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Four seniors vanished with hardly a trace: Profiles of the missing

Vern Erno

Vern Erno, an 82-year-old Washington state resident who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was visiting family in Arroyo Grande on Dec. 28, 2003, when he disappeared.

Erno was in a car with his son and grandson running errands in San Luis Obispo when he became agitated and asked to be let out of the car. He was last seen at Madonna and Los Osos Valley roads.

Foul play was never suspected.

“We had a lot of search-and-rescue personnel,” said San Luis Obispo Lt. Tom DePriest, who led the investigation. “We began by searching a mile radius from where he was last seen — using people on foot, helicopters and horses.”

Additional searches went on for months.

As tips trickled in, they were investigated, but ultimately no sign of Erno was found.

The case is now cold.

“It is beyond frustrating. Where on Earth did he go?” DePriest said. “I still think about it.”

DePriest said he sympathizes with Erno’s family.

“Without closure, left wondering every day what happened to your loved one — that is something I wouldn’t really know how to deal with,” he said.

Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson, 81, was last seen going for a walk from her home on Capistrano Avenue in Shell Beach on Aug. 5, 2008. She was heading west, toward the ocean, just as she did almost every day.

The 5-foot-5-inch, 95-pound woman with gray hair and hazel eyes lived alone and was known for being independent. She had dementia and likely got confused easily.

Neighbors kept a careful eye on her, but knew that if they offered too much help it would be declined.

“It was one of those cases that there wasn’t much information to go on,” Pismo Beach police Sgt. Tom Portz said. “She was very independent and had lived on her own for most of her life.”

Her closest relative lived on the East Coast, he said.

Portz said a large search was done in the area surrounding her home but nothing came of it. A Sheriff’s Department search-and-rescue dog was able to pick up her scent leading toward the beach, but nothing else was found.

“There were a few neighbors that really took her situation to heart and would check in to make sure she had food and was remembering to eat,” Portz said. “People called with concerns about her welfare, but she always refused help from Adult Protective Services.”

Portz said that detectives occasionally revisit the case and check with the people who knew her, but that no new leads have surfaced.

“As things go on, we try to keep going with it,” Portz said. “It never quite goes away — a case like this hits home for everybody.”

Janet DeFelice

Janet DeFelice, 88, went missing June 1, 2007, from her son’s home along Santa Rita Ranch Road south of Highway 46 west of Templeton.

She had just been moved by her family from Southern California to Templeton because of concerns about her dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The family planned to place her in an elder-care facility in San Luis Obispo. But shortly after arriving at her son’s house around 1 a.m. Friday, she said she wanted to go home to Costa Mesa. By 7 a.m., the family realized she was gone.

They immediately began looking for her and circulating fliers in Atascadero.

A search led by the sheriff’s search-and-rescue team and more than 50 volunteers checked a 2,000-acre area with dogs, horses and helicopters.

She was last seen wearing white Easy Spirit tennis shoes, black sweat pants and a deep-red sweatshirt. She also took a blue leather purse and was wearing a watch on her left wrist.

She had no health problems and was used to walking about 5 miles a day.

Foul play was not suspected.

In July 2009, DeFelice’s purse was found under some bushes by a person mowing the grass about a quarter of a mile away from the house.

Another search was launched, using the found purse as a starting point, but no more evidence was discovered.

George Carpenter

George Carpenter, 74, of San Luis Obispo was reported missing Dec. 23 after he took the family dog to nearby Laguna Lake Park and didn’t return home.

He was last seen driving his 1989 Jeep Comanche to the park with his black Labrador retriever, Scooter.

Carpenter is described as an avid hiker in good physical shape with a passion for geology. He worked a number of years in law enforcement, retiring from the Morro Bay Police Department.

Extensive searches, including a search by the sheriff’s dive team of a portion of Laguna Lake, have been done, but no sign of Carpenter has been found.

A CHP helicopter flew over several rural areas in the county to help with the search, but it was unable to find his vehicle. Carpenter’s credit card hasn’t been used since he disappeared, and he doesn’t carry a cell phone.

Dixie Carpenter, his wife of 53 years, said her husband didn’t say or do anything unusual on the day he disappeared. She’d gone out to run a few errands, and when it got dark, she began to worry.

The Facebook page, titled “Find George Carpenter,” has attracted nearly 1,500 followers, who have offered tips and helped search throughout the western United States.

His family continues to struggle daily with not knowing what happened.

“We are just all trying to figure out how to grieve when there could possibly be a tiny chance of a miracle,” said Beth Wonson, Carpenter’s daughter-in-law. “How to deal with not knowing what George may have gone through and how to balance the concern, questions and comments of all of those who care so much.”

Wonson said the questioning never ends.

“A man, a dog and a truck ... gone. Vanished into thin air,” Wonson said. “When do you cancel insurance on the truck? When do you stop auto-fill on medications? I have so much more compassion for others who go through this.”

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