AVON - Acting on new information, a team of private investigators and other volunteers scoured the area around a secluded Avon pond yesterday, searching for some sign of Jennifer Fay, a teen from neighboring Brockton who disappeared in 1989.
The small clue that led them to the Avon pond - someone's recollection that Fay used to gather there with friends, out of sight of local police and unbeknownst to parents - was collected during an investigation that has stretched over three years and several thousand hours of donated labor. The investigators hope their work will close the case and bring some peace to Fay's family after nearly two decades of uncertainty.
"Our searches have taken us as far as Texas," tracking a Fay lookalike, said Phil White, the Brockton private investigator who took on the case in 2005 after being contacted by the Molly Bish Foundation, a child-safety organization named for a Warren lifeguard who vanished in 2000 and whose remains were discovered in 2003. Bish and Fay were the same age when they disappeared: 16.
In three years, White and four other investigators have conducted interviews with about 125 people who knew Fay or overlapped with her social circle, and they plan to interview at least 100 more. In Vermont, they tracked down the last partygoer who was with Fay the night she disappeared, Nov. 14, 1989.
That man, 21 at the time, had been reluctant to speak with police because of his criminal record. But he told private investigators that he had left a party on Broad Place in Brockton with Fay to make a trip to a North Main Street market for more alcohol. For years, investigators had considered the market to be the epicenter of the search, White said.
But the Vermont man told investigators that he continued with Fay to her home on Emerson Avenue, so she could pick up a jacket, before the two headed back to the party a few blocks away. They stopped on Broad Street, near Broad Place, where the man stooped to throw up. When he looked up later, he saw Fay up the road talking to someone in a dark vehicle, he told investigators.
"This is new information that just came forward," White said. So was the Avon location where Fay and some others used to smoke marijuana and sunbathe. Yesterday, investigators searched that area - tucked behind a set of water towers, in the woods east of Route 24 - with about 20 other volunteers, including members of the Brockton Emergency Management Agency and a team of dogs trained to find remains in woods and water.
Al Beland said the searchers did not know if they had uncovered something at the pond, but they believe Fay can be found. "Pretty soon there will be enough pieces of the puzzle," said Beland, of Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue, the nonprofit group that brought the dogs and that has worked closely with White's team.
White said the investigators are "80 percent sure" they have identified the person and motive behind Fay's disappearance, and they are working with law enforcement to resolve the case and find the girl or her remains, he said.
At a clearing in the woods near the pond, members of Fay's family waited at a table across from a Salvation Army trailer as volunteers searched, one square foot at a time. Fay's sister, Yvette Churchill, said she has struggled with anxiety and stress in the past 18 1/2 years and has trouble keeping a job or relating to coworkers. "They don't really understand what I'm going through," she said. "I can't really blame them, but I do."
Churchill recalled Fay as an outgoing teen who loved rock music, a rail-thin blonde who liked to joke around.
"She liked to be at the center of attention," said her mother, Dottie MacLean, working the rings on her fingers nervously. "Jennifer's problem was that she was trusted everyone, [thought] everyone was her friend. And they weren't, they definitely weren't."
MacLean said the dedication of the volunteers and of current Brockton officials helps her cope. "In the beginning Brockton just pretty much treated it like she was a runaway," she said. "It wasn't like today, when if a child goes missing her picture is on the news immediately."
MacLean remains hopeful someone will call a tip line, 508-584-4747, that reaches the private investigators. "Somebody definitely knows something," she said. "Please come forward and end this nightmare for me and my family."