A woman in her 60’s and her dog go missing the day before Thanksgiving. Witnesses claim to have spotted them walking on Route 173 in an all-day sleet storm. She is believed to be insufficiently dressed for the weather and possibly confused. A major law enforcement response follows: Manlius police, state police, search and rescue volunteers, bloodhounds. As details dribble out on local media websites, the woman’s chances of survival seem to grow bleaker by the hour.
“I honestly thought there was no way,” recalled Investigator Jim Gallup, of the Manlius Police Department. “From what people were telling us, the dog was pulling her.”
Where I come from, which admittedly is the Stone Age, this would be considered a major news event. People go missing all the time, of course, but this was no runaway teen. Clearly the woman, a well-regarded Ithaca massage therapist who had dropped in on friends in Manlius the night before, was in peril. Add a dog at risk to the mix — a surefire way to ratchet up interest in any story — and a heart-wrenching holiday time element, and seriously, how do you eff up this one if you’re even a half-legitimate news organization? Easily enough in this cynical age of online “journalism” that spits out semi-news, rarely pushes beyond spoon-fed press releases and raises more questions than answers as a ploy to generate “hits.”
What should have been a Thanksgiving weekend thriller, with a happy ending to boot, turned into another vent-a-thon for exasperated readers of two of the town’s biggest news providers, syracuse.com and cnycentral.com. After more than 24 hours of keeping Central New Yorkers hanging, the two sites perfunctorily announced Thanksgiving Day that the woman had been found in “good health.” Number of explanatory details: zero. Left unreported in particular was the one question, sadly, that made the story extra compelling: the status of the dog.
“Thank-you for asking about her dog!” a cnycentral.com Facebook post declared on Thanksgiving Day at 2:32 pm. “We do not know that at this time … We are waiting for more information and we’ll be sure to let you know when we know that.” A smiley face emoji followed.
There was no follow-up.
Meanwhile, syracuse.com was flooded with incredulous reader posts. Said one: “This is great that this woman was finally found. But where is the rest of the story? Did she find her way back home or was she found elsewhere? Did the dog lead her back home? Is the dog missing? Where was she all that time? Or is her medical condition such that she cannot remember?”
Good questions, online reader person. You must be old, too, to demand such detailed reporting.
What’s truly lame is the answers to many of these questions were easily obtainable by any enterprising sort with a notepad, a pen and a car. On Saturday, when it became clear that local media had dropped the story, I drove to the Manlius cul-de-sac where the woman’s friends live, and I knocked on a random door. A nice lady answered and told me that I probably wanted to talk to the people across the street. That’s where the police cars had been, she said.
This is known as high-level investigative reporting.
The friends were happy to talk, though they asked that I not use their names. They told me they had no idea why their visitor, a fellow Buddhist, had walked off in a storm, without having had breakfast, although they feared a medical condition. They said she had taken refuge at a church somewhere in Nob Hill, eight miles west of Manlius via the Seneca Turnpike, and that the church had given her money for a cab. They believed she and the dog had spent the night at a hotel. Then, on Thanksgiving morning, she had remembered the address of her friends in Manlius and called a cab to take her back.
A bit more follow-up by me — this time I used this fancy investigative search tool called a telephone — revealed that the woman had made it all the way to the International Assembly church on Lafayette Road, two miles past Nob Hill. This slight, gray-haired woman wearing a fleece jacket, and her Australian cattle dog, Cha, had plodded 10-miles plus in a near-blizzard. The woman was cold, wet and famished, recalled Lynda Weeks, the church’s administrative assistant. Weeks said they gave her fruit, granola bars and crackers, “whatever we could find while we waited for the cab.” The woman volunteered no information, not even her name.
“The dog ate a banana,” Weeks added. “It seemed fine.”
Gallup, the Manlius police investigator, said police were told that the woman and Cha spent the night at the Econo Lodge in DeWitt, but they could not confirm that, and neither could I. The woman wasn’t saying much to anyone; she did not return my phone call. Maybe it’s best we leave her be.
But the point is that I asked the question. That does not guarantee I will get an answer, but at least you, the reader, know I tried. See, that’s Job One for a journalist. Let your audience know you don’t always have all the answers, but you’re not a total moron, either.
Weeks said the church called police the next morning when staff realized the woman was the missing person on the news. Also, one of the cab drivers recognized her from news reports and contacted police. Ultimately the woman was near her friends’ home on Heritage Circle when police finally caught up with her Thanksgiving morning, Gallup said.
During my absurdly exclusive Saturday interview with the woman’s Manlius friends, I asked how chaotic their Thanksgiving had been, with all the police and media gathered at their home.
One of the women quickly corrected me.
“No media,” she said.
Email Jeff Kramer at firstname.lastname@example.org.