Something about the bridges haunted Monica Caison.
Her search teams had spent two weeks looking for a car with two teens from Catawba County who had vanished on a trip to Myrtle Beach. An intense search along I-77 had yielded nothing, and on Sunday they were in their third day of scouring the fringes of I-20 between Columbia and Florence.
They had climbed the roadway banks already, hacking through jungle-dense vegetation in places, without finding a clue.
There was something about it, Caison said Monday. I just didnt feel good. I said, Lets go back in and get a second look.
Caison and her volunteer team of 15 decided on a new approach: They would check the bridges from the interstates medians rather than the sides.
Buck Creek bridge, 20 miles east of Columbia, was the first. At the base of the span, out of sight of motorists, they found a car bumper. A searcher kicked it over. Still attached was what authorities in two states were hunting N.C. license plate BBD-8844. Just beyond it was the still, dark water of Buck Creek that had swallowed the car.
I dont see how these people found that wreck, said Jim Matthews, sheriff of Kershaw County. They are to be commended.
Aimed for sunrise
Jake Ziegler, 18, and Ray Pierce, 17, seniors at Bandys High School in Catawba County, left a party in the early hours of Oct. 13. They told friends they were going to take Zieglers 2006 Pontiac G6 to Myrtle Beach, about four hours away, to catch the sunrise.
When they failed to return, authorities began a search by ground and air.
Among those helping was the Wilmington-based CUE Center for Missing Persons. CUE, which stands for Community United Effort, was started in 1994 by Monica Caison. She was looking to get involved in charity work and decided to focus on people who were missing.
Today, her organization has 10,000 trained volunteers across the nation and continues to grow. They have helped more than 9,000 families to date.
Caison, 49, a mother of five and grandmother of three, runs the organization from Wilmington. She has worked with police across the country in missing-person cases, augmenting their forces with her professionally trained volunteers.
She often goes on searches herself, and has been instrumental in helping find people. She draws no salary from the non-profit organization.
I was one of 11 children, Caison said. My parents were very strict and organized. Everyone in the family was involved in charity work. It was instilled in us when we were young. Lifes true meaning is trying to help others.
Solved friends case
Caison grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and has had first-hand experience with missing persons.
A childhood friend, 20-year-old Melinda Harder, disappeared in July 1980. CUE does a road trip annually to draw attention to missing-persons cases, and in 2008, it went to St. Pete. Posters were put up around town showing pictures of Harder with an age-progression portrait.
A police investigator saw the poster at a convenience store while stopping for coffee. She looks like a Jane Doe from an earlier case she knew, thought the investigator.
DNA proved her right. Harders remains had been found in a rolled-up carpet in 1989, but no one knew who she was.
Through Caisons efforts, Harders body was identified. Her killer has never been found.
Searching for teens
CUE entered the search for Ziegler and Pierce at the beginning.
Trained search-team members came from as far away as Florida and Virginia. They took time off from work, or helped out on weekends. Rotating volunteers every few days, Caison had a team of about 15 on the case at all times.
Volunteers come from many walks of life. Some are searching for their own missing family members, others are in public service or retired from the military, police or fire agencies. Some have lost family to homicide and find it therapeutic to help others.
Caisons troops started along I-77 and worked south. They checked for skid marks or tire tracks leading away from the highway. They drove along the edge of woods lining the road. When they didnt have a clear view into the woodland, they would stop and hike in, up to a half-mile, looking for the car.
On Friday, they began looking on I-20 East with the same routine: Look for anything out of place, any disturbance that might hint at a wayward car.
By midday Sunday, theyd finished their canvass of the interstate, but the bridges were still nagging Caison.
Only trace at edge
Bucks Creek was the first bridge they rechecked. Caison dropped a team of four off to walk down the grassy median. As they approached the water, they saw some debris, then the bumper.
Sheriff Matthews said the car apparently came out of a curve and into the median, threading a narrow pocket between guard posts on either side of the road. A slight incline at the top of the embankment sent the car airborne. It cleared a fence and some trees at the bottom of the slope and disappeared into Bucks Creek.
Zieglers parents, who were driving a nearby highway to look for clues, soon arrived. Caison comforted them but kept them away from the crash site.
Matthews said he walked the scene Sunday and was amazed Caisons team had located the car containing the teens bodies. There were no skid marks on the road, no sign that anything had happened there.
If the bumper had stayed on the car, he said, I dont know when those boys would have been found.