BY RIK STEVENS
---- — NORTH CONWAY, N.H. (AP) — A dark-haired, dark-eyed girl peers out from a letter-sized poster taped to the doors of businesses lining Main Street in the tourist town of North Conway.
Missing, it says.
What happened to 15-year-old Abigail Hernandez, who disappeared Oct. 9, has people on edge in the town of 2,300 residents in Mount Washington Valley. There are shades of the still-unsolved killing of another young girl from rural New Hampshire two years ago: 11-year-old Celina Cass disappeared from her West Stewartstown home, and her body was recovered a week later in the Connecticut River.
Abigail left Kennett High School at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and walked the same route she usually did toward the town house she shares with her mother about 2 miles away. When her mother returned home that evening, Abigail was missing and she hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
“It’s just that in places like a small town, it hits close to home,” said Kelly Canfield as she worked the counter at Zeb’s General Store, where plate-sized lollipops at the register catch the eye of younger visitors. Canfield has three children — a 10-year-old daughter and two sons, 13 and 6 — and has always felt safe. “You see it happening in other places, but you don’t expect it here. It’s scary.”
A week after she disappeared, police again fanned out through the rugged, heavily forested terrain that surrounds North Conway. They’ve already covered thousands of acres with no sign of Abigail.
“As you can imagine,” said Conway Police Chief Edward Wagner, “these are not flatlands. There are a lot of smaller mountains but still mountains. There are quarries, downed trees, wetlands. It’s very difficult for them to do their jobs.”
Police have also searched by air and used boats on the Saco River and Pudding Pond and found nothing.
The local department has been joined by investigators from the FBI, state police and the Fish and Game Department, a response they say is normal given the circumstances and a small local police force. Police have been tight-lipped about the Hernandez investigation, saying only that it’s being treated as a missing-person case and making it clear they don’t have reason yet to believe anything suspicious.
Police at first said she made it home but a week later said she didn’t. They say the girl’s family has been cooperative and both her mother and sister have pleaded publicly for her safe return. Her mother, Zenya Hernandez, wished her a happy birthday as she stood before television cameras on Oct. 12.
Wagner’s been on the force 19 years, chief for the past 8 ½. Yes, he says, North Conway looks serene and safe, but there are big crimes here, too: murder, drugs, assaults and thefts. His 22-member force investigates them all.
“I don’t think it’s really any different than in a big community when a child goes missing,” he said Wednesday. “‘Shocked,’ ‘Can’t happen here.’” Those are the words that are used.”
Some of the other words heard back on Main Street, describing North Conway: tight-knit, family-oriented, safe.
“People look out for each other,” said Rosemarie Madieros, who works at the North Conway 5-and-10 store and lives with her 11-year-old granddaughter. The day after Abigail disappeared, Madieros called school and said she’d pick up her granddaughter instead of letting her ride her bike home.
“It just breaks my heart,” she said. “My whole world revolves around this child so I can’t imagine what her mother’s going through. But you can’t put yourself in a bubble. You have to live.”
Most here remain hopeful, but there is still an undercurrent of unease, thoughts that few will voice. Joe Downs, owner of The Naked Bohemian gift shop, remembers the shock waves the Celina Cass case sent through New Hampshire.
“It makes you feel a little bit nervous that somebody could grab a 14-year-old girl,” Downs said.
Back at the police department, Wagner ends an interview to get back to a meeting about Abigail.
“Nobody wants to believe the small town of Conway, N.H., could go through anything that’s going to rock the community,” he said. “But it happens.”