Shaffer: Hunt for missing soldier a way of life for Raleigh man

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2012 

  • Mignacci’s volunteerism Earlier this year, Al Mignacci of Raleigh won the Phoenix Award given by the U.S. Small Business Administration for outstanding efforts as a volunteer. He won the award for his work to restore the 148 homes damaged or destroyed by a tornado that hit the Stony Brook mobile home park last year. He worked 60 to 80 hours a week, managing work crews and purchasing building materials.
  • Search for Kelli Bordeaux continues Kelli Bordeaux went missing April 14 and was last seen at Froggy Bottoms bar in Fayetteville. At 23, she stands 5-foot-1 and weighs 102 pounds. She has star tattoos leading down her spine, a shooting star on her right foot, another star on her left foot and tribal tattoos on both sides of her ribcage. She was last seen wearing a pink tube top and black shorts. Call the Fayetteville Police Department at 910-587-3254 or CrimeStoppers at 910-483-TIPS.

— Al Mignacci’s right arm is bloody from the sticker bushes and his nose drips with sweat, but he smacks a bramble with a thick walking stick and pushes deeper into the Fayetteville woods – looking for a soldier who disappeared in black shorts and a pink tube top.

Most every Saturday since April, he’s led a search for Kelli Bordeaux, the 23-year-old Fort Bragg private last seen at Froggy Bottoms Bar.

In all that time, he’s turned up only a broken cellphone that didn’t belong to her. On this particular Saturday, he’s located a deer jawbone, a license plate and a golf ball.

Mignacci doesn’t know Bordeaux, never met her.

He didn’t know Nancy Cooper, the Cary housewife found strangled in an undeveloped subdivision. He didn’t know Kelly Morris, whose skeleton was discovered in a fox pen near Creedmoor. He didn’t know Shaniya Davis, the 5-year-old girl dumped outside Fayetteville.

But he searched for all of them, step by step through the woods. Somebody had to.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” said Mignacci, 75. “You’d want somebody to help you.”

Some people golf their way through retirement. Mignacci looks for shallow graves.

A mechanical engineer from Raleigh, 12 years removed from IBM, he cuts an odd figure at these searches – twice anybody else’s age, often twice as fit.

He has no personal connection to this brand of horror – the kind that leaves husbands and mothers waiting years for word, hoping for even the macabre but welcome sense of closure that comes from a skull turned up in the woods.

Mignacci never even served as a Boy Scout. But he knows things you only learn tracing the last steps of the luckless and desperate: Alzheimer’s patients usually head for water when they run. Killers rarely carry bodies more than 150 feet into the woods.

More than that, he knows what raw grief looks like up-close. It’s the condition he’s trying to cure.

Last week, Mignacci strapped a knife to his belt, coated himself with Cutter spray and led another dozen people into a pine forest off Elliot Bridge Road, armed with aerial maps.

But before he started out from the meeting place in a Food Lion parking lot, he heard these words from Bordeaux’s husband, Mike: “I thank you all so much for doing this, getting up early on your busy weekend for somebody you don’t even know.”

Mike struggled through tears: “I want to come out there so much. The police told me not to. Every weekend, I ... I know it’s been more than three months. But y’all still care.”

The moment you step into a forest, you realize the odds of finding a missing person by forming a line of volunteer searchers, walking 10 feet apart and moving in concentric rings away from the spot where she was last-seen.

If you’re looking for tossed-out lottery tickets or empty beer bottles, you’ll have a fruitful search. But it doesn’t take many paces into the foliage to realize that Bordeaux could be 50 feet or 500 miles away. You train your eyes on the ground, kick over rocks and try not to think about it.

Mignacci started this slow, tedious work at age 18, a boy in upstate New York. A local man had jumped off a bridge and vanished. He and his brother both joined the search, taking turns on the frigid Hudson River aboard an Army Duck. But the victim didn’t turn up until spring.

Abducted women. Missing children. Suicides.

Mignacci counts 20 searches in North Carolina alone. Sometimes he comes home covered in ticks, legs chewed up by chiggers. He has welts that haven’t healed after three years.

The sticker bushes wrap around your waist, rip apart your ears, form walls in your path. Spiders the size of bullfrogs hang from webs at face height. Dragonflies dart in from above; ants attack from below. Mignacci swats through them with his stick, and if he complains, it’s about the search not being good enough.

“I wish I lived down here,” he said last week, chest deep in Fayetteville brush. “I could be more active. A once-a-week search ...”

In all of his searches, he’s never personally found a body. He’s been nearby when it happened, but never he made the crucial discovery. He doesn’t care. It’s not a treasure hunt.

Near the end of his Fayetteville search, he finds a Lowe’s card and stops to examine it. Detectives warned searchers to watch for Bordeaux’s debit card and ID, but there’s nothing on the thin blue card that points to the missing soldier. There’s nothing like that anywhere in these woods.

Mignacci drops the card and moves on. He’ll be back next week.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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