Sue Duffin’s home answering machine played a jovial message last Saturday, just like any other weekend, telling callers that she and her husband, Bob, were out doing something more fun than answering phone calls.
Sadly, they weren’t.
They were out with about 275 other people looking for Sue’s mother, Jean Taber, who had gone missing two days earlier. It wouldn’t be until the next day that they’d find her dead in the woods with her cocker spaniel, Freckles, sitting by her side.
Jean Taber’s family began seeing a more noticeable decline in her health — specifically, her short-term memory — in recent months, Ms. Duffin said.
“We would call her and say we’d be by in 15 minutes. And we’d get there in 15 minutes and she’d be gone,” she recalled.
Ms. Taber’s children — Ms. Duffin, her older brother, Tim Taber, and younger brother, Glenn Taber — had split up the responsibility of helping their mom, whose husband, Arthur, had passed away in 2008. Tim did the food shopping, Glenn made the daily phone calls and Sue handled her mother’s finances.
They hired a home health aide to make sure Ms. Taber was taking her medication and keeping a clean home, but there were just some things that nobody could keep an eye on.
“In retrospect, she was hiding things from us,” Ms. Duffin said.
Some of those things were as innocent as feeding the feral cats who kept her company or occasionally forgetting the time of a church service. But concern started to increase when the family discovered that Ms. Taber — an animal and nature lover — had spent one January night in a shed with a cat she hadn’t been able to entice inside.
She didn’t tell her children about that incident until a month after it happened.
Ms. Taber would have celebrated her 83rd birthday next Wednesday, April 16. She was born in West Sayville and later moved to Patchogue, where she met her future husband. She was young and promised to wait for him while he went off to fight in World War II — and she did.
The couple, both avid fans of the outdoors, took the family on frequent trips up north — skiing at Killington, Vt., or taking road trips upstate.
Ms. Duffin recalled the two-week trips they took every summer. “We circumnavigated the State of New York every year, for years,” she said.
After Glenn was born, the Tabers purchased a 10-foot trailer to accommodate the larger family on long road trips. Arthur hung a bed a few inches from roof of the trailer for his youngest son to sleep in.
One winter, on a whim, the Tabers took the kids to ski at Sunday River in Bethel, Maine, instead of Killington. The couple returned having bought six acres of land they’d never actually seen, because it was buried under five feet of snow. They later built an A-frame home there, next to a pond, and lived in Maine for about a decade.
Ms. Duffin also recalled a time when her mother won a potato salad contest. Using her 35 years of experience working at Swan Deli in Patchogue, Ms. Taber honed her recipe over a period of weeks and came up with the best of more than 1,000 entries.
“That was the proudest moment of her life,” Ms. Duffin said.
But as their health deteriorated, Arthur and Jean Taber moved to Riverside to be closer to family.
Ms. Taber’s love for the outdoors translated into a love for gardening that followed her throughout her life.
“She had a major green thumb,” Glenn remembered. “She could make anything grow.”
During each of her big moves, Ms. Taber brought her gardens with her.
“The last thing we did before shutting the door on the moving van when they went up to Maine was shove some piles of dirt into the back,” Ms. Duffin recalled with a laugh.
Her garden is still growing. In fact, one plant given to her by a grandson has lasted over 20 years.
New York State Police Capt. Bill Hulse lives in Riverhead. Although the Riverside barracks is just over the Peconic River, he works out of the Valley Stream office. And last week, he happened to be the only state police captain around when a call about a missing person came in early Friday afternoon.
Not long after, there was another call — for a shooting at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.
The force called in more troopers to handle the extra work, he said. Unlike the movies, they don’t wait 24 hours to start looking for a missing person.
“The minute the call comes in, that’s when you start,” said Mr. Hulse, who led the search. “Especially in particular circumstances, when it’s an elderly person or someone who should be home, you just start up on it.”
When troopers began the search, Mr. Hulse said they focused mostly on the Riverwoods mobile home park. Employees declined to say how many residents live at the park, though Mr. Hulse said it has maybe 500 units.
From Friday into early Saturday morning, searchers knocked on a lot of doors in the park. The last time Ms. Taber had been spotted on a security camera, she was with Freckles near the pond on the south side of the property. So the theory at first was that she might have wandered off somewhere inside the park, not unlike that January night she’d spent in the shed.
Because of the ticks in nearby woods, family members had often told her to steer clear of walking there.
Things changed Saturday morning.
“It wasn’t until the media really picked up on the story Saturday that we started getting eyewitness reports,” Mr. Hulse said. “And people had seen her south of Riverwoods in an area of paved roadway.”
It was off that roadway — “well over a mile in,” according to Mr. Hulse — that Jean Taber was eventually found. But after the search effort resumed Saturday morning, she wouldn’t be located for another 31 hours.
Close to 275 volunteers and emergency responders mobilized Saturday, combing the woods side-by-side after a helicopter patrolled the area. The chopper used infrared tracking, Mr. Hulse said, which measures thermal energy to find objects.
Two possibilities explain the unit’s failure to spot Ms. Taber during its initial sweep of the area, he said. “Either the aircraft didn’t get close enough to sense the difference in temperature. Or there was no difference.”
Freckles, the cocker spaniel who stood by his owner’s side after she died in the woods, could have been too small for heat sensors to detect — especially after a couple of nights outdoors.
Saturday’s search ended without any promising telling leads. In fact, a few people called to say they had seen Freckles, when in fact they hadn’t. So on Sunday, authorities took the effort back into the air, expanding the original search area and cutting back the number of people combing the woods to just under 70, so as not to confuse the infrared tracking system.
Friends and family were tasked with posting fliers around Riverside and downtown Riverhead while a chopper flew just above the treetops over the David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve.
Eventually, at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, someone in the helicopter saw Freckles moving around, and Jean’s body right next to him.
“That was the worst part — giving the family the death notification,” Mr. Hulse said. “Even though chances diminish as time goes on, you’re still really hoping for a more positive ending. While I was glad to be able to bring them some closure, I was really hoping to bring them their mom or grandmother back alive.”
Glenn Taber had recently been preparing for his mother to move in with him. “But she didn’t want to do it,” Ms. Duffin said. “She wanted independence.”
Despite other setbacks, Ms. Taber was still able to bathe and feed herself. And according to Pastor Dave Cook at her church — Calvary Baptist — she’d still remember your name. She was also known to offer thoughtful gifts to neighbors, such as one of her garden flowers, or bring the pastor some chocolates when he was feeling under the weather.
So getting her to leave the community she loved — not to mention the surrounding open space that afforded her and Freckles the chance to enjoy themselves — wasn’t easy.
“There’s a line between being respectful and being safe,” Ms. Duffin said. “It’s the toughest thing you could ever imagine.”
Ms. Duffin said she carries “a ton of guilt” over all of it. But she takes small solace in knowing her mother “died doing what she wanted to do” — taking a walk in the woods with her dog on a beautiful spring day.
Photo captions: Jean Taber at age 13 (courtesy photo). The entrance to the trail where Jean Taber was found with her dog, Freckles (Paul Squire photo)
An Expert Opinion
It’s not uncommon for a dog to stay by its deceased owner’s side, said Ellen Rassiger, certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Happy Dog Training & Behavior in Huntington.
“The dog senses something is wrong,” Ms. Rassiger said.
And in a forested environment like the David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve, where Jean Taber had been walking with her cocker spaniel, Freckles, just prior to her death, dogs can easily survive by drinking water from leaves and puddles and by hunting small animals, Ms. Rassiger said, sometimes surviving for two to three weeks.
The behavior isn’t particular to any one breed, Ms. Rassiger said. Rather, it depends on how emotionally connected a dog is to its owner.
“If this were a dog you had pulled out of the shelter two days before, maybe they’d just run off,” she said. “The closer the relationship, the more attuned the dog is to the owner.”
After being found by rescue teams, Freckles was treated at East End Veterinary & Specialty Center in Riverhead at no cost. He’s expected to be surrendered to the Southampton Town Shelter and will be adopted out. While Dr. Gal Vatash said Freckles is “the sweetest thing,” he did find some heart problems with the dog, and family members say he’s probably best suited for an owner without other dogs or kids.
– by Rachel Young