Way of life in N.H. town upended

Girl’s disappearance alarms neighbors, puts spotlight on community

Fliers like this one in Canaan, Vt., have been distributed in nearby communities in the search. Fliers like this one in Canaan, Vt., have been distributed in nearby communities in the search. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)
By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. - Less than 2 miles from the Canadian border, this tiny community is typical of a small town in almost every clichéd way. Diner waitresses ask if customers want “the usual.’’ Residents leave front doors unlocked and car keys in the ignition. At gas stations, drivers fill up their tanks and pay inside later.

But last week, life in the village of West Stewartstown has been far from typical.

More than 100 law enforcement officials from New Hampshire and Vermont, the FBI, the US Border Patrol, and the Fish and Game Department have been combing over the town of 386 - one of New Hampshire’s most northernmost outposts - and the surrounding area. Massachusetts State Police joined the search yesterday.

They are all looking for Celina Cass, the 11-year-old girl last seen Monday night sitting at the computer in her bedroom.

So far, authorities have not said what they believe happened to her. But they are using every tactic in their arsenal to help find her. Surrounding woods have been searched by officers on foot, on all-terrain vehicles, in helicopters, and with the aid of police canine units.

Officials with New Hampshire Fish and Game lowered water levels on the Connecticut River to help with the hunt. A portable cellphone tower was installed in the town to aid with communication between law enforcement agencies.

And yesterday, FBI agent Kieran Ramsey announced that a $25,000 reward is being offered for information about the girl’s whereabouts, or that would lead to the arrest and prosecution of any person responsible for her disappearance. Another $5,000 is being offered by an anonymous donor.

At a news conference last evening, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young gave little additional information about the progress of the investigation, saying only that dive teams are being brought in to search bodies of water. She encouraged the public to continue submitting tips to authorities.

“We are looking at those tips, and we are honing the investigation through those tips,’’ she said.

So far, Cass’s family has not spoken publicly about her disappearance. At a candlelight vigil Friday night in the town’s park - a vigil has been held every night since Cass’s disappearance - the family stayed in the center of the crowd, friends, and neighbors forming a circle around them to protect them from the view of news cameras.

The family has hung blankets across the front porch of their home and “NO TRESPASSING’’ signs are posted to warn the TV news vans parked across the street.

West Stewartstown is a village within Stewartstown, which has about 1,000 residents who seem to have a strong sense of identity as being from one or the other.

Locals say they do not understand how this could have happened here, in the small town they proudly believed was safer than cities like Concord or Manchester.

“Everybody here - we all grew up together,’’ said Lisa Skidgel, 42, of Canaan, a bordering town that lies only a few hundred feet from the Cass house. “My kids hang out with the kids of people I grew up with.’’

And that, for many West Stewartstown residents, is what makes this case so frightening; the thought that anyone who knew the family could have any involvement in her disappearance.

“I don’t want to think that it’s anybody from around here,’’ said Nancee Harrigan, 57, who has lived in the area nearly 30 years. “If it’s anyone we know, it will be so devastating to this town.’’

Cass’s look is distinctive - she 5 foot 5 and gangly, with brown hair and a snaggletooth - and friends said they hope that will aid in the search for her. Basketball was her main passion, and she was the tallest member of the Canaan girls’ Pee Wee League. She went fishing on weekends, and she adored her pets, a white cat named Whitey and a tabby kitten she called Saidy.

Most of all, friends said, she loved her family. She spent much of her time walking around the neighborhood by her sister’s side, or sitting on the porch with her mother, said Amanda Chapple, who used to live next door to the Cass family.

Locals agreed that Cass was not the type to run away.

She was quiet. The dark terrified her. She liked to spend time with her friends and was slow to open up to strangers.

While she was last seen at the computer, there is little to be gleaned from messages she posted on Facebook. She had been a member since at least September 2010 and had 34 friends. Most of her posts talked about her cats, her basketball games, or the times she spent with her sister.

Her last post was at 11:27 a.m. on the Thursday before her disappearance; she had wished a friend a happy birthday.

Under her favorite quotations, Cass wrote: “you cant stand to live with your family but you cant stand to live without them.’’

The case has attracted national and international attention. Reporters from New England television stations gathered outside the girl’s home and school. Stories about the girl have appeared in newspapers in Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, and London.

Faith Beloin, 37, a cashier at Towle’s Market on Route 3, is a friend of Cass’s mother and used to drive the school bus when her daughter was in preschool. She said she has never seen such an influx of people into her town.

“I saw it on the “Nancy Grace’’ show the other night, and I was like, ‘Wow,’’’ she said. “I couldn’t believe it.’’

A number of Facebook pages have been set up with names such as, “Help find Celina Cass’’ and “Prayers for Celina Cass.’’ Many of the posts offer prayers for the missing girl.

The army of searchers face challenges with enormous swaths of woods surrounding Stewartstown, where a sign says lies on the 45th parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator.

From any vantage point in town, rolling mountains thick with trees stretch into the clouds.

“It’s harder up here in the mountains,’’ said Danny Mathieu, 53, of Stewartstown. “They’re endless, and we’re right in the middle.’’

The Rev. Craig Cheney of the North American Martyrs Parish, who has led Cass’s family and friends in prayer at the nightly vigils, said most members of the community are in agreement: Her family members “deserve the peace of mind of knowing what happened to their daughter.’’

“For most everybody,’’ he said, “the hope is just that she’s some place.’’

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at