Investigation fell through cracks

To the editor:

Law enforcement is under assault across America. It often is a thankless job, but investigators are not infallible.

Case in point: The investigation into South Range resident Leah Harding’s disappearance. The 31-year-old mother of a now-6-year-old daughter, Leah has been missing two years come April 30, and her family needs our community’s help. I don’t know the Harding family, nor do I have anything personal at stake in a resolution of her case.

The official police standing appears to be Harding is a runaway. Her former boyfriend, Camiel VanHaecke, is a person of interest. VanHaecke is incarcerated in state prison for a burglary conviction. He previously spent 13 years in the Michigan penal system after accepting plea agreements on fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, felonious assault with a dangerous weapon and kidnapping. He was out of prison for nearly a year before Harding went missing. VanHaecke is eligible to return to our community in March of 2018.

I’m not accusing VanHaecke of committing an offense, but he had motive and a violent record. Furthermore, I won’t pretend Harding made a wise choice by dating an ex-con, and her decision unfortunately lowers public sympathy. Nevertheless, rehabilitation leading to social reintegration is the point of America’s judicial system.

Harding has made no contact with her family or friends. She hasn’t accessed financial accounts. Her cell phone was found on the banks of the Sturgeon River, wiped of its data. Intentionally vanishing is possible but highly improbable.

Local police rarely deal with similar cases. Largely due to limited resources, small-town detectives are ill-equipped to painstakingly investigate. Michigan State Police, though, have a wealth of resources. And it’s not like the only known person of interest is in custody or anything.

Objectively, this investigation fell through the cracks. Harding encountered difficulties in life, but no one deserves an inadequate investigatory process, regardless of social standing or prior transgressions. No one deserves a dismissive investigation.

Grieving brothers are without their sister. A grandfather is missing his granddaughter’s love in his waning years. A mother is missing her daughter and best friend. A 6-year-old girl doesn’t have her mother. A community is without a tolerable resolution.

Police must retrain the focus of this failed investigation. Implore authorities for a fresh look at this case. Empathize with Leah’s mother as if Leah was your daughter, and contact to help.

Richard James