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Woman still missing

Conecuh County Sheriff’s Office looking for her location

Editor’s note: The following was written by Lee Peacock of The Evergreen Courant.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Virginia woman on Aug. 5 only deepened this week as investigators revealed that one of her car’s windows had been broken out and that an additional day of searching for her in Escambia County had proved fruitless.

According to Conecuh County Chief Deputy Tyrone Boykin, the ground search for Shari Christine Saunders, 67, of Norfolk, Va. resumed on Friday morning in Escambia County, but despite the best efforts of searchers no sign of Saunders was found. That search was prompted by tips received by law enforcement officials and came just days after a multi-day search in a densely wooded portion of Conecuh County was called off at 5 p.m. on Tuesday of last week.

The search in Conecuh County, which involved 25 law enforcement officers, volunteers, helicopters and tracking dogs, began around 11 p.m. on Sun., Aug. 12, after a father and son riding four-wheelers found the red 2010 Toyota Corolla belonging to Saunders, who has been missing since Sun., Aug. 5.

The car was found on an unnamed road about three miles off the Range Road in the southwest corner of Conecuh County, not far from the county’s borders with Monroe and Escambia counties. Investigators found the car stuck in the mud and aside from the car’s own tracks they found no clues as to Saunders’ whereabouts.

Investigators did reveal this week that, when found, the car’s front passenger-side window was broken out. However, investigators aren’t sure if the broken window is related to the woman’s disappearance. Boykin noted that it’s possible that someone found the abandoned car sometime before Aug. 12 and broke the window to burglarize the car.

Boykin said that he accompanied the vehicle to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) lab in Mobile, where the car’s interior was processed for evidence. Investigators took fingerprint samples from the car, vacuumed the car for soil, fiber and hair samples and used the chemical spray Luminol to search for blood and other bodily fluids inside the car. Preliminary findings at the lab revealed nothing out of the ordinary like blood in the car, and investigators do not consider the car’s interior to be a crime scene, Boykin said.

Boykin said that investigators have found no solid evidence to indicate foul play in the case and have found no evidence indicating that Saunders is dead or alive. Boykin said that it’s not unheard of for people to disappear in an effort to make a fresh start in life and that investigators have not ruled out this aspect of the investigation.

Boykin dispelled local rumors that the FBI has taken over the investigation into Saunders’ disappearance, saying that so far the FBI’s involvement in the case has been limited to the investigation of the interior of the missing woman’s car.

Boykin noted that these types of cases often have unusual and unpredictable results. For example, in August of last year, missing 25-year-old Lisa Theris was found alive after spending 28 days alone in the woods of Bullock County, surviving on berries, mushrooms and puddles of standing water. Theris managed to stay alive in thousands of acres of heavily forested terrain without a phone, purse, shelter or shoes. She was eventually discovered in relatively good health by a passing motorist on Aug. 12, 2017.

Law enforcement officers have been searching for Saunders since Mon., Aug. 6, just hours after she disappeared after leaving a gas station in Evergreen. Saunders was traveling from Virginia to meet with the family of her brother-in-law Bill Hager, who lives on Cowboy Road, south of Monroeville. This was her fourth trip from Virginia to the Monroeville area, but when family went to meet her at a prearranged meeting place near the intersection of U.S. Highway 84 and State Highway 21 at Ollie, Saunders was nowhere to be found.

During the ensuing investigation, it was determined that she last used her credit card at the Shell-Marathon gas station at Exit 93 on Interstate Highway 65 in Evergreen. When investigators checked surveillance footage from the gas station, they watched as Saunders pulled into the parking lot just after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. Saunders entered the station at 1:08 a.m., prepaid the clerk for $20 in gas and then went outside to pump the gas into her car.

Investigators were initially able to obtain records from Saunders’s cell phone, which showed that the phone “pinged” off the cellular towers in Repton and Ollie as she traveled west on U.S. Highway 84. Oddly, about an hour after her phone “pinged” off the tower at Ollie, it “pinged” one last time off a cell tower behind the Yellow Hammer Travel Center at Exit 69 on I-65, west of Brewton. That occurred at 3:36 a.m. on Sun., Aug. 5, and since that time, there has been no other activity on her phone, officers said.

Deputies described Johnson as being a white male with gray hair and brown eyes. He is 6-foot-3 and weighs about 205 pounds. Anyone in the reading audience with information regarding the whereabouts of Johnson is asked to call the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office at 251-937-0202 or Lt. Michael Gaull at 251-937-0210.

Boykin said on Tuesday afternoon that investigators believe that the disappearance of Johnson or Saunders are totally unrelated and that there is no connection between the two disappearances.