FAYETTEVILLE — Al Mignaccis 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, hes led a search for Kelli Bordeaux, the 23-year-old Fort Bragg private last seen at Froggy Bottoms Bar.
In all that time, hes turned up only a broken cellphone that didnt belong to her. On this particular Saturday, hes located a deer jawbone, a license plate and a golf ball.
Mignacci doesnt know Bordeaux, never met her.
He didnt know Nancy Cooper, the Cary housewife found strangled in an undeveloped subdivision. He didnt know Kelly Morris, whose skeleton was discovered in a fox pen near Creedmoor. He didnt 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. Youd 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 elses 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: Alzheimers 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. Its the condition hes 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 Bordeauxs husband, Mike: I thank you all so much for doing this, getting up early on your busy weekend for somebody you dont 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 its been more than three months. But yall 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 youre looking for tossed-out lottery tickets or empty beer bottles, youll have a fruitful search. But it doesnt 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 didnt 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 havent 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, its 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, hes never personally found a body. Hes been nearby when it happened, but never he made the crucial discovery. He doesnt care. Its not a treasure hunt.
Near the end of his Fayetteville search, he finds a Lowes card and stops to examine it. Detectives warned searchers to watch for Bordeauxs debit card and ID, but theres nothing on the thin blue card that points to the missing soldier. Theres nothing like that anywhere in these woods.
Mignacci drops the card and moves on. Hell be back next week.
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