Family Hopeful Despite Student’s Disappearance
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UPDATED October 22, 2010 – 6:30 p.m.
DE KALB, Ill. (WBBM/AP) – A week has passed since Plainfield teen Antinette “Toni” Keller, 18, was last seen, and her friends and family have faith she will be found safe, and soon.
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“It’s obviously difficult,” said Mary Tarling of Naperville, Antinette’s cousin, who is serving as a family spokeswoman. “All of us are absolutely staying positive to the heart of it, that she will be found safely and brought back home, hopefully expeditiously.”
Officials at Northern Illinois University say the DeKalb County Major Case Squad has assumed lead of the investigation into the disappearance of NIU student Keller. There are 40 investigators working on the case, following up tips.
Authorities said Thursday the decision to activate the Major Case Squad was made jointly by law enforcement officials from NIU, DeKalb and Sycamore police, the county sheriff and the Illinois State Police.
Keller was a freshman from Plainfield who lived in a residence hall on the NIU campus. She was last seen early afternoon Thursday, Oct. 14, when she reportedly told friends that she was going for a walk in a nature area behind the Junction Center retail complex.
The DeKalb County Sheriff says a dive team was called in Thursday to search the Kishwaukee River for signs of a missing student.
Sheriff Roger Scott says the divers from the St. Charles Fire Department are being used only “as a tool.” He says there is no indication that Keller might have drowned.
The chief of the DeKalb Fire Department, Bruce Harrison, says the water is “very murky and very muddy” and low. He says a surface search was conducted earlier in the week.
On the campus, students on campus began writing notes of love and encouragement to the family of the missing student.
“We just said that we’re all there for them and we really, really just want Toni to be found safe,” Ashley DeBartolo, a friend of Keller’s, told CBS 2′s Mike Parker. “She’s one of our best friends, and it’s really hard for everyone.”
A small group of volunteers called Huskies United met to plan stepped-up distribution of flyers and to make ribbons symbolizing their commitment to Toni.
“We’re all Huskies here at Northern, and when a Huskey leaves our pack, we need to find her and we need to bring her back,” Jill Thomas said.
On Wednesday night, Sheriff Scott says a tip from a motorist led authorities to one area of the county.
“Last night we were particularly involved because there was a report that she might have been sighted out at Route 38, south of Route 38, on Nelson Road, which is out in the county by about 3 or 4 miles. So we had an extensive search last night,” Scott said.
He says nothing was found.
“We believe, after talking to the witness, that actually he did see someone on the tracks, though later on he looked at a picture [of Keller] and said it was probably not the same person,” he said.
Authorities say a search volunteer found a shovel south of campus. But it’s not clear whether it has anything to do with the Keller investigation.
NIU says Keller’s dorm key was found off campus – but her father is quoted as saying she lost the key some time ago.
Investigators update Keller’s family every morning on the progress of their search, Tarling said.
“We can’t ask for better help than we have received,” she said. “The NIU police department, the entire group has been absolutely fantastic.”
Keller has been thoroughly enjoying her first semester of college life, Tarling said.
“Every expression she’s given in the past six or seven weeks she’s been there was that she absolutely loved it,” she said. “It fit her very well. She had just settled in and adored what she was doing.”
A Facebook page created to raise awareness of Keller’s disappearance has gathered more than 8,000 fans.
“It’s very touching. For people who know (Toni) directly, it’s not surprising because Toni is a very positive, caring, bubbly person,” Tarling said. “We do appreciate greatly everything everyone’s doing. We’re just blown away, and pleasantly so, at the outpouring of support.”
Toni Keller is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs about 130 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. She was last seen wearing jeans, a gray jacket and scarf. She is believed to be carrying a professional camera.
An art portfolio she was initially thought to be carrying was found in her dorm room. Her family believes she left once with it, then returned it to her room before leaving for her walk.
The 2010 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville is an art major at NIU. She has a tattoo of a sunflower on her upper right chest and her nose is pierced.
Anyone who may have seen Keller or has information on her whereabouts should call the NIU Department of Public Safety at 815-753-1212.
CBS 2′s Mike Parker and Mike Puccinelli, and the Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.