Why Natalie Garza won't give up the search for her son
Natalie Garza with son Damon
Tucked away in the southwest corner of the Middlebury College campus, at the end of a poorly paved road 20 yards from the 10th tee at Ralph Myhre Golf Course, Hadley House has the air of a lonely outpost. The two-story cottage, fronted by a circular drive and a small stand of tall trees, usually does stand empty, though a few times a year it’s called into service as temporary lodging for college guests.
For the past two months, Hadley House has been home to Natalie Garza, whose 19-year-old son Nicholas has not been heard from since he left a Middlebury College residence hall late one night in early February.
For various reasons, an investigation into Nick’s disappearance wasn’t launched until almost six days later, when his mother arrived and filed a missing person’s report with the Middlebury Police Department.
The Vermont State Police are also involved in the search for Nick, having conducted several “recovery” missions that turned up nothing. The VSP concluded its latest search late last month, and it could be another week before another one can be organized.
Much of the terrain that lies between Hadley House and the spot, outside Stewart Hall, where Nick was last seen is rugged and undeveloped. And most of it has been gone through with scent-dogs and volunteers. Still, since she came to Middlebury, Natalie and whatever family she has around her fill several hours of each waiting day probing ditches and creek banks. Armed with shovels and rakes, they pull apart the last of the snow piles and sift through the mud and dirt, searching for signs of Nick.
When she’s not doing that, Natalie is usually communicating with police officers, investigators and college officials, asking questions and giving them information she thinks they will need to find her son.
The nights are the roughest. It’s a struggle to relax, to overcome her fears and sleep a few hours so she has the strength to do it all again the next day.
“At the [town] inn the first few days, there were other people staying there, and I just didn’t have any emotional release,” Natalie says. “It’s actually nice that we’re up here, secluded, so that no one can hear me scream and cry.”
Nick Garza was last seen shortly after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, February 5, as he left Stewart Hall. That’s about a third of a mile south of Allen Hall, where he lived on the first floor with a group of underclassmen known as the “dungeon boys.” When Nick wasn’t in his room Wednesday morning, his friends assumed he’d joined a group of students who left campus to spend a few days at a cabin in New Hampshire. When those students returned Saturday night, though, they said they hadn’t seen Nick.
Natalie, a 40-year-old financial analyst at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and her 9-year-old son, Damon, usually got a phone call or a text message from Nick at least once a day. Natalie wasn’t too concerned when she didn’t hear from her oldest son on Wednesday. But by Thursday night, she felt the first surge of panic.
“Nick will ignore my emails or texts for a couple of days,” Natalie says. “But Damon had a question, and he must have called Nick six times that night.
“I didn’t say anything to Damon, but I figured, ‘He’s probably out, and I’ll bet there’s a text waiting for you in the morning.’ When there wasn’t, I went to work that day feeling ill.”
By Sunday, she was surrounded by other family members, frantically trying to book a flight from Albuquerque to Vermont. The following day, she and Nick’s grandparents settled for a plane to Albany. They rented a car and drove to Middlebury, arriving at the police station around 11 p.m., where they filled out the missing-person’s complaint.
It wasn’t clear at that stage what kind of missing person’s case this was. For starters, who was Nick Garza? To his parents, Natalie and Demetrius, Nick was beyond exceptional. He was smart, handsome, talented and caring, and he seemed to possess a degree of self-control unusual in someone his age. But to someone who didn’t know him, Nick Garza could have been just another Middlebury freshman, probably away from home for the first time, who got himself into trouble he couldn’t handle.
The latter view seemed to govern the first stage of the investigation, which was running on the backs of two important presumptions. First, the authorities believed copious amounts of alcohol had been consumed on the night Nick disappeared. Second, they hypothesized that Nick was somewhere on campus, perhaps buried beneath the 10 inches of new snow that began accumulating just a few hours after he was last seen.
Eight weeks later, the crocuses are blooming on the Middlebury campus, and the chances that Nick Garza’s body will be found among them grow smaller by the day. Meanwhile, the known facts about his disappearance remain agonizingly few. Just as the physical search has turned up nothing that would suggest Nick’s whereabouts, the missing person’s investigation, led by the Middlebury Police Department, has failed to yield a single useful lead.
“In every one of these cases that I have investigated in the past, there is some kind of cue about how to proceed,” says Middlebury Police Chief Thomas Hanley, who has led the department since 1991, after more than a dozen years as a detective with the major-case squad in Wallingford, Connecticut. “We don’t have that here. Nothing,” Hanley laments “Nothing has come up in any of his emails or his computer records or his cellphone records or his bank records.”
Natalie Garza has made it known that she will remain in Hadley House until the mystery of her son’s disappearance is revealed. Late last week, Damon, a smaller, sturdier, mop-topped replica of Nick, joined his mother in Middlebury. On Monday, the fourth grader picked up his studies at a private school in town.
Meanwhile, rising tension between the family of a missing boy and those charged with finding him is inevitable. What parent wouldn’t wonder, when leads fail to materialize, whether investigators are doing everything they can? And what kind of peace officer, aware that he can offer no reassurance, wouldn’t recognize the implication that his work is somehow flawed?
Natalie Garza and Tom Hanley met for the first time on the morning of February 13. It was a Wednesday, her second day in town, and the second day on the case for the Vermont State Police’s Search and Rescue Team.
The previous evening, during a routine debriefing on campus, Natalie had asked the VSP and Middlebury College officials in the room why the search was focused on a wooded area behind Stewart Hall, adjacent to St. Mary’s Cemetery. The path from Stewart Hall to Nick’s room at Allen Hall, she pointed out, went in the opposite direction.
According to Natalie, a state police lieutenant told her a student interview had raised the possibility that Nick had made a romantic advance to another student, which was rejected. Perhaps, the officer reasoned, Nick’s feelings were hurt and, rather than go home, he wandered off in search of different company.
Natalie told Hanley she found the scenario implausible, not least because Nick had left his coat at Allen Hall and was wearing tennis shoes. Why would he go anywhere when he left Stewart Hall but back to his own room? She also questioned the recollections of another student, a fellow “dungeon boy,” who told police he and Nick had kept score as they downed shot after shot of liquor over the course of a couple of hours. Hanley replied that the student had told police he and Nick bought alcohol earlier in the day, and that a bottle of rum, about two-thirds empty, was found in Nick’s room.
That evening, after weather conditions forced the state police to suspend the ground search, Hanley told news reporters that, before he went missing, Nick was among a group of students drinking in one of the residence halls. Natalie’s brother, Todd Sierra, a patrolman with the Albuquerque Police Department, was quoted the next morning in The Burlington Free Press disputing that alcohol had any role in his nephew’s disappearance. It would be “extremely out of character for Nicholas to be intoxicated to the point of being unable to take care of himself,” Sierra said. Nonetheless, he told the Free Press that the family was “completely, completely happy” with the efforts of the Middlebury and state police departments, which were “exhausting every possible avenue that they can.”
The contretemps may have continued in that awkward vein if not for something that happened at about the same time three-quarters of the way across the country. Two days after Nick was last seen, Alphonse “Michael” Barbiere, a vacationing 23-year-old Wall Street trader from New Jersey, went missing after leaving a Breckinridge, Colorado, bar. Police there said Barbiere was “highly intoxicated,” having consumed about 20 martinis, when he left his friends and walked out into 65-miles-per-hour winds and a driving snowstorm.
On Valentine’s Day, the Garza and Barbiere cases were linked in an ABC News story beneath the headline, “Two Missing Men Are Likely Buried in Snow: Intoxication Plus Exposure to Elements Makes for Deadly Combination.” Fashioned as a cautionary tale, the piece said police in Middlebury and Breckinridge “are betting the boys are right under their noses hidden in the avalanche of snow that has blanketed their little towns.”
Middlebury Chief Tom Hanley was quoted making several observations about his little town, including that it wasn’t unusual for his officers to find college students “sitting and lying at the side of the road drinking.” About Nick Garza, according to ABC News, he said, “I just hope he doesn’t turn up in the spring.”
Hanley’s comments, which he reiterated on a subsequent Fox News broadcast, stung Nick’s family. Since arriving from Albuquerque, Natalie, when not with the search team or talking with police, was working the phone and her laptop, gathering knowledge and support from missing-person’s advocates. She hunted for scent-dog handlers and, she admits, so-called “intuitive counselors.” She made contact with an organization that helps maintain awareness of missing-person cases by raising reward money. And, like Tom Hanley, she too was talking to the media. Natalie knew the cable and network news outlets, in particular, love mysterious disappearances. But she soon discovered that the stories with the greatest traction don’t involve missing persons who are victims of their own irresponsibility.
“Nobody cares about a drunk college student,” Natalie says. “I wanted people’s eyes to be out for Nick, to get some attention. That ABC article hurt very much. I felt like it undermined everything I was trying to do.”
Hanley says the ABC reporter misquoted him and, when she got it right, took his words out of context. Moreover, the chief says, he has battled perceptions, spread via local opinion pieces and Internet chat groups, that he’s already decided how the Garza case will end. “Somehow, opinions have been developed out there that we just assume he got drunk, walked out in the snow and disappeared,” Hanley says. “And, I have told the family 100 times to the contrary, that is not the case. It has never been the case.”
The chief argues that the Garza investigation has consumed about 3000 staff hours to date, representing the work of 30 law enforcement and private organizations. He says investigators have accounted for just about everything that happened in Middlebury in the hours before and after Nick’s disappearance, as well as the whereabouts and business of everybody who was in town at the time.
“What do you want to know?” Hanley asks, before answering with an extended riff on the police procedural:
“I can tell you who got their cars worked on in Addison County. We checked all the transportation companies, private and public, to see if anybody got picked up here. We interviewed all the shelters to find out who was here and verified that everybody who was being sheltered was in the shelter. We checked national air and hotel registries — any of those firms that do business online. Did Nick hop a plane or get a hotel? The border crossings were checked early on.”
As a veteran investigator, Hanley knows the delayed start of the Garza investigation didn’t improve the odds of finding Nick alive. That’s why the department hired a contractor to do nothing for three months but tear through ice packs at the snow dump, while more than a dozen dogs and 200 people have been deployed in ground searches since February 11.
“When does the college pick up the dumpsters and when do they get dumped?” Hanley said of another investigative thread. “What’s the process? I know more about that than I care to.”
“Name something that might have been going on in Middlebury around that time,” the chief continues, “and we probably have that information. We know who was playing around on their wife that night, not that we have any interest in it.”
All that investigation, however, has yet to turn up a single tip worth pursuing. “We don’t know what happened to him,” Hanley admits. “But people who are claiming that we had the assumption that he was just a drunk kid who fell down in the snow are really missing the point.”
If the police investigation has so far failed to locate Nick Garza, the bits of it that have trickled out have contributed, albeit only slightly, to an understanding of the young man’s life at Middlebury College.
Natalie Sierra was 19 when she married Demetrius Garza, who is 10 years her senior. Nick was born in Chino, California, not far from Los Angeles, on December 9, 1988. When Natalie’s parents moved to Albuquerque, Demetrius says he saw an opportunity. “I was actually afraid to send [Nick] to public school in California,” he recalls. “At the time, there was all this noise about drugs and weapons in the schools. Coming to Albuquerque gave us a better chance, and it was the best decision we ever made.”
The couple, who divorced when Nick was a junior in high school, nurtured their oldest son’s precocious eagerness to learn. Although it was a financial burden on his middle-class family, Nick attended Albuquerque Academy, a prestigious prep school. The academy represented something of a “bargain” between Nick and his mother, Natalie says, as well as what she called a family investment in her son’s future. “We figured, prep him, get him ready,” Natalie recalls. “Get him to love school so much that he’ll want it. But we told him he would have to pay for his own college, and he was — he was financing his own student loans, in his name.”
Once Nick arrived at Middlebury, Natalie and Damon adjusted to his absence by carrying on a real-time virtual conversation with him, via regular emails, text messages and voicemails. Earlier in the evening of February 5, Natalie swapped texts back and forth with her son while he and some classmates watched The Karate Kid. His last message arrived at 8:43 p.m., about three hours before he left Stewart Hall.
As the story of Nick’s disappearance threatened to become the sorry tale of a drunken college student, Natalie pressed Hanley for what she considered an important piece of evidence: the surveillance tape of Nick and his fellow “dungeon boy” buying booze on the day he disappeared.
When that surveillance tape arrived, Natalie learned that, contrary to what Nick’s friend recalled to police, the two young men had not purchased the liquor on February 5, but two days earlier, on Super Bowl Sunday. Natalie says police found a receipt for beer in Nick’s room.
Frustrated, Natalie pleaded with campus officials to intervene on her behalf. She convinced the school to contact the office of Governor Jim Douglas, a Middlebury grad, in a bid for more resources. Middlebury officials reported back that Douglas was willing to help, but that the Middlebury Police Department had not indicated a need for additional assistance.
“One of the hardest psychological effects of all this is, you’re out there, asking for help, and every time you get a call back, it’s so hopeful,” Natalie says. “You get this psychological high that you’re riding. Then you hear, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you,’ and it takes you down.”
At Natalie’s urging, Hanley and college officials agreed to bring in a private investigator to interview Nick’s friends. The final report, by a former FBI agent named Thomas Bara, confirmed what the Middlebury police investigation already suggested about Nick: He was a good kid with a small circle of friends, all of whom genuinely respected him.
One friend, who lived on the first floor of Allen Hall, said Nick seemed sad that most of his closest friends would be leaving Middlebury for break. Still, he politely declined to accompany the friend to his family’s home in New Jersey. Another friend reported that Nick had recently text-messaged a quote about suicide by Albert Camus. But, as he told Bara, that was “Nick being Nick” — “a deep thinker.”
Although Natalie Garza will never believe her son was binge-drinking the night he disappeared, two people interviewed by Bara reported that Nick was in the company of a fellow “dungeon boy” who was, as they both put it, “totally wasted.” That assessment was shared by the student in question, who told Bara he was so drunk that night, he couldn’t remember much that happened. He did, however, recall falling down on the concrete path between Stewart and Allen halls, chipping a tooth in the process.
“They seemed to base so much of the investigation on what this kid said,” says Natalie’s sister, Tanya Sierra, “when it turned out he was so drunk, he thought they went to the liquor store on Tuesday, when they actually went on Sunday.”
Indeed, while Nick’s companion was keeping a “tally sheet” of shots consumed, Nick, by all accounts, hardly seemed impaired at all. One female student, noting it was the first time she had seen Nick drinking, told Bara he appeared “composed.” A young man who described himself as Nick’s best friend said he thought “all the guys in the dungeon drank too much,” but that Nick invariably kept his wits about him.
Echoing what the police knew, Bara reported that sometime after 10 p.m. that night, Nick tried to organize a small social gathering in one of Stewart Hall’s common areas. A handful of students, citing an early departure for New Hampshire the following morning, begged off. But, at 10:43, Nick received a text message from a woman at Stewart Hall, inviting him to stop by.
About 10 minutes later, Nick, accompanied by his drunken companion, arrived at Stewart and went inside. Nick’s companion left after just a few minutes and, he told Bara later, returned to the “dungeon” to pass out. Nick left the building at about 11:06 p.m. His last known act before vanishing was to place another call to his friend in Stewart Hall. The young woman told Bara that she must have been away from her phone; she missed the call, and Nick didn’t leave a message.
Based on his interviews, Bara concluded that the “logical stop” for Nick after he left Stewart Hall was either Allen Hall or one of Middlebury College’s “social houses,” where juniors and seniors live and the drinking sometimes stretches into the wee hours.
To get there, Nick would have turned west from Stewart, away from Allen Hall, and gone past St. Mary’s Cemetery. While an “accidental fall” of the kind feared by Hanley’s officers is a possibility in that scenario, Bara said he had no reason to assume Nick was incapable of negotiating the path that night.
This past weekend Demetrius Garza returned to Middlebury, along with Natalie’s brother Todd Sierra, the Albuquerque patrol officer. On Sunday morning around 11, Demetrius, Todd and Natalie parked their rented hybrid next to a pair of tennis courts and climbed a short, steep hill past Atwater Commons to Allen Hall. From Nick’s old residence hall, they turned south, along Chateau Road — really more of a pathway — and followed it for a few hundred yards before crossing College Avenue to the quad.
It was a beautiful day, and after a brutal winter the campus was alive with students. As they walked to Stewart Hall at the other end of the quad, the trio encountered scores of men and women Nick’s age. They were walking and biking, playing catch and chipping golf balls, sitting under trees and lying in the grass.
When they reached Stewart Hall, Natalie, Demetrius and Todd lingered out front for a moment before walking around the west side of the building. Then, in a re-enactment of the initial ground search for Nick, they fanned out and began slowly to climb the wooded hillside.
After about 90 minutes, Natalie left campus to look after Damon. It was another two-plus hours before Demetrius and Todd returned to Hadley House, where sandwiches were waiting for them in the kitchen. A couple of rooms over, Damon was watching television.
As her ex-husband ate, Natalie said her relationship with the Middlebury Police Department had improved significantly in the past several weeks. She talks to Chief Tom Hanley almost every day now, and she says he calls her after issuing press releases to give her additional information.
“It’s been a whole lot better,” she says. “Quite frankly, what’s done is done at this point. Just help me find my son so I can go home.”
Hanley is a staunch and increasingly outspoken advocate for his department’s work on the Garza case. Police “can’t take offense” when a victim’s family registers its frustrations, says Hanley, who has a son in Afghanistan and another who fought in Iraq. “I don’t know from one day to another whether he’s alive or dead or what, so I get that kind of unknowing,” he says.
Still, Hanley notes that his investigation has been “peer-reviewed” by the VSP and the FBI, neither of which has criticized his department.
“They got a missing kid, and he’s not been found. I understand,” Hanley says. “But — and I don’t bring this up to them — but we didn’t make him go missing. And we’re not magicians. And we didn’t know Nick Garza from a hole in the wall until we got the complaint.”
Demetrius Garza has close-cropped hair, a salt-and-pepper goatee and, even at age 50, the build of a recently retired running back. Seated at the end of the oval table, dressed in cold-weather boots, camouflage pants and an army-green T-shirt stained with sweat from searching for Nick, he talked about how his son’s disappearance has changed his life.
Back in Albuquerque, Demetrius said, he’d been “hiding” from the facts. He had no place to hide last week, however — his employer, the Cottonwood Printing Company, was working on the yearbook for Nick’s old school, Albuquerque Academy.
While his ex-wife has speculated about what might have happened to her son — she thinks he was injured or killed on his way back to Allen Hall, perhaps while crossing College Street, and his body was removed from campus — Demetrius says he isn’t entirely ready to give up hope. Meanwhile, he has already committed to heart and memory his final recollection of Nick.
“Every time we parted, I held his face in my hands, gave him a kiss on the lips and told him that I love him,” Demetrius said, his face twisting in grief. “That’s all the resolve I have right now — that I looked him in the eye and whispered that I loved him.”