EPHRAIM—A block-by-block search of Ephraim for an elderly lady who suffered from dementia ended in tragedy last week when her body was found in a parked vehicle about a block from her home.
Up to 75 law enforcement officers, Search and Rescue volunteers, volunteer firefighters, ambulance association volunteers and people from the community who just showed up scoured the town for Shirleen Peterson, 86, from about 6 a.m. until her body was found at about 2 p.m.
A family member was staying with Peterson in her home at 55 S. 200 East. When the family member checked on her a little after 2 a.m., she was sleeping. When the family member checked again about 5 a.m., she was gone.
Chief Aaron Broomhead of the Ephraim Police Department said a weather forecast for the night Peterson went missing had said the temperature could get as low as—ll degrees. He said he wasn’t sure how cold it was between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., “but it was close to zero, if not colder.”
Broomhead said the woman’s family looked for her for 45 minutes to an hour before calling 911. After a check at the woman’s home did not turn up any evidence of her, “we pretty much started alerting people,” he said. The first call, to Sanpete Search and Rescue, went out at 6:47 a.m.
“For a missing person like that, one of the best things we can do is get the word out to as many people as possible as fast as we can,” Broomhead said.
The Sheriff’s Office, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Snow College used voicemails, text messages, an app and social media to notify Ephraim residents. It was pretty hard to be in Ephraim that morning and not get the word.
One of the first notifications that an elderly woman was missing went out on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page at 7:39 a.m. That was followed 2 minutes later by an email from President Troy Birch of the Ephraim Stake to all members who had given their email addresses to the church.
Residents who subscribe to AlertSense, the sheriff’s emergency notification system, got a text message a few minutes later. A reverse 911 call, with a voice message telling people a woman was missing, went out to all Ephraim telephones at 7:50 a.m.
At 8:07 a.m., the Sheriff’s Office posted Peterson’s picture on Facebook. At 8:38 a.m., Snow College sent out a campus-wide email and posted a message on its app asking students and employees to check their vehicles and their properties. And at 9:50 a.m., the Sheriff’s Office dispatch center sent out a second reverse 911 call.
The dispatch center also put out a Silver Alert, which was sent by the Utah Department of Public Safety to police agencies, not just in Utah but nationwide, Broomhead said.
“We were just trying to help them get the word out,” said Marci Larsen, assistant to the president at Snow College, who sent messages out to the campus. She said the college was mindful of all the help the Ephraim Police Department gave the college in unraveling the disappearance of student Madelyn Allen in late December.
As word got out, a command team assembled in a conference room at the Ephraim Police Department in the Ephraim City Hall. Sitting at the table and around a big map of the city were Broomfield; Sanpete County Sheriff Jared Buchanan; Sgt. Jason Albee, director of emergency management for the Sheriff’s Office; Sgt. Keith Jensen, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office; Ephraim Mayor John Scott and Ephraim City Manager Shaun Kjar.
The group numbered the blocks on the map. As police officers, firefighters, and other responders arrived, the command group assigned them to specific blocks, put a slash across the assigned blocks and recorded who was searching which block.
“We usually paired them up, two at a time,” said Broomhead.
When one team came back from searching a block, a different pair was assigned to search it a second time, and a second slash was written on the map, creating an “X.”
“We were sending them out, they were coming back, and we were sending them out” through the morning, Broomhead said.
Besides the Ephraim Police Department, Search and Rescue and Sheriff’s Office, agencies responding included the Ephraim Fire Department, Ephraim Ambulance Association, Moroni Police Department, Spring City Police Department, the Critical Emergency and Response Team (CERT) from the Central Utah Correctional Facility, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service.
While the command group handled law enforcement officers and first responders, three workers in the Ephraim city office registered and directed community volunteers. Helping out there were Esmeralda Salas, Candice Maudsley and Megan Spurling.
About 12:30 p.m., Ephraim City posted a message on its Facebook page asking people to check their doorbell cameras.
“We got one response,” Broomhead said. It was from the woman who lived next door to the south of the Peterson home. She provided an image of a figure moving along 200 East in a southerly direction. The time stamp said 3:55 a.m.
“We really didn’t have anything to go on until we got that image,” Broomhead said. The image confirmed what officers had pretty much figured out: There was no foul play involved in the disappearance.
The camera image came in at 1:50 p.m. Just a few minutes later, a young man went out to his car, which was parked in the vicinity of 100 South and 100 East near Snow College dormitories. He found Peterson inside and called 911.
Peterson, who was under 5 feet and only weighed 85 pounds, “had kind of gotten tucked in on the floorboard on the driver’s side,” Broomhead said.
As disappointing as it was to find her deceased, “it was impressive to see such a big turnout” of searchers, the police chief said. “These were people with jobs and families…who put everything on hold to walk in and help.”