Even though Mark Morris stood surrounded by shadows in the abandoned farmhouse, the faint glow of the afternoon sun illuminated the unmistakable look of exhaustion on his face.
As he had done for almost every weekend since his daughter Christina Morris, a UTD graduate, went missing on Aug. 30, 2014, he was once again scouting the North Texas countryside for any sign of her whereabouts.
So far that day, he wasn’t having any luck. Deserted buildings house plenty of dark hiding spaces, and Mark needed a flashlight.
He didn’t have one, but a volunteer from the small search team dedicated to finding Christina brought over a cell phone to help him illuminate the gloom.
It was one of the innumerable selfless acts that Mark Morris has witnessed over the last 12 months from the dozens of strangers who have banded together to search for his daughter.
“How do these people do it? I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough. I can never repay them.”
Ever since Christina Morris’ disappearance last fall, a ragtag group has come together every weekend to help the Morrises search for their daughter. The band is composed of people from all walks of life: from an old man in his 50s with a thick country accent to a hip, young married couple painted in tattoos. Despite their differences, they all seek to answer the same question: Where is Christina Morris?
Armed with snake boots, walking sticks, bottles of water and an endless supply of bug spray, they gather every Saturday at Allen High School, Morris’ alma mater, to begin searching.
The small army, outfitted in camo print t-shirts marked on the back with #TeamChristina, is used to covering a lot of ground.
Sometimes they check out locations based on tips from Plano police, other times they follow their own leads and look at areas that might be good for hiding.
The group doesn’t reveal information about the specific locations it explores just in case someone is still moving Morris around. Even after a year of investigating every nook and cranny in the DFW wilderness, the search party still meticulously examines nearly every inch of land they come across.
Dennis Abercrombie, one of the oldest members of the group, takes this mission to heart. Before exiting one of the search location, he gets out of his truck and picks up a crumpled blanket lying on the ground 15 yards away. Things like that bother him, he said. He had to know whether it could possibly lead to Morris.
“Hell, you don’t want to go home and lay in bed thinking, ‘Well, I wish I had done this or that,’” he said.
Abercrombie, who is from Plano, heard of the search last fall on Facebook and decided to do what he could to help. At first, he felt like a “turd in a fish bowl” searching with the larger groups that sometimes numbered in the hundreds. As the numbers started to dwindle as the weeks dragged on, he soon became a staple of the posse.
After a year of searching, Abercrombie has seen it all: volunteers passing out after being exposed to Texas’s infamous summers, water moccasins slithering by him as he marched through a field of wet, chest-high grass. Nothing seems to faze him anymore.
The same can be said of the majority of the group, many of whom have no personal relation to Morris. Some simply want to lend a helping hand to what they see as a worthy cause, while others have a deeper motivation for their efforts.
Robert O’Neil, one of the veterans of the search party, had a niece, Rachelle O’Neil Tollesson, who disappeared under similar circumstances to Morris’. In 2004, Tollesson was abducted by a man she had known for most of her life, who then went on to strangle, rape, stab, murder and burn her. She was 20. Her killer, Moises Sandoval Mendoza, was later found guilty and sentenced to death. He is currently awaiting his punishment on death row.
O’Neil described that experience as “a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.” It motivated him to help look for Christina.
“The case is so similar to this one, it really makes me sick sometimes,” he said.
Even though the group is composed mainly of these good Samaritans, there is at least one person in the group who is almost as close to Morris as her actual father.
Ken Stegman’s daughters went to school with the Morrises’ children and they quickly formed a strong friendship. Soon, the two families were almost as close as actual kin because of their kids.
Stegman has been helping with the search from the very beginning and he said the process can be difficult. He acknowledged that at this late of a stage, it’s less of a search for where she is and more of a search for where she isn’t.
“You don’t want to find her out here,” he said.
Still, Stegman is driven to help his friends find closure.
“If it was (my child), one way or the other, I’d want to know,” he said. “Just bring her home, one way or the other.”
Despite the odds that stack against him with every passing day, Mark Morris still hasn’t given up hope. The group hasn’t found any single piece of evidence they’ve been able to connect to his daughter, but instead of viewing that as a negative, he believes it means there’s a chance she’s still alive somewhere.
The search has taken its toll on almost everyone involved — both physically and emotionally. Something as simple as finding animal bones on a search has brought the Morrises to tears.
Still, Mark Morris refuses to stop looking for his daughter, and the group follows suit.
He knows he owes a debt to the searchers, who he said have become like another family to him. What he doesn’t know is if he can properly thank them.
“No amount of money can repay what they’ve done,” he said. “I feel very close to all of them. Look what they’ve sacrificed for us.”
Even though he has little to show, Mark Morris said he won’t quit until he’s brought his daughter home.
He and his army of searchers are still looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.
“That’s my daughter. How do I stop?” he said. “I won’t stop until I know. I just can’t give up on her. I still have hope that she’s out here somewhere… I don’t want to come out here, but I’ve got to. I can’t give up.”