Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

September 8, 2013

UPDATE: Still no leads in search for missing girl

Bill Grimes and Tony Huffman
Effingham Daily News

WATSON — Authorities reported no solid leads as the search for 7-year-old Willow Long, who has been missing a day and a half, wore into the night Monday.

Volunteers were eventually turned away as authorities dealt with several cases of heat exposure among the eager, but untrained, civilians. Only professionally trained emergency responders were expected to search the rural countryside from 8 p.m. last night into today.

“For the safety sake of all civilians, we will just use our emergency service people from this point on,” said Effingham County Sheriff John Monnet. “My fear is we don't want to lose anybody because of this hot weather.”

As of 5 p.m. Monday, it was reported at a press conference that three people were transported to St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital, with seven others treated for heat exposure.

Monnet said the heat has affected the search in other ways.

"We've had several planes and helicopters trying to find Willow," he said. "But the fields are so hot that it's become harder to pinpoint the glow of body heat."

After suspending the search for three hours, volunteers were accepted from 5 to 8 p.m. Later many were sent home as the Watson Civil Center was filled with those wanting to help with the search. Approximately 300 volunteers showed up in the morning, along with more than 1,000 people turning up Monday night, according to Effingham Police Officer Levi Slater.

    Many volunteers who were turned away around the 8 p.m. deadline were dissatisfied.

    “If it was my family member, I would want the volunteers to keep looking,” said Susan Harmon, who lives just south of Watson.

    Harmon and her cousin, Jorri Webster, were turned away at approximately 7 p.m. They were sent home earlier in the day because of the heat. They joined in the search for Long several times Sunday night and Monday morning.

    “I would've gone again if they would let us,” said Webster. “I don't agree with this.”

    Both women reported there was some confusion, as many volunteers, they believe, were either underutilized or didn't know how to navigate the terrain.

    “There were some city folks that got lost in a corn field,” said Harmon. “They kept turning when the corn rows turned instead of walking straight through the field.”

    Authorities also cited the use of a “flare plane,” which senses a person's heat, as reason to limit the amount of people in the wilderness.

    “To do the flare plane, we need as many people drawn back, so we can do a search of these areas,” said Monnet.

    As the search resumed Monday night with only emergency service personnel, Monnet commended the large response from the community.

    “This says a lot for our community,” said Monnet. “It's amazing to see everyone get together for one cause.”

    Although Monnet reported that many were tired, he remained optimistic about finding Long and wouldn't speculate when the search would transition from a search to a recovery.

    “We do this on a day-by-day basis,” said Monnet. “Everyone is tired. The spirit is still there but we won't give up and that's what it takes.”

Off-duty sheriff's deputy Matt Dammerman said the walkers were instructed to proceed about an arm-length apart from one another.

"That will enable us to cover every inch of the field," Dammerman said.

After fanning out along a passageway between the two fields, searchers combed the south field in the early morning hours. By noon, the group was in the north field directly behind the Baptist church.

Dammerman said morale was good despite the daunting task of finding a second-grader less than four feet tall in what has become an 18-square mile search perimeter centered on the village of Watson. The village itself is about four square miles.

Willow had just started the second grade at South Side School in Effingham, authorities said.

That means most of the search area is rural terrain. While some of it is covered with maturing corn and beans, other parts of it are too rugged for even an all-terrain vehicle.

A group of horsemen were called in Monday to assist, including horseman Kevin Zerrusen of the Green Creek community north of Effingham.

"We can get to a lot of places that even four-wheelers can't," Zerrusen said. "We're up higher than the other searchers, and we can cover a lot of ground."

Chief Matt Kulesza of the Watson Fire Protection District said the search area included wide variations in terrain.

"We're looking at four square miles that is the village," Kulesza said. "The rest of it is rural, with some pretty steep hills and gullies."

Kulesza said the search area also includes some larger creeks that a girl Long's size would not be able to cross.

Acting Chief Deputy John Niccum of the Effingham County Sheriff's Department said there continues to be no evidence of foul play in connection with Long's disappearance. It is for that reason that authorities have declined to issue an Amber Alert.

"We have to know there has been an abduction," Sheriff John Monnet said. "At this time, we just feel Willow walked away from her home."

Effingham County Public Transit, as well as area school districts, were getting involved by providing buses to ferry searchers to points within the search perimeter. The Effingham, Teutopolis and Altamont school districts all brought buses to the scene. Effingham Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan said drivers were able to help out in the search between their morning and afternoon routes.

"It's important for us to be involved because this is a 7-year-old girl," Doan said. "This just tugs at your heart.

"Everybody is doing what they can to make sure this little girl comes home safe."

"Everybody" included young mothers Tiffany Wasson and Shannon Bennett, both of Effingham. In a van loaded down with coolers, ice, sports drinks, water, snacks and batteries, the women were headed to the Watson Civic Center, the staging area for civilian volunteers.

Both women said Willow's disappearance hit close to home.

"I have a newborn son, and I could not imagine something happening to him," Wasson said.

"I have two little girls around the same age (as Willow)," Bennett said. "If something like this happened to one of them, I would want as many as people possible out searching."

Niccum encouraged Watson-area farmers to check their outbuildings for signs of Willow. Meanwhile, police had been going door-to-door within the village in an effort to gather any information they could.

"Somebody has to see something," he said.

Niccum confirmed that the FBI had been on the scene Sunday. He didn't know whether federal agents were in town Monday, however.

Police confirmed that Willow apparently changed clothes before leaving the Circle Drive home Sunday morning. The clothes her mother described last seeing her in were found at the home.

Monnet added that Willow, who is near-sighted, did not take her glasses with her when she left the home.