Three weeks in a grueling blur of hoping, searching, disappointment
LAFAYETTE - Three weeks ago today, 22-year-old Mickey Shunick vanished.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette student was last seen shortly before 2 a.m. leaving a friend's house at 100 Ryan St., riding her black Schwinn bicycle and heading to her parent's home on Governor Miro. Her family reported her missing that afternoon.
The young woman's disappearance has garnered national attention, prompted an unprecedented outpouring of support from the community and led to what Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft called "probably one of the most massive and intense investigations in the history of the department."
Yet Shunick remains missing, to the frustration of law enforcement authorities, volunteers and family members who have been desperately searching for her ever since she disappeared.
It's been like one long, grueling day, Shunick's mother, Nancy Ann Rowe, said Friday at Blackham Coliseum, which serves as headquarters for the volunteer search effort.
For the past three weeks, the Shunick family has awoke each morning thinking and hoping that the new day would bring news of Mickey's safe return, or that some big break in the case would emerge, Nancy Rowe said.
"By about 7 o'clock at night we're pretty low," the mother said.
On Friday, Shunick's older sister, Charlene "Charlie" Shunick, addressed members of the media to dispel speculation about whether her sister's disappearance was connected to the Thursday evening discovery of what authorities believe to be the torso of a white woman in her early 20s at a beach in Bay St. Louis.
The torso had three piercings, one in each nipple and one in the navel, according to news reports, and the torso appeared to be stabbed once in the chest.
"It's not my sister," Charlie Shunick said, noting that Mickey had no body piercings. "There are several reasons, identifying markers, that prove that it's not my sister. It's already been cleared through several people that it's not my sister. We need to keep looking for her."
During the three weeks since Mickey's disappearance, the volunteer search effort has only paused for one day, which afforded volunteers a much-needed break, Charlie Shunick said. That search effort includes organized search parties, social media groups and people who organize food, beverage and monetary donations that come in.
Both the mother and daughter said the efforts of volunteers have helped the family stay sane during this long ordeal.
"The first day was my worst day, obviously," Charlie Shunick said. "Ever since then, there's just been so many people around and so many people doing wonderful things. For a bad situation, a lot of good has come out of it. I guess it's just everyone else, really, who have made us not be a crazy little puddle of tears on the floor somewhere."
Charlie Shunick refers to her younger sister as her doppelganger, because of their striking resemblance. Both are about the same height and each has platinum blonde hair.
Despite their physical similarities and two year age difference, the sisters didn't share a lot in common growing up, Charlie Shunick said. Mickey was an introvert, a reader and was big into horses; Charlie was the extrovert who enjoyed sports and socializing.
Nancy Ann Rowe recalled the sisters riding a horse for the first time, when Mickey was just 2 years old.
"That was it for her. Horses were it," the mother said of Mickey, who would later teach English-style riding lessons at an area equestrian center.
The two sisters grew closer after Charlie moved out of her parent's home about six or seven years ago, Charlie Shunick said, and their relationship continued to blossom through college.
She said her sister's disappearance left her in a state of shock.
"I couldn't even cry. I was like a zombie. We didn't know what to do," she said.
When Shunick's friends called to inform the family that they were organizing a search party, the family jumped in and have been participating ever since. She says they'll continue looking even if the volunteer efforts eventually tail off.
"We're never going to stop looking for her," the sister said. "We'll remain confident that she's out there until we have a reason to believe she isn't … I hope the people who know something realize that. We're going to find them and we're going to find her and we're not going to stop."
While police have scaled back their efforts to a degree, Chief Jim Craft said the department is still heavily vested in the search efforts.
Shunick's investigation has been an all-encompassing endeavor involving upward of 40 Lafayette police officers at one point, Craft said, with the assistance of at least 40 to 60 additional representatives from different law enforcement agencies, including local sheriff's offices and police departments, State Police and the FBI.
With help from area companies, agencies and the nonprofit search and rescue operation Texas Equusearch, the department has utilized aircraft, watercraft, ATVs, horses and searches on foot during its three-week investigation, Craft said.
Investigators have also received calls from psychics from all over the country, Craft said. While none of their information has panned out, Craft said the department takes the calls seriously and investigators do follow up on the information they receive.
"We'll take any and all help we can get … anybody and everybody and everything that we can think of or possibly do to locate this girl," Craft said. "There's never been a search of this magnitude in the history of our department."
The search has already cost the department somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 in overtime costs, Craft estimated Wednesday.
"A whole lot of other cases have been put aside while this investigation is ongoing," Craft said.
As many officers return to their regular duty, the department has created a mini-task force of officers from area law enforcement agencies to handle core aspects of the investigation into Shunick's disappearance. The group meets twice daily to review leads, evaluate evidence and assign a game plan for the next day.
"Now we triage these things and look at what's priority, what's interesting and what can wait," Craft said. "The longer it goes, the colder the case gets … but we're not giving up."
Craft said foul play is certainly a possibility, but "foul play does not dictate how we work a missing person case. The goal is to locate the person, then we determine the condition of the person and whether foul play was involved in that person's disappearance. We hope for the best in this case."
Law enforcement efforts have included an extensive search of the Whiskey Bay area, where fishermen found Shunick's bicycle submerged in water next to the bank on May 27. The bicycle had damage to the rear tire.
The bike is still being processed by the State Police Crime Lab, Craft said.
Meanwhile, investigators continue to seek information on a white, four-door Chevrolet Z-71 pickup truck seen on a videotape traveling in the same direction on St. Landry as Shunick on the morning of her disappearance, police have said.
So far, the only real hindrance to the investigation are the frequently enhanced, embellished or repeated rumors that pop up on social media sites, Craft said.
"It forces police to go track down leads that end up being things they had already investigated," Craft said.
Charlie Shunick says she has kept her family out of the loop about those rumors.
"It's always the same story with a different name or the same story but a different place," Charlie Shunick says.
As one of the volunteers in charge of social media for the volunteer effort, Josh Coen has helped quash some of those rumors. He said he had to distance himself emotionally from the rumors because he knew they were inevitable given how much coverage the case has received.
The group's FIND MICKEY SHUNICK NOW Facebook page alone has generated more than 28,000 "likes," Coen said.
"I can't wrap my head around that," Coen said.
Coen said he and Mickey Shunick have been close friends for more than a year and often rode bicycles together.
"She's a ray of sunshine," Coen said. "She's probably one of the funniest people I know because her subtlety is so spot on. She's blunt, brutally honest, very sarcastic and very sweet. She'd never go out of her way to hurt or harm anyone. She also has a certain spunk that gives her character."
Coen said he was with Shunick the night she disappeared, as were others now involved with the group's social media team.
"It's weird. She was right there," he said.
Shunick's sister said she thinks the fact that Mickey was here one minute and gone the next is one reason the case has gained so much attention.
"She was just a girl riding her bike home in Lafayette, La. one night on a Friday night at 1:45 when a million people should have seen her and she disappeared," Charlie Shunick said. "That could literally have happened to anyone and so I think it's just something that people feel connected to."