BRUCETON MILLS — The body of a Morgantown woman missing since Oct. 3 was found in Preston County Saturday afternoon.
Monongalia County Sheriff Perry Palmer announced the discovery in a press release following an extensive search that began Saturday morning in Bruceton Mills.
Palmer’s release said Melanie Marie Gardner’ Jeep was found in a remote location off Casteel Road in Hazelton. Her remains were positively identified as Gardner and a medical examiner was called to the scene.
The missing person investigation now turns to one that will determine if foul play is suspected.
More than 100 people gathered Saturday morning at Little Sandy’s Truck Stop in Bruceton Mills, and other locations along Interstate 68 in Preston County, for a massive search for Gardner.
The 32-year-old woman was reported missing Oct. 3 to the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department. She was last seen driving her black 2016 Jeep Patriot with West Virginia registration that day.
Very little information had been released regarding Gardner’s disappearance except that her cell phone last pinged, or communicated the phone’s approximate location, off of I-68 near Exit 29 – Hazelton Road in Preston County.
Members of the Mountaineer Area Rescue Group (MARG) led the search, forming search teams and assigning areas for each to search.
Prior to finding the Jeep, MARG officials said the working theory is Gardner was in an accident and ran off the road. This theory does not eliminate the possibility for other explanations as to her disappearance.
Palmer, whose agency is investigating, was said to be in the area assisting with the search. However, The Preston County Office of Emergency Management was the authority with jurisdiction because the search was taking place in Preston County.
Palmer was apparently unable to speak with media Saturday regarding the case due to the jurisdictional complexities and search location.
MARG’s JoAnn Snoderly served as the public information officer for the search and said teams in the field looked for three key things while also reporting anything else that may look out of place or suspicious.
“We are going to be looking for signs of the vehicle off of the road. We are going to be looking for a cell phone. And, of course, we are going to be looking for Melanie today,” Snoderly said as teams were heading to their search areas.
Snoderly said over 60 community volunteers showed up to join the search, as well as about 35 trained search and rescue (SAR) volunteers who came from at least three states — including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland – based on what groups she was aware of at the time she spoke with The Dominion Post.
“We’ll have about 15 off-road vehicle tasks and 19 ground tasks,” she said. “We are primarily basing those tasks on the forensic cell phone data that we have.”
Having the large number of volunteers – and the wide variety of vehicles and resources they provided – made it easier to thoroughly search the area.
“Our goal is to be very slow and methodical, because we don’t want to miss anything. So having those people on foot will really help that and those ATV’s can really reach some areas that maybe the folks on foot can’t reach,” Snoderly said. “We’ll also have some dogs out today, and I understand some folks showed up with horses, so we will have them out in some of those harder to reach areas as well.”
She said a few drones were also deployed in the search.
With so many volunteers, safety was a priority for everyone, and each team was briefed on safety measures to reduce the chance of injury.
Search teams spent the day methodically combing the roads in the Bruceton Mills and Hazelton areas
Snoderly said Gardner’s family worked relentlessly to recruit volunteers for the search.
“We really want to thank all the emergent volunteers who came out here today to help,” Snoderly said, adding it helped them search a lot of area.
Several local agencies offered their support in the search, she said, including Mon and Preston sheriff’s departments, Bruceton Fire Department, EMS personnel and the Preston County Office of Emergency Management.
“Coopers Rock allowed camping for volunteers. Little Sandy’s provided breakfast for volunteers. Starbucks donated coffee,” Snoderly said. “So, there’s really been a tremendous outpouring of support and we are very appreciative.”
Snoderly said updates would need to come from the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department.
Anyone with information that may help with the ongoing investigation is asked to contact the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department at 304-291-7260 or call MECCA 911.