June 2, 2003
Technology rekindles search
CONDON DISAPPEARANCE UPDATE
Two British officers and Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team Cmdr. John Hamlin right, walk toward a Blackhawk helicopter at the Roseburg Airport recently. They have being using the helicopter and imaging technology to search for Stephanie Condon's body in south Douglas County.
ANDY BRONSON/The News-Review
RIDDLE -- Armed with a military Blackhawk helicopter, radar imaging equipment, cadaver-sniffing dogs and the expertise of British homicide investigators, police are teasing out some new leads in an old case.
The search for Stephanie Condon has gone on since October 1998, when she disappeared at the age of 14 while baby-sitting in Tri City.
Police still have not charged anybody in the case, although they continue to look at former Myrtle Creek resident Dale Wayne Hill who they believe was the last person to see Stephanie alive. Hill is serving a six-year prison sentence in state prison in Pendleton on an unrelated robbery conviction.
Eager for the family and community to see some closure on the case, Douglas County sheriff's detectives appealed to the National Crime and Operations Faculty in Bramshill, England, for assistance. Detectives learned about a new search protocol run at NCOF -- the British equivalent of the FBI -- through talking with some of their officers at a major crimes convention in Canyonville.
Detective Joe Perkins flew to England to present the Stephanie Condon case for their consideration, after which the search experts donated their time and imaging technology for the three-week effort.
Investigators began their search with a helicopter survey two weeks ago of the land around the Tri City area where Stephanie was last seen. A Blackhawk helicopter hovered over several areas for up to 20 minutes at a time as experts pinpointed areas where somebody would be most likely to dispose of a body.
"When we look at areas (to search) we think of areas where someone had some privacy" and some reasonable expectation the body would not be found, said Mark Harrison, national search adviser with NCOF.
In England, he said, "We never give up on a case, we continually review it." The oldest case Harrison successfully solved was a 23-year-old murder investigation.
Thursday, police showed the procedure to members of the media at one of the areas of interest identified during the flights -- a patch of ground off Lawson Bar Road in Myrtle Creek. Work crew inmates cleared weeds and brambles from the grass-covered patch along the bank of the South Umpqua River to allow searchers access to the ground underneath.
"We needed to take the brush back five years," explained Perkins, who is the lead investigator in the case.
Once the brush has been cleared from the site, a ground-penetrating radar device is deployed, which emits radio waves underground to provide a rough subterranean picture for investigators to analyze. They are looking for depressions, or disturbances in the natural contours of the soil which may indicate a body has been buried there.
The technology is most commonly used for surveying purposes such as locating pipes or other underground utilities. However, it has been used recently to locate mass graves in Kosovo and weapons caches buried in Northern Ireland, according to Harrison and U.K. Ministry of Defense research scientist Mark Yates.
"We're actually adapting technology for our own specific purpose," Yates said. "In effect, it's an X-ray through the ground."
Anomalies in the soil are noted and stored in the computer of the ground-penetrating radar device so that forensics experts can return later to excavate anything that may lie beneath.
Harrison, a 15-year police veteran who also specializes in counterterrorism, said British police have honed their search techniques fighting terrorists in Northern Ireland. The weapons they routinely find underground using imaging technology are often buried in rural terrain not unlike the Myrtle Creek area they searched Thursday. He would not say how many other such areas they are searching, except to say there were "several."
Donations from local organizations helped defray the county's estimated $12,000 cost for the search. The Ford Family Foundation and the Mercy Foundation each donated $1,500 toward transportation costs for the British investigators and other incidental expenses, while Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino Resort in Canyonville provided free lodging for the men.
"If it had not been for those organizations, financially, our office could not have taken on this effort," Perkins said.
Perkins brought Stephanie's mother, Christine Condon, to observe the search effort on Wednesday. The area is approximately a five-minute drive from the place police believe her daughter disappeared.
"For her, I think, it's reassuring that this case is still ongoing," he said.
* You can reach reporter Christian Bringhurst at 957-4213 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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