Missing Oregon teenager Hannah Thomas Garner: finding few facts among fear

Ashland is a vibrant community in southern Oregon just about fourteen miles north of the California border along the 1-5 corridor. It’s a little city of about 21,000 people that lies nestled in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains in an area that seems to draw a fair number of dreamers, artists, poets and writers. Much of Ashland’s charm is that it’s a place where imaginations are encouraged to wander– the world renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival is located here, as well as Southern Oregon University.  Tourists fill the sidewalks underneath the bright red flags which line Main Street and for many locals, life in Ashland is zesty, colorful and fun.

It’s a close knit community where neighbors get to know one another and there’s a sense of safety even though terrible things do happen from time to time– some of which go unsolved, like the murder of Dave Lewis whose burnt body was discovered on Memorial Day weekend in 2008. Three years later, twenty-three year old David Grubbs was walking home along a well used bike path and was brutally murdered. Both families await an elusive visitor called justice, which seems to be an infrequent guest in this tourist driven town.

Somehow, even still it’s a magical place to live, work and raise a family.

Just as if it played out on stage, at first the people in this story didn’t feel any sense of alarm in late November 2014. On Thanksgiving Day, Jeff Garner of Kilgore, Texas talked to his 17 year old daughter, Hannah Thomas-Garner by phone. She’d just celebrated her birthday the month before and the teenager spoke of her plans to continue to hunt for a part-time job. An Ashland high school junior and an honors student, Hannah did not have a history of getting into trouble.

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Two days later, she disappeared.

“I talked to her on Thanksgiving day. We texted back and forth for over an hour and then two days later she comes up missing.”, Jeff Garner said. Hannah’s parents split up when she was 4 and the girl spent summer vacations with her dad and extended family in Texas. Leaving was always hard, so the two devised a special signal where they would curl their index finger so that it was shaped like a hook– they called it “hooks up” which meant “I love you.” They signaled that message to each other many times as Hannah boarded airplanes to go home back to Oregon.

Ashland loves a parade and the annual Festival of Lights parade was held in the middle of the downtown on that Friday after Thanksgiving, a beloved tradition in which most of the downtown is awash with little white lights after a small but cheerful line of floats, carolers and Santa and Mrs. Claus make their way down Main Street towards the city plaza and friends gather in small groups along the parade route.

On Saturday, November 30, unbeknownst to parents, some local teens were making festive plans of their own which included a rave party in an area that’s often used for such gatherings out at one of the old rock quarries on Dead Indian Memorial Road.  Thomas-Garner told her parents she was heading to bed early that night and like many teens before her, she slipped out of her house sometime that evening. She met up with several friends at the party including 15 year old Sylvia Davis, 19 year old Andrew Thibert from Weed and 19 year old Richard Silver from Dunsmuir. The two men had driven over from the Mt. Shasta area in northern California.

Sometime before that evening, three teenage girls had made a pact to run away together. One girl backed out. Hannah and Sylvia planned on leaving together, but then something happened on the night of the party that changed those plans. Later Sylvia would tell police that Andrew Thibert said that Hannah could not travel with the three of them.

At some point in the evening Hannah vanished. There was a DJ out at the quarry and kids come and go. Hannah was there and then she wasn’t. “There have been people there at the party who remember her being there, but nobody recalls seeing her leave. There’s no recollection of her leaving the party so there’s no real time of when she left,” Jeff Garner said.

Instead of taking off running that Saturday night, Sylvia Davis went home. Thibert and Silver left too and did not resurface again in Ashland until two days later on Monday, December 1.

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Hannah did not come down the stairs for breakfast that Sunday morning. After discovering that her daughter is missing, Jamie Daugherty called the police. After searching and talking to some of Hannah’s friends, police said that Hannah was a runaway. However, not everybody agrees with that theory. Hannah’s mother said that while she took her car keys, license and cell phone, there’s no evidence to suggest that Hannah packed a bag with clothing, makeup or other necessities when she left home. Instead of finding a note explaining why her daughter ran away, Daugherty discovered medication Hannah had been in the middle of taking, her debit card and other items that she knows her daughter would have wanted to keep with her.  Although it is not a crime to run away in Oregon, Hannah becomes case 14-3068 and is listed as missing, endangered. Her family begins a long journey toward answers.

Awakened by a phone call in the middle of the night on December 1, the family learns that Hannah’s car, a 2012 Ford Focus, has been found by law enforcement in Siskiyou County near the city of Mt. Shasta which is about 75 miles away.

“The car- the windshield was busted out. There were dents on the side and dents on the hood,” Garner explained. The windshield is broken. Inside police find Hannah’s keys and cell phone. The SIM card has been removed from the phone.

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Meanwhile Thibert and Silver had been in touch with Sylvia Davis and the men arrange to meet with Davis in Ashland. Sometime on Monday December 1, they pick her up and the three head towards Humboldt County in Thibert’s white pickup truck.

Back in Siskiyou County, a witness tells police that he picked up a young girl matching Hannah’s description and dropped her off near Dunsmuir, about 9 miles north of Mt. Shasta. This one single sighting is the only time anyone says they have seen Hannah since the night of November 30 and while police insist it’s a good lead, as much as he wants to believe that she is okay, Hannah’s dad soon doubts its credibility.

Hannah’s seen at the party near the quarry, her car is found near Mt. Shasta and then there’s nothing to go on. Her family and friends do all they can to get media attention to help find the missing girl. Social media is used and both Facebook and Twitter pages are created and yet even with all of the community support and interest there doesn’t seem to be anything that brings them closer to finding out what happened to her.“After Shasta, I don’t think anybody knows”, Jeff Garner said.

Sylvia Davis is reported as a runaway on December 2 and at first police believed that the girls were together, but by Saturday  December 6th, authorities locate Sylvia Davis, Andrew Thibert and Richard Silver near the Mattole Beach Campground in an isolated area north of Ferndale that is known as the Lost Coast. Thibert is arrested for crimes of a sexual nature. Silver is not arrested. All three tell police that Hannah Thomas-Garner was never with them in Humboldt County.

Weeks pass and there’s no new sightings. Friends and family say that if Hannah did leave on her own volition, she would certainly have contacted someone by now, They hang on to the idea that surely they will hear something from her any day now. Candlelight vigils are held in Oregon and Texas in the hope that they will spark some new information. Christmas comes and goes. Hannah is still missing.

At the end of December, a group calling themselves “Team Hannah” meets at the Ashland Police Department on a freezing cold morning to ask APD to reclassify Hannah’s case. Deputy Chief Tighe O’Meara meets with a group of about 35 concerned citizens and spends most of an hour answering their questions about Hannah’s disappearance.

When asked if the police have evidence that points to Hannah being alive, O’Meara said,

“We still feel very strongly that the information we’ve received from people in northern California is credible and that Hannah was seen in Mt Shasta and was given a ride to Dunsmuir and the details provided by these folks when they had no inside info on this case makes this credible.”

He explained that police detectives searched the area of the party immediately following her disappearance and that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office planned to do a thorough search that same day. Some weeks later further searches continue until police say they have searched the area a half dozen times. Nothing significant is found.

Family and friends express concern that evidence in the case has not been tested for evidence since she is said to be a runaway. “Hannahs car, from the beginning was processed for evidence”, O’Meara says. “There’s a few issues at play here. One, again if something happened to her in California and she was the subject of criminal activity in California that would go to California labs”, O’Meara says. “If we were to introduce it to the Oregon state police labs, their policy is that they generally will not analyze evidence in a case that is not known to be criminal. Any DNA evidence,  any forensic evidence, would not be analyzed in this situation.”hannah2

A month passed. Then two months. Hannah’s friends and teachers organize a message at the high school in the hope that it might reach her. During a twenty minute advisory class, students file out in groups of two onto the football field where there is an outline of a heart in the middle of the field. Hannah’s friends stand in the middle of the heart and hold up placards which have big letters written on them. They stand together and when they hold them up they spell out Hannah’s nickname, “Moose”. Students inch along the edges of the outline as though it is a ceremonial labyrinth until the entire outline of the heart is full and there’s so many of them that they have to double up. Before heading back to class they all squish together so that an aerial photo can be taken.

On their way back to class about a half dozen girls pause and talk to Hannah’s mom. Their expressions tell a story of deep concern.

Halfway across the country, family waits for the phone to ring.

“I will never give up,” Jeff Garner says. “Hooks up for Hannah”.

Note: RVCP is not in the habit of publishing the names of minors, but due to the nature of this story and the fact that mainstream media sources have widely used Sylvia Davis’ name, we’ve made an exception. We want to remind our readers that as a minor child, Sylvia Davis is a victim.

hannah3Edited to clarify that Hannah’s car was found in Mt. Shasta. The credible witness dropped her off near Dusmuir. Original article mentions Shasta rather than Mt. Shasta.

About Vanessa Houk

Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is dedicated to chronicling the struggles of labor and civil rights. Based in Ashland, she is the editor-in-chief of the Rogue Valley Community Press.

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