherrills Ford for less than a day before he headed back to South Carolina to set up a command center in a conference room at the Sleep Inn in Conway, about 15 miles inland from Myrtle Beach.
More than 20 volunteers who had been following the case on Facebook also showed up to help. Over the course of a couple of days, that group grew to the hundreds. Jake’s sister Jackie Ziegler, 22, became the de facto leader of the group.
For a couple of days last week, Jackie Ziegler led efforts by mapping out search routes, assigning volunteers and gathering data at the end of the day to see if there were any leads.
“She was the captain of the ship,” said Zig Ziegler. “She had some tough days where something would remind her of her brother and she’d be broken down. But five minutes later, she was back to organizing volunteers and tracking routes.”
During that time, the Zieglers also rented a helicopter for two days and rode in an airplane to search the area.
After days of searching and an estimated 5,000 total logged search miles, Zig Ziegler said he decided to close up the command center.
“We looked at the maps, and we knew that we had done as much as we could there,” said Zig Ziegler.
Search and rescue pros
On Sunday, family members announced they’d hired a private investigator to help with the search.
Kevin Ryan was introduced by family members during a news conference in Blythewood, S.C., a suburb north of Columbia.
“We just need that next piece, to give us another direction,” Ryan said during the news conference.
Ryan said he plans to continue following leads that come in until the two teens are found. He is also looking at financial records and cellphone records and interviewing people who know the two teens.
“It’s something that has to be done in a methodical way. You don’t want to miss something,” Ryan said.
Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid said his agency is also pursuing any leads, although he added that those have tapered off in recent days.
Officials with the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office have said they think the two young men were involved in a wreck on I-77 in that area.
Authorities say the search is complicated by the green color of the 2006 Pontiac G6, which has the N.C. license plate BBD-8844. They say it will be difficult to find the car in the tangled brush and trees that line the interstate highways.
On Monday, the mothers of the missing teens said that the search has emotionally drained them.
“I’ve gone through every single emotion that there is. Right now, I’m at the point where I’m just numb,” said Wendy Pierce.
But they resolved to not give up until their sons come home.
They also stressed that anyone with information should come forward.
They added that there is a $5,000 reward for anyone providing information that leads them to finding their sons. Staff writer Steve Lyttle and staff researcher Maria David contributed.