OCEAN CITY, Md. — Ocean City Police receive calls for service on a regular basis from people worried a friend or family member has gone missing.
It happens frequently, especially in the summer. It’s a resort town where people come to let loose in an area they’re often not all that familiar with, where they can lose track of time walking along the Boardwalk or the beach.
They can forget to charge their cell phones or neglect to maintain the kind of contact they do with others when they’re not vacationing. All kinds of little things.
The vast majority of the time, the people in question turn up within a matter of hours or even less, according to Ocean City Police Department spokeswoman Jessica Waters.
There are rare instances, however, in which people don’t turn up with any immediacy, as in the case of Lance Gaines, which is why Waters is adamant people should contact police any time there’s an indication a person may have vanished, even if it’s just a feeling.
“Always call us. No matter what,” she said. “Maybe they’ll return home soon, but we still always want to be aware of a situation.”
Gaines, a 22-year-old from Groton, N.Y., hasn’t been heard from in more than a week. He was on vacation with his family in Ocean City when he left Bay Club Resort on 32nd Street to take a walk on Friday, April 20, ending up eventually at Sandbar on 33rd Street, the place where he was last definitively seen at about 1 a.m. on April 21.
About 20 or so of his family and friends traveled to Ocean City last week to supplement OCPD’s efforts with a citizen search, canvassing the area and asking anyone they could find if they’d seen Gaines. They also posted and passed out hundreds of missing persons bulletins with photographs of the brown-haired, blue- eyed man who stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 190 pounds. In one of them, he’s wearing the gray hooded sweatshirt in which he was last seen.
They keep in contact at least once daily with OCPD detectives, something Waters said is important since the two entities often rely on one another for information the other side may not yet have.
The efforts have led to a few leads, the most significant of which came when Lance Gaines’ brother, Myles Gaines, spoke to a woman who works at Madison Beach Motel on North Baltimore Avenue. She said she saw someone matching Lance Gaines’ description in that area Monday afternoon.
Waters said police received a tip from someone making that claim, but there hadn’t been a confirmed sighting since the early morning of April 21.
Some of the group were heading back home Friday morning, while others were staying at least through the weekend, according to Lance’s father, John Gaines.
Those on the way back to New York were continuing to post bulletins in Delaware as they headed north up Route 1, he said.
“We’ve canvassed pretty well,” John Gaines said Friday. “We hit all the bars last night, but we really didn’t get any info at all.”
Relative Celena Gaines said she and others had visited everywhere they could think of, including various local businesses and the bus terminal in West Ocean City, but had not garnered much useful information.
Not the first case
Police have found nothing that would indicate foul play was a factor in Gaines’ disappearance, and all involved are hoping for a more favorable outcome than has resulted a number of times throughout Delmarva in the past few years, when young men have disappeared under mysterious circumstances late at night or early in the morning.
In April 2010, remains of 29-year- old Selbyville resident Gregory Forte were found on the beach in Ocean City after he had been missing since February of that year. He was seen leaving a friend’s party at a Fenwick Island condominium, and police later found his car parked nearby with its radio on, driver’s side door open and keys in the ignition.
He was the subject of an extensive search by Delaware State Police, friends and family before he was found.
In late June 2006, senior weeker Nicholas Gochnour’s body was found in the Cape May Harbor Inlet, about 45 nautical miles north of Ocean City, where he had been last seen two weeks before in the area of 17th Street near Paddock Night Club. He was there with a man who was walking a dog, according to police, and had also been involved in a fight in that area the previous day.
The Cape May Medical Examiner determined Gochnour’s cause of death to be drowning with morphine toxicity as a contributing cause, but the manner of death was listed as undetermined.
In March, 23-year-old Ocean City resident Nicholas Townsend drowned after an early morning canoe accident in Assawoman Bay, and his body was found near Fenwick Island. He and friend Matthew Bullen, 20, of Fenwick Island had stolen the canoe, and after it capsized Bullen made it to shore but Townsend did not.
Walking in the footsteps
When a person is reported missing, a patrol officer takes a report and starts “walking in the footsteps” of the person, according to Waters. They’ll go to where a person is supposed to be to see if he or she has shown up, and then they examine the area between where a person was last seen and where they may have been headed.
For example, if a man left for work, didn’t come home and was reported missing by his wife, police would go to his workplace, see if he showed up and figure out where he was headed next.
“Say he was at work until 10, and then later he was supposed to show up to a meeting in Salisbury (Md.) but he didn’t, then we know that somewhere between those two points is where we need more information,” Waters said.
OCPD reaches out to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police and whichever other agencies should be on the lookout or may have information, including those in the area where the missing person is from if they aren’t local.
After someone is missing for 48 hours, the department’s criminal investigation division gets called in to take over for patrol officers. Credit card and cell phone use is examined, among other things, Waters said, and the area where the person was last seen is heavily canvassed. Detectives and officers interview people who live and work in that area, and family and friends from all over are interviewed to see if the missing person has said or done anything that would give any inclination into what their whereabouts may be.
Input from the general public is often sought, as well, Waters said, and it has been in Gaines’ case. OCPD is asking anyone who has seen Gaines or had contact with him to notify detective Carl Perry with the department’s criminal investigation division at (410) 723-6604.
“You never know what little bit of information could turn into a big lead,” Waters said.
OCPD continues looking for missing persons until there is some kind of resolution, she added.
“We’ll not by any means stop,” said Waters. “Sometimes at a certain point you need to be innovative and look outside the box, to step away for a minute and see what you could do differently. We’re being very proactive, and hopefully we’ll have a happy outcome, and hopefully Lance comes back safely.”