HUNLOCK TWP. — Every time the backhoe bucket emptied Thursday afternoon, you could see the anticipation in Judy Lorah Fisher’s eyes.
Fisher has been spearheading the ongoing, exhaustive search for Phylicia Thomas, who went missing in February 2004. Thomas is believed to have been murdered and her body buried somewhere on land along Golf Course Road and Timber Lane.
“I hope and pray this is the day we find her,” Fisher said.
Chief Bruce Barton, of Stroudsburg-based Rescue International, has been at the site several times with a team of cadaver search dogs. After the dogs got several hits near where a trailer once stood — a trailer believed to be the last place Thomas was seen alive — a ground-penetrating radar device was brought to the site last week.
Fisher and Chief Barton said the radar machine detected something in the ground that could be human remains.
So Thursday afternoon, Barton and Emy Wilbur, K-9 coordinator for Rescue International, decided to return to the site and dig where the radar machine indicated “something out of the ordinary” might be. Wilbur had her cadaver dog, Breeze, scour the area before the digging began.
“We have a target area,” Barton said. “But the dog is still has interest around the trees.”
The trees are located near where the trailer once stood. Several trenches and holes have been dug between and around the trees and Barton said the dogs have registered several hits.
“She got a few strong hits today,” Wilbur said of her dog, a Golden Retriever.
Barton then instructed the backhoe operator to begin carefully scraping and digging to a depth of about 4 feet, where the radar device picked up the “out of the ordinary” reading.
After the initial hole was dug, the dog sniffed around and appeared to get stronger hits, Wilbur said. The excavated soil was sifted through and Barton uncovered a few small pieces of newsprint that appeared to be from an old advertisement. Barton and a few other volunteers searched for more of the newspaper, but couldn’t find anything. Barton did express some wonder as to where the newsprint could have come from and when.
After more digging, Barton had the backhoe operator widen the hole where the newsprint was found to see if anything could be recovered. The excavation was continuing into Thursday evening.
Fisher is a friend of Pauline Bailey of Nanticoke, Phylicia’s mother, and she has been helping lead the search for Thomas for five years. Fisher, Barton, Rescue International and the backhoe operator have been volunteering their time to conduct the search.
Fisher said people have told her and Bailey that Phylicia was last seen alive while attending a party in the trailer on Feb. 11, 2004. Phylicia, then 22, was reported missing by her mother on Feb. 13, 2004.
The trees and the land being searched are situated about 100 yards from where the trailer in question once stood. Fisher said several holes have been dug and the dogs have indicated they detected something. The dogs are trained to only detect human remains, 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. 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.
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.
Chief Barton has 45 years of experience in conducting searches for human remains. He and his team were utilized at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City.
Barton said if anyone wants to donate to the effort, they can do so by going to the Rescue International website: www.PASERT.org.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.