MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – An autopsy found no evidence of injury on the body pulled from the Otter Creek that is believed to be that of missing Middlebury College student Nicholas Garza, police said Wednesday.
While the autopsy has been completed, the medical examiner has not yet determined the cause of death. And police were waiting results of an examination of dental records before making a final confirmation the body was that of Garza, said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.
"It doesn't lend itself well to think there might have been foul play," Hanley said at a Wednesday news conference. "We are tending to think ... it may be a tragic accident, but we're going to hold off on our final determination."
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Hanley said police started focusing efforts to find Garza in the Otter Creek after an aerial photo in April spotted something of interest in the river that could have been a body. A specially trained dog later tracked Garza's scent to the riverbank above where the image was spotted, Hanley said.
Police still don't know why Garza walked away from campus on the night of Feb. 5 following a gathering with other students and not back to his dormitory in the opposite direction.
The dog followed a well known path in Middlebury and Garza's scent, but rather than crossing a foot bridge by Middlebury Union High School, went down to the river's edge. Hanley said the night Garza disappeared was dark, the area unlit and the river at least partially ice-free.
A wallet, cell phone and other personal effects found on the body belonged to Garza, Hanley said.
Since Garza disappeared police and other searchers spent hundreds if not thousands of hours scouring the Middlebury College campus and, after the snow melted, they turned their focus to the Otter Creek, a major river that runs through the middle of the town not far from the college campus.
Garza's mother Natalie Garza was at police headquarters before the news conference but left without making a statement.
Hanley didn't want to characterize Mrs. Garza's feelings. "She's a mother who lost a child," he said.
After evidence pointed toward the river, searchers focused on the Otter Creek and cadaver dogs later smelled something at several points along the river, Hanley said.
Hanley spotted the body late Tuesday afternoon while preparing for a major search of the river this weekend. It was removed from the river several hours later.
On Wednesday a makeshift memorial of driftwood and hand-picked wildflowers was erected above the logjam in the river where Garza's body was found.
Mrs. Garza released a statement late Tuesday saying a public goodbye to her son.
"We will miss his thick black hair and easy laughter. Nothing in life has prepared us for such a loss. We hope to honor him in the simple and pure way that he lived his life. He was adored, deeply loved, and those who knew him were blessed with an extraordinary man," said the family statement.
For people in Middlebury who had watched Mrs. Garza search for months for her son, the discovery of his body brought an end to the uncertainty. She'd become well known to people in businesses near Middlebury College.
"It's closure for the family," said Dominique Dube, a clerk at Blue Moon Clothing and Gifts, a boutique just above the falls of the Otter Creek. "Otherwise you're just wondering what is the deal. At least she can close this chapter in her life. It breaks my heart."
The owner of the business had placed a small vase of flowers in the window. A small card read, "With sympathy for Nick's family."
By Wednesday morning all traces of the search were gone. Police said Wednesday they were waiting for the results of the autopsy before making any additional statements.
"We wish them the best," said Liz Merrigan, of Carolyn's Closet, another boutique in downtown Middlebury. A window from the business looks out onto where Garza's body was found. Despite the vantage point, Merrigan said she learned his body was found by watching the television news Wednesday morning.
Hanley said the community was relieved the search was over. "Nobody's happy. This is a story without a happy ending, but they're thankful that the mother can put some closure to this, at least at this point."