BY DIANE DIMOND
Sometimes out of tragedy comes triumph. Such is the case for Julie Pendley of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
In May, her cousin Ben Baber and his best friend Cody Parrick went missing. The two 20-year-olds had driven from their homes in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, to attend a concert in Pryor, about an hour-and-a-half away.
That was the last anyone heard from them. A devastating rainstorm had passed through the area about the same time the young men would have been driving home and it was feared that Ben, an inexperienced driver, might have had an accident.
Local news outlets around the tri-state area of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri — and then the national news media — picked up the story about the best friends who were missing. Ben had a big smile and love of science fiction, and Cody was a young man who loved music and never let his cerebral palsy slow him down.
Days went by and no word from either Ben or Cody.
Law enforcement from several counties as well as the light horse rescue team from Creek Indian Nation were on the lookout for Ben’s silver 2005 Pontiac minivan. But there was still too much standing water along the highways and too few officers to check every possible crash site.
Across the Oklahoma state line, in Arkansas, cousin Julie, 48, couldn’t just sit and wait. In between her duties as a graphic designer and manager of a T-shirt company she hit Google Maps, charted out every conceivable route Ben might have taken home and sent out a social media call for anyone who wanted to help her search.
“I just posted where I planned to be … and people showed up to help,” Julie told me. “Total strangers turned out. It was amazing.” Among the volunteers were those with airplanes, horses, boats, all-terrain vehicles and some with just two strong legs and a good heart.
Sadly, 16 days after they went missing, the bodies of the two friends were finally located in a flooded boat ramp near Lake Eufaula that had swollen to more than 14 feet above normal. Ben had obviously taken a wrong turn.
“I’m glad I wasn’t the one to find them,” Julie said. “I’m not sure I could have handled that. But I sure learned a lot during our search effort.”
Julie and her band of about 20 volunteers had bonded into a family. Julie says she felt a higher power guiding them somehow — maybe the spirits of Ben and Cody. So they have continued to look for missing people, forming a nonprofit group and setting up a Facebook page called “Bridging the Gap — Search Team.”
In early July, they assisted in locating a couple of teenage runaways from Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Lexi Nida, 15, and Tyler Raxter, 17, were returned home safely after about a week.
Bridging the Gap then helped a family in Talala, Oklahoma locate the body of their missing 27-year-old son, Chazz Holly, who had disappeared about a month earlier. Julie’s volunteers followed tips provided by a police informant (who was later arrested) and found Holly’s body discarded along a highway near Antler, Oklahoma.
After attending Holly’s memorial, Julie and her team hit Google Maps again and began piecing together information on the whereabouts of a man named Michael Fike of Cache, Oklahoma. He had been gone for two months.
After pinpointing a route they suspected Fike had taken the team set out on foot to scan guardrails and off-road fences to look for evidence of disturbance. Julie says local police officer tried to shoo them away claiming they had already searched the area. A short distance away, Bridging the Gap found Fike’s decomposing body and his missing truck crashed into a creek bed about 800 feet off the road.
“I’ve seen and smelled things I never knew possible,” Julie told me, “But as ugly and painful as it all is, I have never had such a full heart. I have found my calling,” she said.
Julie and her team realize they will likely not continue to find every missing person they go after but they are willing to try.
“And while we’d love to get some financial help,” Julie says, “For now we’re doing it all on our own dime.”
With so much of the news these days focused on political bickering and world strife, it’s important to remember folks like Julie who are the fabric of our country, citizens who see a need and fill it. They don’t demand police action or ask for fame. They dive right in themselves, because helping others gives them a full heart.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email.