WILKES-BARRE — A thunderstorm Sunday brought an abrupt but temporary halt to the ongoing search for the remains of Phylicia Thomas — a search that could resume later this week.
Judy Lorah Fisher, a friend of Pauline Bailey, Phylicia Thomas’ mother, said she was encouraged over the weekend and she is convinced Phylicia is buried somewhere on a tract of land along Golf Course Road and Timber Lane.
“She (Phylicia) is there,” Fisher said. “I truly believe that.”
Fisher said a team of cadaver search dogs from Rescue International out of Stroudsburg recorded several “hits” in an area not far from where a trailer once stood. That trailer, Fisher believes, is the last place Phylicia was seen alive — that she was brutally murdered on Feb. 11, 2004, in a back bedroom of the trailer and later buried on the land.
Phylicia, then 22, was reported missing by her mother on Feb. 13, 2004.
Fisher said the weekend search lasted 12 to 13 hours on Saturday and the same on Sunday. She said the cadaver search dogs kept going back to the area where two trees stand. She said a backhoe was used to dig a few holes and to open the dirt to allow the dogs to get a stronger scent.
The trees are situated about 100 yards from where the trailer in question once stood. Fisher said a few holes were dug and the dogs kept going back to them to sniff, sometimes barking — indications that they detected something. The dogs are trained to only detect human remains, Fisher said.
“We’re still hopeful,” Fisher said. “The dogs kept going underneath the one tree. We’re wondering if maybe Phylicia was buried underneath the tree.”
Fisher said she is not sure if the trees were planted before 2004, or if they were planted after Phylicia went missing. She said she hopes to receive photos of the land before 2004 and after to try to determine when the trees were planted.
“We’re thinking maybe they buried Phylicia and then planted the trees on top of the grave,” Fisher said.
Steve Martin, the man who was a target of state police investigators, was 32 when he took his own life while at the state prison at Camp Hill on Aug. 10, 2005, where he was serving a sentence for causing a fatal vehicle crash in Wilkes-Barre in December 2004.
State police have not released names of any possible suspects in the case. Calls to Pennsylvania State Police at Wyoming Monday seeking an update on the investigation were not returned.
Fisher and members of Phylicia’s family believe that investigators feel Martin was responsible for Phylicia’s death. The family believes as many as three others were involved with Martin.
“They (investigators) believe it was only Steve Martin,” Fisher said. “Yeah, just blame it on the dead guy.”
Chief Bruce Barton of Rescue International, has 45 years experience in conducting searches for human remains. He and his team were utilized at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City.
Barton and his team are volunteering their time searching for Phylicia. He said if anyone wants to donate to the effort, they can do so by accessing the Rescue International website at: www.PASERT.org.
“We’ve probed around the site a lot,” Barton said. “The dogs are getting something, but this is not an exact science.”
Barton said part of his job is to interpret what the dogs are smelling by their actions.
“They have given a lot of attention around that one tree,” he said. “But it can be any number of different things.”
Barton said the dogs could be picking up on something historic — he said there have been reports that the site may have once been an Indian burial ground.
“The dogs can pick up the scent of human remains more than 100 years old,” Barton said. “They can detect things we can’t see. The dogs are showing consistent interest in that area. It could possibly be something forensic.”
Barton said the search will resume after the land dries out after Sunday’s rain storm.
“Everything is saturated right now,” he said. “But the dogs indicate human remains are present. But we can’t say it’s Phylicia Thomas.”
Barton said five dogs were used over the weekend and he may bring more this week. He said all the dog handlers have extensive experience.
“We all have put in hundreds of hours to train the dogs to do just this —find people,” Barton said. “Our goal was to search the site, even if we end up eliminating it as a possible site where Phylicia may be. We have to try to figure out what’s there. We want to get answers to what is there.”
Mother holding up
Fisher said Phylicia’s mother is holding up, hoping that her daughter is found.
“She trusts me 100 percent that I’m trying to do what’s best for Phylicia,” Fisher said. “She knows I won’t give up.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle