Search extensive, futile Whitley combed for missing body of Debra Houser

Frank Gray
The Journal Gazette

LARWILL – They came to Larwill on Saturday with horses, ATVs, boats and dogs, people from all over, all with the same grisly goal: to find the body of Debra Houser, hidden somewhere in the overgrowth in the rolling, ravine-filled countryside of Whitley County – maybe.

So far, the efforts have proved fruitless.

No one knows for sure where the body of Houser, who police say was killed sometime Tuesday or Wednesday, has been hidden. Rodney L. Houser, her ex-husband, who was charged with murder in her disappearance after an informant told police that Houser asked him to help hide the body, won’t say where she is.

For three days, police searched the countryside around the Housers’ home at 4041 Old Trail Road, just west of Columbia City, but found nothing. Saturday morning, after a call for volunteers, more than 100 people – police on foot and with off-road vehicles, firefighters and conservation officers with boats, cadaver dogs from Chicago and Kentucky, a woman with a bloodhound, a team of people on horseback, and plenty of others with just their eyes – turned out, forming 40 teams to comb the countryside.

The body is believed to be within 25 or 30 yards of water – a river, a lake, a pond, a ditch, a culvert – so check everything, Detective Sgt. Charles Vogely of the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department told searchers before they were sent out. The body might be submerged. It might be concealed under leaves or brush. The person who hid her has some expertise. He would have hid the body well. So be on the lookout for anything that looks unnatural, Vogely said.

After the body is found, Vogely said, showing a hint of optimism, back away. Don’t touch anything. Leave the area by the same path you took in, he said. Let police note what kind of boots you are wearing.

Richland Township Fire Chief Steve Yann, working off two huge maps of townships, gave each search team a small map showing a specific area to search and sent them on their way.

Then, through the morning, men in hip waders slogged through algae-filled pools near lakes; people stumbled through the overgrowth and muck and piles of refuse that dot the rural area; boats carrying dogs that could smell a body underwater plied lakes; airplanes slowly circled, looking for any signs of a body.

The search, though, had its perils. It’s hunting season, and the woods were full of hunters gunning for deer. There was concern for the searchers, so they were all given green or yellow vests.

With hunters in remote areas, there is always the chance someone could find the body. But police say Houser went out a second time, after dumping his wife’s body, and further concealed it, specifically so hunters wouldn’t find it.

It’s frustrating, Whitley County Sheriff Mark Hodges said.

Vogely, on the road with a bloodhound handler, expressed similar frustration. The dog sensed nothing, and after a few minutes, they moved their search on.

“Come on, Deb, give us a sign,” Vogely said to himself. “Come on.”

Meanwhile, the countryside is full of blood trails from deer, Yann said. “It’s a tremendous issue.”

Before hunting season, it would have been easy to spot areas that had been disturbed. Now, with hunters tramping through the woods, everything has been disturbed, Yann said.

“We’re up against anything and everything that could happen,” Yann said.

About 1 p.m., hours after the search began, a man walked into the Larwill fire station, the headquarters for the search, and approached Hodges.

“I’m Deb Houser’s son-in-law. I want to help. I want to do everything I can to find my mom,” the man said.

“He was a sick, twisted individual,” said Jeff Abbott, the son-in-law. “She kept trying to get away from him,” but she kept agreeing to give it another try.

“It’s sick,” Abbott said. “I can’t believe anyone would do that to someone.”

By about 4 p.m., when nothing had been found, the sheriff said they might as well send teams home as they come in. By about 5:30, the search was halted.

There will be no further search today, Hodges said. On Monday, police will sit down and review everything they have and plot a new strategy. It might come to the point where the entire county will have to be divided into a grid and every square on that grid searched.

But then, the body might not even be in Whitley County. The information they have came from a killer, police said, and killers sometimes lie.

In the meantime, Hodges is asking property owners to search their own properties. They’ll know the remote areas where someone could hide a body, and they’ll be able to recognize if anything is out of place, he said.

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