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Volunteers called off as search for Herriman teen continues

Published January 10, 2013 1:33 pm

Missing • About 1,000 search for girl, 13; effort will include police dogs, air support.
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Herriman • As a storm bore down on the community where a 13-year-old girl vanished close to 48 hours before, hundreds of emergency officials and community volunteers converged Thursday on Herriman in an increasingly desperate scramble to find Brooklyn Gittins.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said that after two days of scouring Herriman and the surrounding areas, searchers hadn't been able to turn up any sign of Gittins. Officials decided to call off the search parties and to move to more "specialized" searches involving police dogs, mounted search parties and air support.

Winder said with the help of more than 1,000 people volunteering in the search so far, the 17-square-mile area had been combed through thoroughly.

"The entire area of Herriman City proper has been searched and doubled," Winder said in a press conference Thursday evening.

Gittins disappeared from her home Wednesday night. Winder's Unified Police Department said the 13-year-old was last seen wearing black pajama pants and a gray T-shirt; she did not leave with her shoes, coat or glasses. With overnight temperatures in the teens, authorities are worried about the risks of exposure to the cold if the 5-foot-10, 110-pound Gittins has not found shelter.

"We know that she could be in danger because of the elements," said UPD Lt. Justin Hoyal.

Hoyal confirmed reports that Gittins had run away from home this past summer but said she soon returned home. Without discussing details of that earlier disappearance, Hoyal would add only that the circumstances of the earlier incident were "not similar to those now" and that "the places she would or could have gone, she hasn't gone there."

"At this point, we can't rule out that she ran away or that something suspicious happened," Hoyal stressed. "There were no signs of a forced entry in her home. Our big concern is that she's out there, ill-prepared with her clothing" for subfreezing weather conditions.

Gittins' stepgrandfather, Craig Hiller, stood alongside Winder at the press conference. He described Gittins as a "typical teenager," a girl who could be very outgoing or very shy depending on the day. Her family has been weighed down with "concern and stress" since her disappearance, Hiller said.

"Brooklyn," he said in hopes that his words would reach her somewhere, "don't be afraid of anything. We love you and we want you here. We need you home."

By Thursday afternoon, with storm clouds thickening in the northeast, the time to find Gittins was running short.

At 3:30 p.m., Herriman City tweeted that due to the incoming storm, no additional volunteers were needed.

"We will not be sending out any additional searchers," city officials said.

Hoyal said officials would call off the search when the snow storm arrived.

The search, which was suspended Wednesday night, resumed at 8 a.m. Thursday.

Volunteers were asked to report to a search command post at an LDS church at 5562 W. 13680 South. Anyone wishing to learn more about the search efforts should first call 801-743-7280.

The church's parking lot was nearly full Thursday afternoon as people from around the state steadily streamed in. Many of the volunteers at the building had been searching since 8 a.m.

Coralee Wessman-Moser, a Herriman City Council member who oversees trained volunteers in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), said about 700 people had shown up, and she expected close to 1,000 people could sign in by the end of the day.

Volunteers were organized into teams of about 10 people led by one or two CERT members. After watching a short instructional video, they were told by police what to look out for. Volunteers also canvassed neighborhoods and handed out fliers. The teams were usually out for about two hours or longer depending on the ruggedness of the terrain they are searching. Many people took time off from work and volunteered for multiple assignments, Moser said.

"I'm really surprised by how many people are here," Moser said.

Herriman resident Debbie Sorensen was one of those who had been out searching since 8 a.m.

"I just can't imagine going to sleep at night and not knowing where my child is," she said.

Sorensen said she wasn't surprised at the number of people who came out with her. She said she met people from Salt Lake, Park City and Kamas.

"Utah pulls together," she said. "They really do."

Pam Bird, 62, and her husband Myron, 74, came from Taylorsville Thursday morning. The Birds have grandchildren who live in Herriman.

Ruddy-faced and weary, the couple were on their way home after a steady four hours of combing the large search grid.

"If it was my daughter or granddaughter, I'd want to know that there's people here to help," Pam Bird said.

Myron Bird said he knows the area well, having hunted in the nearby canyons for decades. He said he was willing to come back and keep searching the next day, but he said he almost hoped he wouldn't be the one to find her.

"If any of these people find her, it's too late," he said.

On Wednesday, about 50 police officers and 20 firefighters converged on the area around the girl's home near 13900 South and Friendship Drive (5755 West) in an unsuccessful effort to find Gittins. In addition to a door-to-door search, a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter scanned the search area from above.

Anyone with information on Gittins' whereabouts is urged to call UPD 801-743-7280.

kbennion@sltrib.com

remims@sltrib.com