This is the third post in my series on the Brianna Maitland missing person case. Maitland was last seen around 11:30 pm on March 19, 2004, as she was completing her shift at the Black Lantern Inn restaurant in Montgomery, Vermont. She left the restaurant in a 1985 Oldsmobile, which was later found abandoned on the property of an old vacant farm--about one mile from the restaurant. The vehicle appeared to have been involved in an accident.
In my previous post on the case, I discussed the photographs taken of the missing woman’s car as it apparently had struck the side of an abandoned farmhouse. I listed a few notes that I noticed about the picture as well as information contained in printed articles on the topic.
A commenter on Part II of my thoughts on the Maitland case as well as those involved in previous discussion boards on the investigation, ask a relevant question regarding the initial trooper’s actions the night he first discovered the car and then left it for another unit to process the next day: why did he not know something was terribly wrong there at the farmhouse?
With today’s post, I am going to discuss the officer’s initial discovery of Maitland’s vehicle scene through my experience in similar situations. I had to make an educated guess regarding several aspects pertaining to what the trooper actually saw, but I think the officer’s primary actions on that early morning have been accurately reported. With this hypothetical, I wanted to argue a plausible scenario as to why the responding trooper performed the actions that he did.
The Trooper First Encounters Maitland’s CarJust a few notes on my hypothetical story:
Trooper A is on routine patrol at 0100 on Saturday March 20, 2004 near Montgomery, Vermont. There is a light snow falling and temperatures are hovering just below the freezing mark. Approaching an abandoned farmhouse on Rt. 118, his headlights illuminate the front windshield of another vehicle. The car is backed into the side of the house with no lights on anywhere.
The trooper passes the house, cuts a U-Turn and pulls in front of the vehicle. He shines two spotlights on the car, and uses the radio to notify his dispatcher of the location of a possible vehicular accident.
The bright lights shower the Buick, but no movement is seen. The trooper cautiously exits his patrol car and approaches the vehicle's passenger side—-flashlight in hand.
The officer walks to the vehicle and sees no one in it. "Drunks," he mumbles to himself.
"Our call volume would be ¾ less if we did not have to deal with the antics of alcohol abusers. Our station must get five or more of these drunk driver hit and runs on Friday and Saturday nights," he adds speaking to the wind.
He looks at the damage to the house and notices that the boarded-up window of the house seemed to have taken the worst of the impact, and that the plywood lay across the rear of the Buick. The vehicle’s windows do not appear to have been broken to initially gain access to the car. Inside the vehicle, the steering column is intact, no keys visible anywhere, and he sees some assorted personal belongings and two uncashed checks lying on the seat.
Trooper A performs a quick look around the perimeter of the car for the driver—making sure that no injured persons were lying nearby. While searching, he notices more personal effects on the ground near the driver’s door including a broken necklace.
Trooper A remarks: "hmm, this one was in a hurry to flee the scene." He opens the Buick’s door and tosses the belongings into the vehicle-—including the necklace.
He methodically works his way to the point of impact, examining each view of the car as he goes, leans behind the Buick, scribbles down down the license tag number on his hand, and has his dispatcher provide a vehicle listing. The owner of the Buick is listed as a local (computer records had Brianna’s mother as the car owner) woman. He then requests that his agency’s communications worker run a search for a phone number to contact the listed owner.
After a few minutes, his radio squawks with the sound of the dispatchers voice: "Sorry the phone number we have for that owner is not a working number."
Trooper A grunts.
He refocuses his attention on the apparent accident scene. His mind begins operating like a DvD player--running through and then rewinding different possible trajectories in which the car would end its motion with a rear-end impact into the house.
Did the vehicle leave the highway after losing control and strike the house rear first? Why then did he not see any skid marks? Working the area, he knew that vehicles drove rapidly along this stretch of highway—-if this car was speeding when the driver lost control, why is there not more damage to the vehicle and house?
He then considers a second alternative. What if the driver of the Buick had turned from the highway onto the farmhouse property to meet or speak to someone? What if the collision occurred after this stop? What if the driver was so drunk he/she simply put the car accidentally into reverse and plowed into the house.
His eyes studied the farmhouse. It was abandoned, but not sure for how long. If the Buick started driving from a stopped position on the grass away from the roadway then the collision would have been on private property and not necessarily considered a traffic accident.
The more he thought about drunk teenagers, the more that this Buick looked like the result of some weekend fun and making the second alternative more reasonable. The trooper then reached a decision. He would leave the vehicle for now and have someone else take care of it later if it was still there. He took a picture of the collision scene and then left the farmhouse.
--Drunk drivers, especially after-hours on weekends, involved in a collision regularly leave the scene and their vehicle behind.
--Uncashed paychecks in the vehicle, personal effects near the collision scene, and a broken necklace are not necessarily indicators of a violent crime. The officer evidently saw no blood or evidence of a physical altercation so it is reasonable to assume that the items were the result of a driver hastily fleeing the scene.
--The trooper’s decision not to have the car towed immediately were based on a variety of factors that I would simply not know-—including his agency’s policy for such matters. Depending on the jurisdiction, vehicles on private property and not on a roadway that strike privately owned structures (like houses) are not necessarily accidents that police can file a traffic report and have a vehicle towed.
--If the vehicle looked stolen (e.g. broken vent window, peeled steering column, etc.) the Trooper's efforts to contact the owner would have likely been more diligent.
--From my memory of the family’s discussions, the reported attempt to contact the vehicle’s owner (Brianna’s mom) is also unclear. The family was not sure why police were unable to contact them (phone number apparently was correct). At some departments, the phone call from the scene is simply a courtesy and not mandated. Often, owners are not contacted until the vehicle is being held at a tow-in lot.
Unfortunately, the call is the step that would have changed the course of the case had the trooper been successful in speaking with the Buick’s owner that night—as the parents would have been alerted within hours that something was wrong with their daughter instead of days passing before realizing that she was missing.
Despite the fact that representatives from the Vermont State Police had apologized for some errors that occurred in the initial investigation, my intention with this post is not to state that police did a good or bad job in handling the case. What I hope with my story is that if one considers the scene of the farmhouse on that cold Saturday morning—that it can be argued that the trooper’s actions were rational as to why the officer did not treat Brianna’s found Buick immediately as a missing person’s case.
Police officers commonly talk about gut feelings that help them unmask the truth about incidents. Unfortunately, “gut feelings” are not 100% accurate and there were evidently not enough oddities about this incident to trigger a “something is not right here” thought with the initial responder. The car backed into a farmhouse on a snowy March morning simply looked too much like another drunk driver who had fled the scene.
Ok, I think I talked too much. I'll continue my discussion of the Brianna Maitland case next week and here is the link to my initial post on the topic.