Anthony Harrison, the father of missing Gloucester 2 1/2-year old Caleigh Harrison, told a crowd of reporters outside his family’s home Monday that they have finally, officially accepted what state and local authorities had long since concluded: that Caleigh had not been abducted, but had been swept out to sea when she disappeared from Rockport’s Long Beach April 19.
While Harrison’s mother, Caleigh’s grandmother Antonette Harrison wept openly, Harrison, who in May had announced to hundreds gathered at a vigil for his daughter that he would “never, never give up looking for” her, conceded that the “probability of Caleigh being abducted was very, very slim.”
The abduction theory, first reportedly voiced in early May by Caleigh’s four-year-old sister Lizzie, who had been with Caleigh when she disappeared and later told her parents of seeing a man on the beach who took her sister, had gained national media attention.
Caleigh’s mother, Allison Hammond, was missing, however, from Monday’s press conference, and did not return a call seeking comment. Criticized by many for what appears to be negligence resulting in her daughter’s disappearance, and an apparent nonchalant attitude toward her loss, Allison Hammond is currently undergoing investigation with the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
While Anthony Harrison — who has also undergone “routine investigation by the DCF “— said Monday that he would not “pass judgement on anybody,” but quickly added that “nobody was watching Caleigh, and that’s why this happened.”
It’s been a long and excruciating journey for Anthony Harrison. The 42-year-old Gloucester carpenter, estranged from his wife Allison, struggling to understand how she could have left his daughters near a ripping tidal stream, but most of all, incapable of accepting that the “light of his life” was lost, had clung previously to the possibility that Caleigh might have been abducted by what four-year-old Lizzie described as a mysterious man who smelled of cigarettes and materialized on the beach while the girls’ mother was off fetching an errant tennis ball. He, not the sea, had taken Caleigh, Lizzie said.
According to police and family reports, on that blustery spring afternoon, the ocean off Rockport’s Long Beach was gray and storm-tossed, but two-year-old Caleigh Harrison was racing along on the sand tossing balls to the family dog, Lucas, with her mother and Lizzie. When a ball went awry, says Allison, she ran off to fetch it, and her two-year-old daughter simply disappeared.
In the weeks of fruitless sea and land searches that followed -- and while most assumed Caleigh had drowned -- her distraught family members continued to speak in the present tense of the little girl with the big smile and perky pony tail. But yesterday afternoon, the tense had turned to past.
“Lizzie has stopped talking about the mysterious man,” Anthony Harrison said quietly Monday, “When we ask her, she just says she doesn’t remember what happened on the beach that day.”
Although he said Monday that “some people say some days are better than others; I say, some days are worse,” he nevertheless spoke calmly and assuredly for the family, saying it had been a “brutal three months.” He said it had taken “much convincing,” and that although he was willing to concede his daughter had in all probability been “swept out to sea,” there would be no memorial service.
“As long as I have no body, no closure, I’ll still hope,” he said.
Alan Tate and Maureen Flatley, of Boston-based Mission for the Missing, who have been working with the Harrisons since the family “reached out to them” in early May, were also at the press conference and reviewed the evidence which had led them and the family, to conclude that all aspects of investigation — involving state and municipal police with substantial criminal investigative experience, FBI Intelligence analysis, computer forensics, private investigators, psychologists and eyewitnesses— substantiated drowning, not abduction.
“Facts just don’t support abduction,” said Flatley, adding that “this family is just so sad.”
Anthony Harrison did, however, noticeably brighten when talking about community response to the tragedy, which he says has meant everything. Through Flatley, the Harrison family had connected in early May with the family of Molly Bish, a 16-year-old Massachusetts girl who vanished on June 27, 2000, and was later found murdered.
Following the Bishes example, the Harrisons began channeling their grief into activism, launching the first phase of a child safety advocacy program at last June’s St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, where, with the help of local police and fireman, they processed 115 child ID kits, which, according to law enforcement officials, can be the most crucial tool in recovering a missing child.
The community response and support at Fiesta was tremendous,” said Harrison, adding that the family “will be out at the beaches this summer working on child safety awareness and water safety.” Plans are still in progress, he said, “but if we can save just one life, than Caleigh’s won’t have been lost in vain.”
“This tragedy could have been prevented,” Maureen Flatley added in a brief, post-conference interview. “You can’t prevent disease, you can’t prevent terrorism, but you can prevent a loss like this.”
Flatley said she did not know why Allison Hammond was not present at yesterday’s conference, but it was her understanding that the mother was spending her days at the beach with Lizzie.
She said that’s a situation that is a cause for concern for the Harrison family -- particularly Caleigh’s grandmother Antonette, whose inconsolable grief visibly moved the media professionals assembled at Monday’s press conference.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org