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Search for missing NIU student suspended

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010 8:39 p.m. CDT
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Rob Winner – rwinner@daily-chronicle.com Antinette (Toni) J. Keller was last seen on Thursday. Her grandmother said Keller was supposed to contact family to arrange a trip home to Plainfield over the weekend, but the last time her cell phone was used was early Thursday morning. Friends and campus officials are posting fliers of her on campus and elsewhere in the city.
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Antinette Keller

8:30 p.m. Tuesday update

Carolyn Straub does not know Antinette J. Keller.

But Straub, a junior at Northern Illinois University, spent part of her evening Tuesday making buttons with Keller's name and face on them. Keller, 18, is an NIU freshman who has been missing since Thursday.

"If I ever went missing, I hope people would come out to help look for me," she said.

Making buttons and passing out missing person fliers were among several awareness activities organized Tuesday by NIU officials as they continue to search for Keller, who is known as Toni by family and friends.

Keller, of Plainfield, was last seen at her residence hall, Neptune North, about noon Thursday. According to police, she told friends she was going for a walk to get ideas for an art project and never returned.

Police on Tuesday suspended their ground search for Keller, saying that three days of exhaustive searching had failed to yield a single clue. Keller was reported missing about 6 p.m. Friday, and police said they immediately began an intensive search that began in her residence hall and eventually expanded to an area stretching from Lincoln Highway to Fairview Drive and from First Street to Nelson Road.

NIU officials on Tuesday said there is no reason for students to feel unsafe, and asked the 100 students and community members who attended a university-sponsored meeting Tuesday afternoon not to go out searching for Keller on their own.

Brian Hemphill, NIU's vice president of Student Affairs, and NIU police Chief Donald Grady emphasized at the meeting that no evidence has come to light suggesting Keller was abducted, although there has been no evidence she left on her own accord, either. Grady said police continue to conduct interviews and follow up leads. Keller's cell phone hasn't been active since early Thursday, he said; police call it hourly, but believe it has been turned off.

Search dogs followed a trail from her room along the path she apparently walked, but lost the scent around Lincoln Highway, Grady said. Neptune North is on Lucinda Avenue.

Police and railroad officials also have searched along railroad tracks from Pearl Street to Nelson Road, Grady said. When asked if police also plan to check the Kishwaukee River and nearby ponds, NIU police Sgt. Alan Smith said they "plan to check everything."

Police and university officials are trying to discourage well-intentioned volunteers from conducting their own searches of the wooded area where Keller's friends say she was headed. The terrain is rough and crisscrossed with streams and railroad tracks, they said, and police have already spent three days combing it repeatedly.

"If you could have seen the officers coming out of that search, they were covered in mud, covered in thorns," Smith said. "It's really not safe for our students to go out there."

3:55 p.m. Tuesday update

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University officials are asking volunteers not to go searching for missing student Antinette Keller on their own, and instead to channel their efforts into organized outreach.

At an on-campus meeting attended by about 100 students, staff and community members, Brian Hemphill, university vice president of Student Affairs, "highly encouraged" people not to take part in volunteer-organized searches for Keller, who was last seen on campus Thursday afternoon.

Police spent three days combing the area between Lincoln Highway and Fairview Drive, Hemphill said. The wooded terrain includes railroad tracks and a number of small creeks and streams that could pose a danger to searchers, espeically after dark.

"It is so dangerous for any of our students to be in that area," he said. "Police have made it clear they have been over that area."

Instead, Hemphill said the university is arranging three outreach activities for volunteers. There will be an organized effort to distribute fliers throughout the community, he said. Volunteers will be given maps of the city and assigned specific neighborhoods in which to distribute fliers door-to-door.

Groups of volunteers will also meet in the Duke Ellington Ballroom inside the Holmes Student Center today, Wednesday and Thursday to make buttons and ribbons to raise awareness of Keller's disappearance, he said. Another group will meet in Neptune North, the residence hall where Keller lives and was last seen, to make cards of support for her friends and family.

Police suspended their search Tuesday, after spending more than three days thoroughly searching an area stretching from Lincoln Highway to Fairview Drive and from First Street to Nelson Road. Searchers also covered the railroad tracks from Pearl Street to Nelson Road, NIU Police Chief Don Grady said. No evidence has been found indicating that Keller either left of her own accord or that she was the victim of foul play, he said.

"We didn't search the area once," Grady said. "We searched every area at least twice, some three times."

Search dogs picked up Keller's scent in her room, he said, and followed it for some distance before losing the trail near Lincoln Highway.

"We've searched everything," NIU Police Sgt. Alan Smith said. "If you could have seen the police officers coming out of there, they were covered in mud and covered in thorns. It's really not safe for our students to go out there."

When asked if police are planning to search the river and nearby ponds, Smith said they "plan to check everything."

12:30 p.m. Tuesday update

DeKALB – Police have suspended their ground search for missing NIU student Antinette Keller, NIU Police Sgt. Alan Smith said Tuesday. He noted a volunteer search is still planned to begin this afternoon, covering ground police have already covered.

"We have searched the wooded areas with negative results," Smith said, referring to the area Keller had told friends she planned to go walking. "We are continuing to follow up on leads and are still doing an investigation."

Though police are no longer walking a grid searching for Keller, they continue to conduct interviews and to check places where she may go, Smith said. They also continue to monitor her cell phone, which has not been used since the early morning hours of the day she disappeared.

Smith said police still have no theories about what may have happened to Keller. They have discovered no evidence suggesting she left on her own and no evidence suggesting foul play, he said.

NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said a meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. in the Stevenson Towers Multipurpose Room is intended to let people know how they can help and let them know what the next stage of the search includes.

"Obviously everybody wants to go out and search," Hoey said. "There has been a very thorough search of the area where she told friends she was going. What is the next stage? This is an opportunity where we can let the community and the campus community know, 'Here is where we are at, here is how you can get involved now.'"

10:50 a.m. Tuesday update

The following message is from NIU President John Peters:

Members and Friends of the NIU Community,

Our thoughts and prayers are with Toni’s parents, family and friends. … I have spoken with her father and pledged the full resources of the university to assist in locating her. Law enforcement from area agencies under the direction of the NIU police department have been working together to conduct thorough and comprehensive grid-based searches of the area surrounding the campus in an effort to locate Toni.

This afternoon (Tuesday) at 2 p.m. in Stevenson Hall Multi-Purpose Room Vice President Brian Hemphill along with Student Affairs staff will meet with concerned students, faculty, staff and members of the community who are interested in participating in the efforts to locate Toni. Community members who would like to attend this meeting should feel free to park in Lot P and PS just west of Stevenson. NIU parking regulations will not be enforced in these lots between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. today.

In the meantime, if you have relevant information about Toni that could assist the NIU Police in their efforts, please contact them directly at 815-753-1212.  I will keep you updated as events continue to unfold.

9:40 a.m. Tuesday update

DeKALB – A meeting will be held at 2 p.m. today between Northern Illinois University officials and students interested in assisting with the search for Antinette Keller.

Student Affairs & Enrollment Management will host a meeting at 2 p.m. today as police continue to search for Keller, who is is known as Toni by family and friends.

The informational session will take place in the Stevenson Towers Multipurpose Room and will be led by Mike Stang, the executive director of Housing & Dining, according to an advisory posted on the NIU website. Staff and students will discuss coordination of the interest and efforts of students with the investigative work being conducted by NIU police.

Keller was last seen by friends about noon Thursday in her residence hall, Neptune North. She told friends that she was going for a walk in a area adjacent to West Lincoln Highway near the Junction Center retail complex.

She is a white female, 18 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches in height, approximately 130 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes.

She was last seen wearing blue jeans, a gray jacket, and a scarf. Ms. Keller was believed to be carrying an art portfolio and a professional camera.

Anyone who might have seen, or who might have information on, a person fitting the above description is asked to please contact the NIU Department of Public Safety at (815) 753-1212.

Tuesday's print story

DeKALB – Joan Knable said it is out of character for her granddaughter, Antinette J. Keller, to not contact her family.

Keller, a freshman at Northern Illinois University, was supposed to have gone home to visit friends in Plainfield over the weekend, Knable said.

But Keller, who is called Toni by family and friends, hasn’t been seen since about noon Thursday at her dormitory, NIU Police Sgt. Alan Smith said.

Friends told police that Keller, a resident of Neptune North residence hall, was planning to take a walk Thursday in a wooded area near the Junction Center shopping complex on West Lincoln Highway.

“Her mom talked to her on Wednesday. That’s when Toni told her she would be home Friday,” Knable said.

“She was supposed to call her mom on Friday to say when she wanted to be picked up, but, of course, she never called.”

Keller’s parents left messages for her Friday, but their calls were not returned, Knable said.

Police have been searching for Keller since Friday, when she was reported missing, Smith said. Police and firefighters have been searching wooded areas near the shopping complex and surrounding area, Smith said.

Trained dogs have been brought in to help with the search.

“We don’t have anything to suggest she went off by herself, and we have no evidence to suggest foul play,” Smith said Monday. “Right now we’re just conducting the search.”

Marissa Gill, a junior at NIU who also lives at Neptune North, said she reported Keller missing to campus officials Friday after her friend failed to return from her art excursion. Gill said she is “incredibly worried” about Keller.

“I’ve grown past being worried to being scared,” she said. “It’s Monday. It’s been all weekend. If she was going to come back, she should have come back today.”

The last time Keller’s cell phone was used was early Thursday morning, Smith said. Family members told police she recently broke up with her boyfriend, but police have no reason at this time to believe he was involved with her disappearance, Smith said.

“We followed up with him and have no reason to suspect him right now based on our interactions with him,” Smith said.

Monday’s search was called off about 6:30 p.m., NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said. The search has included Prairie Park and stretched as far south as Interstate 88 between Annie Glidden Road and First Street, Hoey said.

“They are searching as many locations as they can,” Hoey said.

Smith said NIU police are receiving assistance with the search from a number of agencies, including the DeKalb and Sycamore police departments, Illinois State Police, the DeKalb Fire Department and the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.

While the search has primarily involved law enforcement, Hoey said campus officials plan to meet early this morning to determine how to best integrate community support into the search for Keller. He also noted her disappearance is being heavily publicized through social media. Several volunteer-run missing people websites, as well as social-networking site Facebook, have pages devoted to collecting and disseminating information.

Knable said Keller’s parents spent the weekend in DeKalb passing out fliers and talking to people on the NIU campus in search of clues.

“There’s been no word,” Knable said.

Knable said Keller was a first-year art student who was enjoying and performing well in her classes. Gill described Keller as a laid back, typical 18-year-old woman who likes to listen to music, loves art and enjoys spending time in nature and taking pictures.

“She is really vivacious. She’s a ray of sunshine,” Gill said. “With her gone and the circumstances under which she disappeared, there is a gaping hole in our little family at Neptune North. ... We just really want her to be home safe and let everybody know she is missing, that she is a priority, and everybody should be on the lookout for her.”

Gill said friends plan to pass out fliers today on campus, and Hoey said the NIU Police also plan to start posting fliers on campus. Keller is a white female, 5 feet 6 inches tall, approximately 130 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. She was last seen wearing blue jeans, a gray jacket and a scarf. Police said she might have been carrying an art portfolio and a professional-grade camera.

Anyone who might have seen Keller or might have information on her whereabouts is asked to call NIU Police at 815-753-1212.

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