News

Searchers return to woods

Police continue to search and re-search Oak Harbor and surrounding areas for a 15-year-old girl who disappeared early in the morning of Nov. 6.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Steve Almon said investigators are frustrated by the case. He said police and FBI agents have interviewed all of Elaine Sepulveda’s friends and family in Oak Harbor and El Paso, Texas, but nobody has heard from her since she went missing.

Almon said police are treating the disappearance as a criminal case even though there’s still a chance she could be alive and well.

“My instincts tell me she left the house and planned on coming back home,” he said, “but something happened to prohibit that.”

Police say they believe Sepulveda snuck out of her home sometime after 1 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, and met up with an 18-year-old high school student in the Regatta Drive area. Her family reported her missing later that morning.

The scouring of the area is likely to continue unless the girl is found. “We’ll keep after this until we are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing to find,” Almon said.

So far, the effort has been impressive. Thursday, police detectives and about 50 volunteers returned to the wooded area off of Wake Avenue, on the edge of the Navy’s Saratoga Heights development where Sepulveda’s family lives, for the third major search.

Capt. Rick Wallace said the hunt for the girl also extended to a previously-unsearched area east of the Navy’s sewage treatment plant on Crescent Harbor.

Volunteer search and rescue coordinator Don Mason gave strict instruction to the searchers. He told them they were not just looking for a body, but rather for something as big as a bag of flour.

“We’re out here because the family doesn’t have all the answers,” Mason said. “If it’s moveable, move it and look under it. If it’s piled up, dig into it and look through it.”

Wallace said the foot search will continue next week because the search crew was able to cover only about a third of the area investigators wanted to go through.

“It’s very thick in there,” Wallace said. “There are thickets, brush, areas of poor footing. A person can’t search for more than four hours without losing focus.”

Also, he said the blustery weather made the effort difficult.

Before the search began, Sepulveda’s mother, Mary Jimenez, took a moment to thank the volunteers.

“You don’t even know me and you’re here for me,” she said. “I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

The Island County Sheriff’s Office got involved with the search this week. Almon said personnel in the Sheriff’s Office spent Tuesday searching the shoreline between Penn Cove and Skagit Bay with a boat and two wave runners, but they didn’t find anything.

Almon said police recovered Sepulveda’s clothes from the young man on Nov. 7, the day after she disappeared. Oak Harbor Police Sgt. Jerry Baker took over the investigation from Navy Security Nov. 8.

According to Almon, city staff in the public works department were among the first people involved in the hunt for Sepulveda. They worked overtime Nov. 9 to go through dumpsters and look through trash that had already been picked up.

About 100 volunteers tromped through brush that Tuesday in the first search of the woods off Regatta Drive. Police and four dog teams returned to the area and searched again that Thursday.

The effort to find the girl was diverted for a short time when a resident and firefighters in a rural area outside of Arlington mistakenly reported encountering her Nov. 11.

Baker said police and the Navy have conducted many small-scale searches in the weeks following her disappearance, but haven’t found anything significant to the case. They did find, however, a giant sink hole in a swampy area near the Navy’s Rock Hill Terrace housing. City public works staff aided police in exploring the hole by lowering a camera down into it. Again, nothing was found.

Also, Baker said Navy security and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have done “cursory searches” of large chunks of Navy property, focusing on the area east of the city.

Sepulveda’s family and other community members have also put a great deal of effort into searching for the girl. They have posted literally thousands of fliers with Sepulveda’s photo all over the Puget Sound region.

Almon said he had “no comment” about whether police have a suspect in the case or whether they have served any search warrants.

“We’re following the direction that the evidence takes us,” he said.

For the community, Almon urges those people who may have seen something in the Regatta area in the early morning of Nov. 6 to contact police, even if they think it’s insignificant. Also, he said police would like to talk to anyone who knows Sepulveda but hasn’t been interviewed yet. Call 360-679-5551 or 911.

Staff reporter Eric Berto contributed to the story.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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