Reading the signs

As Taos woman’s disappearance nears 2-year mark, a father still hopes

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On May 2, 2016, the phone rang at Ray Alcott’s house in Saint Francis, Kansas. He could see it was his daughter, Holly White, and eagerly picked up the handset to answer her call.

“Hi, dad,” White said.

“Hi, Hol,” Alcott replied.

They talked late into the evening – about movies they’d seen recently, their memories of White growing up with her brother, Aaron, in Colorado, about the latest happenings in Taos, where White had moved with her husband, Jeff, in the mid-1990s.

The big news, however, was that White would be moving to Albuquerque later that month to join Jeff, who had left ahead of her to start a new job at a Chevy dealership.

Alcott jotted the final, crucial details on a sticky note, which he then fixed to the edge of his computer screen: “Last day at work, May 13. Close on house, May 20. New address in Albuquerque …”

Nearly two years later, Alcott, now 78, starts his mornings by sitting down at his computer and looking at the same note, wondering why nothing went according to plan.

That May day was the last time he spoke with White, who was reported missing only four days after their conversation, May 6, 2016.

Missing

In late November of last year, Alcott traveled to Taos, his sixth visit since his daughter went missing, hoping he would finally find out what had happened to her.

She had gone missing a few months before her 50th birthday. Many of her personal belongings had been left behind at her house. Her car, a blue Ford Escape, was found mysteriously stranded at the parking lot at the west end of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge.

She had made plans to go on a walk that week with a close friend and was scheduled to attend a farewell party at the Taos Center for the Arts, where she had worked as office manager for 22 years. She never showed for either engagement. A search was launched May 7.

When Alcott pulled into Taos in November, he first met with Elaine Graves, a private investigator who had grown up in the area and took up the case not long after White had been reported missing. Graves gave him stacks of freshly-printed missing person posters. They would replace the old ones with a new reward, which she and Alcott had agreed to increase from $5,000 to $20,000.

Nearly two years after White disappeared, they are still searching for any way possible to keep the case in view of the public.

‘A poster to every business’

The Holly White missing person poster has become a well-known feature in the Taos landscape. Over the course of a year and a half, White’s face and name appeared in many restaurants and other businesses she once frequented.

The posters can be found taped to bathroom walls and community message boards. They whiffle on electrical poles and under bus stops.

Alcott took the new posters and made his way, mostly on foot, from Taos Plaza out to the edges of town, posting them wherever he could.

“My goal was to pass out a poster to every business in Taos,” he said, recalling that he would first stand outside a storefront, practicing his presentation, thinking about how he would open his speech, focusing on what was most important to say.

He posted 376 over about five days in November. Through that process, he said he gained a better sense of where White had lived, and to some degree, who his daughter had become in middle age.

Many of the business owners had known her. They shared stories about her and welcomed the chance to help with the investigation in any way they could.

“Most people knew exactly what I was talking about,” Alcott said. “A lot of them knew Holly, knew what she was about and were very heartfelt about it.”

They also wanted to know the latest. Were there any new leads?

Alcott told them that the most recent search for White had been conducted in the Taos Canyon area in October.

Following a few tips that all pointed in the same direction, Graves organized a team that included dogs and searchers from Sandia Search Dogs in Albuquerque and Colorado Forensic Canines, which has offices in Durango and Fort Collins.

They went out on a Saturday, unloading packs and other equipment along the roadway, then fanning out under the piñon, following the dogs uphill through the dry underbrush.

Late into the day, one of the dogs started barking. The searchers rendezvoused at the area, where the dog jumped excitedly around a few bones. They called another animal to catch the scent and watched for its reaction, a kind of canine “second opinion,” Graves explained.

“To the dogs, animal bones and human bones all smell the same,” Graves said. “Colorado Forensic Canines had a forensic pathologist on call by phone in case we found anything.”

A searcher sent a photo of the bone by text. “Animal bone,” the pathologist surmised.

The October search brought the number conducted to date to about a half-dozen. Some have turned up what may serve as relevant evidence, Graves said, but none have led to remains.

Even so, both he and Graves hold onto hope that the new posters will stir up new leads that might take the case somewhere meaningful. Every time White’s face is seen or her name is mentioned, they believe, people will remember her and might recall some critical detail that could change the case.

Critical clues

Some people in Taos still wonder: Did White commit suicide or somehow mastermind her own disappearance?

After nearly two years of searching, Graves, and those who knew White best, think both scenarios are less and less likely.

The week after White disappeared, state police, a dive team and river raft guides combed 12 miles of the Río Grande Gorge, dragging the river and searching along its banks. They found a black Skechers women’s shoe floating in the water. Some of White’s friends say it belonged to White, but contend that someone must have hurled it into the river to confuse investigators.

The river ran fast and deep that day, state police had noted. A body had always been found after someone went off the bridge, so they believed one might surface when the river lowered that summer. But none did, providing Grave with one of the first indicators that White might not have wound up in the gorge at all.

Cynthia Arvidson, one of White’s closest friends who was the first to report her missing, believes that White fell victim to “foul play.”

“She didn’t jump or go over,” Arvidson said.

She added that White would never have left her personal belongings behind or fail to notify her loved ones if she had planned to end her own life.

“She was a stickler about having her purse with her even if it was just in the car. She had it with her when we walked … I’m telling you, she would have taken them.”

Graves also believes that someone, or perhaps more than one person, was involved in White’s disappearance. While she’s always looking for new leads, she believes that critical clues might be found in evidence that’s already in hand.

New Mexico State Police investigators pulled fingerprints from White’s vehicle late last year, one from a rearview mirror and another from the exterior of a passenger side door.

“One latent fingerprint lift was sufficient for identification, and was entered and searched in the AFIS and FBI NGI databases with negative results,” said Lt. Elizabeth Armijo, state police public information officer. “The second fingerprint lift contained impressions insufficient for use in comparison.”

But filed away in an evidence room at a New Mexico Department of Public Safety Crime Lab are several other pieces of evidence that have not been tested, including several of White’s personal belongings: her toothbrush, hairbrush and two hair samples that were recovered from the gorge.

While Armijo said the items had been accepted, she did not specify if any DNA tests, specifically, had been performed. She also confirmed that other pieces of evidence Graves submitted to the lab had been rejected.

Stalled DNA tests

In case after case, even those that remained unsolved for many years, DNA testing has proven to be an extremely valuable form of forensic testing, short of discovering a body.

“Forensic DNA analysis has played a crucial role in the investigation and resolution of crimes and missing persons cases since the late 1980s,” according to the National Institute of Justice.

For example, in the case of Krystal Beslanowitch, a Utah woman who had been murdered in 1995, investigators were stumped until 2013, when new methods of DNA testing allowed investigators to conduct a test on a rock that was believed to have been used to crush Beslanowitch’s skull. The DNA matched that of a Florida man, who was arrested later that year.

Although the discovery of evidence suggesting a crime can drastically change the nature of a case, lacking such evidence does not prevent a crime lab from conducting a DNA test.

“I am unaware of any statute which prevents state police from testing for DNA when there’s no specific evidence of a crime,” said Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen of the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Taos.

Commenting on a recent series of burglaries in the town of Taos, Taos Police Chief David Trujillo said DNA tests are often more reliable than other forms of forensics, such as fingerprints.

“We’ve solved a lot of cases based on blood evidence,” he said. “If we can recover a piece of glass with blood evidence on it, for example, we can send it to the lab for a DNA test. They’ll swab the glass and then put it into the system, and if it comes up with a match, they’ll let us know the name.”

Eager to see if another person or persons were involved in White’s disappearance, Graves has urged state police to conduct DNA tests on other personal items: White’s cell phone, wallet and purse. State police have continually denied her requests.

“The relevance of an item is determined by the facts of the case and the location and condition of items of evidence,” Armijo explained.

Graves has even identified private testing facilities that could perform the tests, which she and Alcott have offered to pay for themselves. State police again said, “No.”

“Because of the circumstances of the case, the fact that the case is still active and that we are still investigating, we cannot release evidence to a private party at this time,” Armijo said.

State police are continuing to investigate other leads, including one that claimed to have located White’s remains. “It doesn’t appear to be substantiated,” Armijo said, “but follow-up investigation is needed in order to confirm. At this time, no further information will be released on this lead.”

Hoping for signs

The investigation has been a slow churn of dead-end leads, evidence testing that has produced nothing of substance – and in Graves opinion – a law enforcement agency that isn’t doing everything possible to find out what happened to White.

She sat in The Taos News offices on a Thursday in January, venting about the barriers they have encountered. And she is keenly aware that White is one of many missing people in New Mexico.

The list of missing people in Taos County alone includes at least 10 people, both men and women, who have gone missing over the years, according to a 2017 query of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety missing person database. Many of them have still not been found.

In conjunction with the FBI, Graves has been looking closely at similar cases. One in particular, that of Barbara Holik, a German woman who disappeared in Taos in 1995, stands out.

Like White, Holik had lived and worked in town. People knew her and liked her. When she disappeared, her purse, keys and identification had been left behind inside her home. Her car was still parked in her driveway.

Investigators found one of her bedsheets and a cut phone cord in an adjoining apartment, but a cleaning lady got there first. Allegedly not knowing about the connection to Holik, she wiped down everything, removing the opportunity to test for forensic evidence, a chance that remains in the White case.

Many years have passed since Holik disappeared, the case has run cold, but people still haven’t forgotten, especially those that knew her well.

It’s a feeling Alcott has become familiar with since White went missing.

“Emotionally, it feels like a kind of a void,” he said. “I don’t know if she’s alive or dead.”

In Taos, Alcott drives by White’s old house in town, and parks and sits in his car at the Taos Center for the Arts parking lot.

When he returns home to Kansas, his morning routine still starts the same way. He sits down at his computer and checks for updates on the case. Then he studies the note, hoping to read in it some sign of where his daughter might be.

Tips on the White case can be provided to Graves at (575) 613-3415.

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