B y Krystle S. Morey
Nearly three years ago, a man set off walking from a Main Street bar toward the New York-Vermont border.
Jonathan Schaff, who was 23 at the time, hasn’t been seen since, but police say they are not giving up efforts to determine what happened to him.
The Vermont State Police and the New York State Police, with the assistance of Granville Police Department, continue to collaborate on the investigation.
“I want nothing more than to see Jonathan walk through that door,” said May Winchell, mother of Schaff, who was last seen on Jan. 18, 2014 at the New York/Vermont border walking east on Route 149.
Said Detective Sgt. Todd Wilkins of Vermont State Police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation: “I am not giving up on this one, we are going to keep digging. Whenever we get a spare moment of a new lead comes in, we pick it up and go track that down because we don’t want to lose that information.”
“I want to stay positive that he might be still out there … alive,” Winchell said, mentioning that her son’s birthday is coming up on Jan. 22.
Police determined athat Schaff, of Fair Haven, left the former Riverside Pub on Main Street in Granville during the early-morning hours that day. Prior to his disappearance, police said, he was involved in physical altercation with another man at the pub.
Witnesses said Schaff’s glasses had been broken in the fight, but he didn’t suffer any serious injuries.
“This was the first time he every really been in Granville to any bars,” Winchell said. She said he son did go out, but would always call her with updates or for a ride if he needed.
Winchell said she texted her son around 2 a.m. the day he went missing, asking him about his night, but the response she got back, “Leave me alone,” she didn’t think it was Schaff who responded to her.
She responded with a text: “Jonathan, are you alright?” And received nothing back.
“I, honest to God, don’t think that Jonathan had his phone at 2 a.m.,” Winchell said.
The next morning, after Schaff didn’t return home, Winchell said she received a call from her daughter, Billie Jo Rathbun, who lived in Granville at the time, inquiring if Winchell had seen her son.
“I was hysterical … pacing the floor, waiting for her to come get me so we could go find him,” Winchell said. She and her daughter ended up at the Granville Police Station to report Schaff missing.
Police said, after the fight, Schaff left the bar with a 33-year old woman and 26-year-old man, who had offered to give him a ride. Their vehicle had been parked at Loomis Trucking, just across the New York-border. On the way to the car, the two people with Schaff stopped “for a smoke and to make out” a few hundred yards short of the border, investigators said.
Schaff continued on alone. When the couple returned to the route, they could not locate Schaff. They told police they assumed he had found another way home, according to reports.
Three days later, Schaff’s cell phone was found in an abandoned vehicle at Loomis Trucking, but no additional evidence was found.
Law enforcement agencies in both states, as well as family members and volunteers, have conducted numerous searches since Schaff’s disappearance, but those efforts have not yielded any answers.
“It’s still very much an active case for us,” Wilkins said.
Vermont State Police and New York State Police Scuba Teams, after receiving a tip, searched a local quarry last June for evidence.
“A thorough search of the quarry was conducted by divers from both teams; however no evidence pertaining to the case was recovered,” said Wilkins.
Wilkins said search and rescue, scuba and helicopter teams searched the river and the surrounding area when Schaff went missing, but the quarry, located on Vermont Route 149 in West Pawlet, Vermont, was never thoroughly searched. At the time of Schaff’s disappearance, officials thought the quarry was iced over, but investigators later determined that was not the case.
“It was presumed at the time that this quarry was frozen over … it was not,” Wilkins said. “We decided to go in and get it done.”
Winchell said she and her family even searched the area near the New York-Vermont border, looking for Schaff.
“I went out there looking,” she said. “I was shaken, and at time felt like I was going to pass out.”
One week after Schaff’s disappearance, Winchell said that she went to the bar, formerly Riverside Pub, with a picture of Jonathan.
“I was on a rampage,” she said. “I was mad. I was hysterical. And I was trying to get answers.”
During the weeks surrounding the most recent quarry search, police in New York and Vermont interviewed and conducted polygraphs on more than 50 people, refueling the search. Those questioned include witnesses that were at the Main Street bar Schaff was seen drinking at that night, people who saw him last and people he had contact with on Facebook and via text.
“Unfortunately, they have not quite come to fruition on the whereabouts of Jonathan … yet,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said police still have leads they are working on – in both New York and Vermont – that they are “hopeful for.” He met with New York State Police’s Major Crimes Unit recently about “some new leads that we want to get out and work on soon.”
“They are a little more complicated than just going out and knocking on doors,” he said.
Over the years, there have been remains found in the Lakes Region, but none related back to the Schaff case. In one instance, two days before Christmas in 2015, a body was recovered from a roadside in Goshen, Vermont – but it wasn’t Schaff’s. With the proximity to the New York border, Vermont State Police looked into missing persons cases in both states, including Schaff’s, to hopefully bring a family some closure.
“Even though (the case) is fairly cold and the information is running out, we are still getting, in dribs and drabs, information,” Wilkins said.
He added: “I haven’t handled missing persons cases that have gone on for this long. Typically we do find missing persons within a shorter period of time.”
Wilkins took over the missing person case in February, after the original detective moved to a different position.
“We decided to put a new set of eyes on the case,” he said.
Wilkins asked to be put on the Schaff case, one of three missing persons cases his office in Shaftsbury is working on.
He said he wanted to pursue the case because he has “a passion for these types of cases – complicated cases.”
“It was something that I wanted to be challenged with and that the family just deserved … I just needed to do the best job that I could for them,” Wilkins said.
“Obviously I was hoping to get them some results before now,” he said, “but it hasn’t come to fruition … and that doesn’t mean we are giving up yet.”
Wilkins is so invested in finding Schaff that he offered up his personal contact information to Schaff’s parents.
“A lot of times, family members just need information. They need somebody out there advocating for them and making sure that they are still actively searching for their family member,” Wilkins said.
He said it’s not unusual for police to offer themselves as a direct contact for families, but that he is particularly passionate about missing persons cases.
Winchell said: “Todd (Wilkins) is different. Whenever I text him, he is right there. He always gets back to me.”
She added: “I know Todd cares. I know he is trying his best to find Jonathan.”
“It’s me. It’s what I do for the people in tough situations,” Wilkins said. “I am a father of three and I cannot imagine losing a child in any way, shape or form, so I just felt that she (Winchell) needed to know that we are working on this and that she has a contact that she can reach out to.”
Winchell said she texts Wilkins when she’s upset or if she has questions about her son’s case.
“Both states are putting all kinds of resources into this,” Wilkins said. “…. not caring who technically has the case, because we don’t know for sure where he is. He could be in New York or he could be in Vermont.”
“I sit up thinking about Jonathan … all of the time, day and night,” Winchell said. “I just want him found.”
Anyone with any information is asked to contact the Vermont State Police at 802-773-9101.
Police: Few leads remain
One of the leads police are currently working on in the disappearance of Jonathan Schaff, relates to results gathered from the questioning in the summer of 2016.
“We are looking for a specific individual that has kind of taken off from us at this moment in time … that we really want to speak to,” said Detective Sgt. Todd Wilkins, mentioning that he’s “pretty positive” the gentleman knows police are looking for him.
“We can’t locate him yet, but we will, very soon I have a feeling,” he said.
Wilkins said the biggest source of information police have is people.
“I need people to talk,” he said. “We will come talk to them quietly or privately, but we need people to talk because right now, after three years, there really isn’t forensic evidence out there that is going to solve this. It’s literally information from people that is going to help bring Jonathan Schaff home.”
As far as ground searches, Wilkins said that police do not have any planned at this time, but if a lead points them to an area, they will search it.
“Myself and my detectives have gone out and surveyed the area, thinking outside the box – was he hit by a car and was maybe lying in a ditch, or something like that,” he said. “We checked all of that and it came up empty.”
Even though the Schaff case is approaching the three-year mark, Wilkins said police are not giving up on trying to find him.
Wilkins said, “It all depends on where the case is at. Sometimes cases go cold within the first month and sometimes cases don’t go cold for years and years.”
“I know that we are coming up on the three-year mark, but for me that is not going to change anything. We are still going to keep this as an active case, and keep pushing as we would with all cases,” he said. “When the leads come in, we will continue to track those leads down.”
Schaff’s mother, May Winchell, said she and her family will reward $1,000 to anyone who produces a viable lead, one that contributes to the whereabouts of her missing son.
“I just wish he would come home,” she said.
Wilkins said: “I am not going to sit here and say that we have a ton of leads. We have pretty much exhausted most of the leads that we have. We have a few more to jump on, but every single one that’s come in we have exhausted.”
He added: “And frustratingly, we haven’t come up with the information that we want yet.”