Search for missing 17-year-old ends in tragedy
MIDDLEBURY — A six-day search for a missing Middlebury teen ended Tuesday afternoon in soul crushing fashion, with the recovering of 17-year-old Rebecca Ball’s body in a wooded area on the west side of Otter Creek, north of Belden Falls, in Weybridge.
“It’s tragic,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, whose officers were part of a massive search that began during the afternoon of March 29 and also involved the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team, other agencies and many citizen volunteers.
It was Hanley who had the unenviable task of informing Rebecca’s father, Daniel Ball, of his daughter’s death.
“I was with the father last night for several hours,” the chief said on Wednesday morning. “This is going to be a rough time for him.”
And also for Rebecca’s mom, Jeanne Fair, as well as students, teachers and staff at Middlebury Union High School, where the teen was a senior eager to graduate this spring.
The Independent left a message of condolences for Fair, who felt strong enough to offer a few words about her late daughter and the legions who tried to find her safe and sound following her fateful, impromptu journey into Wright Park last Wednesday, March 29.
“She was everything to me — her and all of her siblings,” Fair said through sobs of anguish.
“I’m on the way out there right now to get my baby. I’m trying to figure out how to get her cremated so I can bring her home, where she belongs,” added Fair, who lives in Iowa.
In a brief press release issued at 9:16 p.m. on Tuesday, state police confirmed the recovery of Rebecca’s body at 4:26 p.m., about a mile off the Middlebury Area Land Trust’s Trail Around Middlebury path through Beldon Falls. A canine search team from New England K9 Search and Rescue was credited with the discovery.
Becky’s body was taken to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington for an autopsy to determine the cause and manner of her death.
“The death is not considered suspicious,” reads the release. “VSP will provide updates as the investigation continues.”
Hanley was able to fill in some details based on his work on the Rebecca Ball case and his extensive experience in that realm.
In addition to there being no signs of foul play, Hanley said there was no evidence to suggest that Rebecca committed an act of self-harm.
“This was purely an accident,” Hanley said, explaining that Rebecca had shown a history of “walking off” — in this case, after an appointment at the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) — whenever she was “upset or angry with something.”
Hanley noted that Middlebury police have in the past responded to calls to locate Rebecca, who had favorite hiding places to enjoy some alone time.
“This was common, and we’d get called and we usually went and found her and brought her home,” Hanley said.
At the same time, Rebecca maintained a respectful relationship with police — particularly with MPD School Resource Officer Connor Souza, according to Hanley.
“She would go and sit in his little cubicle at (MUHS), just to talk to him. So we knew that if she saw an officer, she would go with that officer,” he said.
But officials also realized that Rebecca didn’t respond well to hailing efforts. So they knew shouting her name in the wilderness might not draw a response.
Hanley believes Rebecca’s fate was sealed by a confluence of events that she ultimately couldn’t overcome.
“She had no coat, no gloves, no hat, water or cell phone,” he noted. “She was off her medication.”
And with no sustenance or warm clothing, Rebecca was ill-equipped to deal with sub-freezing temperatures during the nights of March 29 and 30. A small snowstorm followed. Based on his knowledge of past searches in similar temperatures, Hanley believes Rebecca succumbed after one, perhaps two days in the elements.
“We won’t know definitely until we get the medical examiner’s report, but this appears to be just an issue of exposure to the elements and hypothermia,” Hanley said, adding, “there’s no indication there were any injuries.
“She was out there exposed to sub-freezing weather the entire time she was out there, without appropriate clothing, without food and water,” Hanley said. “And without water, you dehydrate really quickly in the cold. She had everything working against her.”
‘LAY DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP’
While Rebecca wanted to be alone that day, Hanley doesn’t believe she didn’t want to be found. He believes that by the time she felt a sense of urgency to get to safety, her body wouldn’t comply.
“The process of hypothermia is, once the (teeth) chattering stops, you don’t feel the cold — you feel like you’re overheating,” he said. “Then you pretty much lay down and go to sleep.”
News of Rebecca’s death reverberated through the community — especially at MUHS, where she was remembered as a nice, fun loving person and voracious reader.
Caitlin Steele, principal of MUHS, participated in a Sunday night vigil for Rebecca on the Middlebury Town Green. That was a hopeful gathering — a sharp contrast to the message she had to send out to the school community early Wednesday morning. It had to do with a series of on-campus services to help students, faculty and staff through the grieving process. Those entering MUHS on Wednesday had access to CSAC counselors and clinicians, a therapy dog, and a space for students to craft and write messages in honor of Rebecca.
“Over the next few days and weeks, grief will look different across our community,” Steele said.
“We also want to remind you of the 24-hour CSAC line for any community member at 388-7641.”
Peter Burrows, Addison Central School District superintendent, also reached out to the community via email.
“Our thoughts and sympathies are with Rebecca’s family and all those who love her,” he said. “Rebecca had a wonderful, creative spirit that we will miss deeply. Our whole community will feel this loss.”
Indeed, it’s clear Rebecca touched many people during her short life. More than 200 people showed up at Sunday’s vigil hosted by St. Stephen’s Church, where Rebecca had recently become a parishioner.
Many of her supporters — as well as some folks who had never met her — gathered for regular searches covering hundreds of acres in and around Wright Park. Dora Soberal helped organize the searches, and Hanley also gave a big shout-out to Amanda Vincent, whom he credited or doing “an absolutely superlative job” mobilizing volunteers in a helpful way that was not redundant with police efforts, which also included help from the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, New England K-9 Search and Rescue and the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team.
Citizen searchers were slated to meet at Middlebury’s recreation facility on Creek Road at 11 a.m. on Wednesday for a debriefing.
Jeanne Fair gave her thanks to all those who looked for her daughter as she embarks on her own, long quest for healing.
“I want to let everyone who volunteered know that there are greatly appreciated by me and my family,” she said. “They did what they could to bring my baby home and I appreciate it — and so do her siblings and her nieces and nephews.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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