Volunteers search for missing N.O. teacher

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --Search parties comb City Park on Thursday, looking for leads in the disappearance of teacher Terrilyn Monette, 26.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --Search parties comb City Park on Thursday, looking for leads in the disappearance of teacher Terrilyn Monette, 26.

Despite her growing anxiety and the diminishing odds, Toni Enclade still believes her daughter, Terrilynn Monette, is coming home safely.

On Thursday morning, she and 50 to 60 other volunteers slowly walked through City Park banging sticks in bushes and searching through shrubs, hoping to find some sign of Monette, who has been missing since Saturday. The sheer size of City Park made finding that much-needed clue unlikely, but Enclade was adamant that she still believes that her daughter will return to her safely.

“I really believe that she’s OK,” Enclade said with a firm nod of her head, as others searched the high grass near the City Park driving range behind her. “I’m very hopeful.”

Monette, a West Bank schoolteacher, was last seen early Saturday morning after meeting some friends at Parlay’s, a Lakeview bar. Monette went to her car to sleep after a few drinks, and police say there are reports that a man was later seen in the vehicle with her. Family and friends have not had contact with the young woman since that morning.

Monette’s face has been featured on numerous newscasts, articles and signs throughout the city, but still there is no news of her location. Several social media sites have also picked up the story, and it’s been linked to rumors of human trafficking that New Orleans police say are unsubstantiated.

For Enclade, the most troubling thing about her daughter’s disappearance is that she just seemed to vanish. The area near the bar where Monette was sitting is well-lit, and it’s in one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods. Enclade, who flew in from California to stay abreast of the investigation, can’t understand how her daughter and her vehicle could be lost so easily.

“I don’t understand how nobody saw anything,” Enclade said.

Thursday’s search was an attempt to turn up clues before police bring out cadaver dogs to search for Monette on Saturday, said Sheryl Bennett, Monette’s aunt. She said the family chose to search in City Park because Monette lived in Gentilly and likely would have driven past the park to get home. It’s not much of a lead, but Bennett said at this point any type of hope is better than none.

“You have to start somewhere,” Bennett said. “We’re grasping at straws but we have to grasp at something. … The fear is growing.”

Monette’s disappearance has not only captivated her friends and family, but it’s also had an impact on the school where she taught, Woodland West Elementary School in Harvey. Principal Amy Hoyle said that Monette was a beloved teacher, and her students miss her deeply. In fact, Monette, who came to New Orleans because it offered a better chance to break into teaching than California, had even been nominated as teacher of the year, her aunt said. Hoyle said she’d taken one of the schools lowest-performing classes and made it one of the highest.

“In the short time that she’s been with us, she’s made major contributions. … She is a really dedicated, determined smart hard-working teacher,” Hoyle said.

She said the school allowed parents to talk to children on their own about Monette’s absence, and children have been given access to counselors all week. However, some of them are scared and confused about her disappearance because she established such a bond with them, Hoyle said.

“They’re anxious,” she said. “They just want their teacher back.”

Nicole Fantroy said her 8-year-old son is one of Monette’s students, and he’s definitely frightened. Fantroy was out searching on Thursday along with another parent from the school, Sharral Reynolds. Fantroy said her son has been worried that if something bad happened to his teacher, then something bad is going to happen to him.

“My son keeps asking me every day have they found her,” she said.

Reynolds, whose child isn’t in Monette’s class, said she came out to help search Thursday because it was easy to put herself in Monette’s shoes. Like Enclade, she’s troubled that no one noticed anything strange when the teacher disappeared. Fantroy said helping in any way possible is the decent thing to do.

“It could have been one of us, and we’d want somebody to be out her looking for us,” she said.

The searchers were looking for clothing and personal items, or vehicle tracks in the grass. Reynolds said a police officer also suggested they look for oil sheen in the ponds in the park in case her vehicle was driven into one of them. Thursday’s search was organized by one of Monette’s sorority sisters in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, who drove from Texas to help, Enclade said

Police spokeswoman Remi Braden said that 3rd District detectives are investigating the case around the clock. “They have conducted additional interviews at business establishments where Ms. Monette spent time the night of her disappearance and have also been able to identify and interview others (customers) who were at those locations the same night,” she said in an email.

Police are following up on tips to Crimestoppers, reviewing additional surveillance video and are continuing to work with Monette’s family, Braden said.

Brett Fell understands the importance of that type of attention, even if it’s not ultimately successful. Brett’s brother Shane Fell disappeared in June 2011 after a car crash on the West Bank. Brett and his family held rallies, vigils and searches for Shane for months. They organized a Facebook page and received a huge outpouring of support from the community including hundreds of tips.

But, ultimately, Shane was never found. Brett said the uncertainty of his brother’s fate has been difficult to handle particularly as the demands of life first drew away the attention of other, and then forced Brett to limit his own searching. The tips that once poured in have dried up, and Brett said he is stuck in a limbo where he can’t properly grieve for his brother because he keeps hoping Shane is going to walk through the door one day.

“There’s that unknown, and that’s the part that gets you,” Brett said. “I pray and hope that (Monette’s family) doesn’t have to go through what we’re going through.”