PIERCEFIELD - Thanks to about 200 volunteers Monday and more than 300 Tuesday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is confident they've thoroughly covered the search area around where missing teen Colin Gillis was last seen. Yet they still haven't found him.
That means they now have to expand their search farther out from there, which will require more skilled searchers.
If people want to help, they should have experience with the outdoors, be ready to go out on a half-day search assignment and wear proper footwear for the winter woods. Searchers said they were in deep snow at points and sloshing through mud and water at other points on Monday and Tuesday.
Forest Ranger Scott VanLaer points out areas that have been thoroughly searched for missing teen Colin Gillis between Tupper Lake and Piercefield.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
The terrain is more difficult in the areas DEC wants to search now, including some whitewater rafting on the Raquette River where the DEC airboat can't travel.
Officials haven't lost hope yet. DEC Forest Ranger Scott VanLaer said it's possible for a person to survive outdoors in the conditions the area has experienced.
"It's amazing what people can survive, absolutely," VanLaer said. "We're going to continue focusing on that it's a search."
The search so far
VanLaer said the areas around the point where Gillis was last seen, near the line between Franklin and St. Lawrence counties where Tupper Lake meets Piercefield, have been thoroughly searched, mostly more than once, for any clue of Gillis's whereabouts. That includes using airboats to scan the water and having people walk the shorelines.
"We're making sure that we have what we call 100 percent coverage of everything that's within a geographical circumference of a mile from the last known spot," VanLaer said.
Searchers have also extended out about 150 feet from the sides of surrounding roads up to 4 miles west, and east into Tupper Lake as well, VanLaer said. They've checked camps on Gull Pond, too.
An airboat was using an underwater camera to search the water of the Raquette River around state Route 3.
Only two personal items belonging to Gillis have been found so far, both on state Route 3 just west of Setting Pole Dam Road, slightly west of where Gillis was last seen walking along state Route 3. Police have so far declined to characterize the items. A few other leads have been ruled out, VanLaer said.
State police have been using dogs to search the area, too, VanLaer said. He said there were a few leads with that approach, but none that have panned out, so they are downgrading that effort.
They're planning to look today in a few other areas in Tupper Lake, like around Raquette Pond where one can see the area where he lived across the lake. They're also planning to look on Old Wawbeek Road near Sunmount.
"While that seems like it's some distance from where the subject was seen and his personal effects were found, in his conversations with people who live near there he mentioned being on their road," VanLaer said. "We don't believe that to be correct - we believe he was confused with who he was speaking to - but we are doing roadside searching of that road as well."
Gillis had just returned home for spring break from SUNY Brockport, where he is studying in the pre-medical program, when he wandered off on foot from a party on Paskungameh Road.
He was last seen at about 1:45 a.m. by several motorists who reported Gillis acting erratically while walking dangerously close to traffic on state Route 3, near the county line. State police drove out to investigate shortly thereafter, but they found nothing.
In addition to searching the ground and water in the area where Gillis was last seen, state police Lt. Scott Heggelke said his investigators are pursuing other leads. They have interviewed about 100 people so far, including people who were at the party Gillis was at and people he may have called or texted.
In case Gillis was picked up by a car and traveled somewhere else, Heggelke said police are working on putting the word out through the media, and he's listed nationally as a missing person. Heggelke said police don't know if Gillis has any identification on his person.
State police at this point aren't releasing any information about Gillis' cell phone, like when it was last used, how many calls or texts he made and when, or if they know the location of it. But Heggelke said they are working with all the area cellular service providers to investigate Gillis' phone and others.
They're also investigating what condition Gillis was in when he disappeared, physically and mentally.
They've also been looking into the possibility that he returned to Brockport. According to YNN in Rochester, police asked college officials to check if his student ID was used to give him access to his dorm, but they found it hadn't been since last Friday.
John Gillis, Colin's father, once again spoke Tuesday about how grateful he is for all the help.
"Being on the inside of this thing, it's amazing to see the DEC and state police run this thing," he said. "And the volunteer effort has just been overwhelming.
"We want to thank everybody. It's been very incredible."
He also mentioned all the fire departments, rescue squads, ladies' auxiliary and other volunteers that have been helping, as well as the businesses and individuals who have donated mountains of food for the search effort.
"It's incredible, the outpouring of support from the community," John Gillis said. "We feel it. We appreciate it."
He said they are trying to stay as positive as they can and to keep people upbeat about the search.
Gillis' older brother, Lyndon Gillis, came up Sunday from Utica and has been searching tirelessly since. Friends say he has been searching the woods late into the night and getting up before dawn to continue looking. He posted early this morning on his Facebook page about how grateful he is to everyone getting the word out.
"Hope you see this, Col," Lyndon wrote. "You've got 404 people waiting for yea at home, Don't be scared to come back!"
VanLaer and Heggelke also said they were impressed with the community response.
"I've been a forest ranger 16 years, and I've been on numerous searches like this in many small communities. I've never seen an outpouring like this," VanLaer said. "If you get 100 volunteers on a day, that's tremendous. To have over 300, I've never seen that before.
"Honestly, it's been difficult to stay ahead of the droves of volunteers I've had to give them assignments."