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Atlanta teen missing from wilderness therapy program

fr missingteenIt’s been more than a week since Atlanta resident Alec Lansing, 17, walked off from the group he was camping with near Heady Mountain Church Road in the Cashiers area, but rescuers are still combing the woods and trolling the skies in search of the missing teen. 

“Missing person cases remain open until the person’s located,” said Maj. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. “We always hope for a successful reunion with the family.”

So does his mother.

“She’s terribly worried that she hasn’t heard from him by now,” Alec’s aunt, Lisa Devenyl, wrote in an email.  “Alec is her only son.”

Lansing was out with a group from Trails Carolina, an organization that uses wilderness therapy to help troubled teens — most of whom don’t want to be there. He walked away from the counselor he was with and discarded the reflective vest that teens participating in the program wore to help leaders keep track of them. 

Since then, no one’s seen a sign of him save for a reported sighting at a gas station in Cashiers. However, technical difficulties with the security video kept officers from confirming the sighting. Over the past week, temperatures in the area have dipped down into the teens.

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“Exposure to the elements has been a worry the entire time,” Queen said. 

Searchers have put in hundreds of man-hours, with Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies patrolling U.S. Forest Service roads and neighborhoods near the camping area where Lansing was last seen, air patrols from the Civil Air Patrol and N.C. State Highway Police and thermal imaging. Missing person fliers have been distributed throughout the area. Multiple other state and local agencies have assisted with the search, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad, Jackson County Emergency Management and the Cashiers Fire Department. 

“We follow the evidence wherever it goes, and right now we have no new evidence to follow,” Queen said. “The timeline could change tremendously with one telephone call.” 

So far, there’s nothing to indicate that Alec made it out of the forest — or, conversely, that he didn’t. Investigators have open ears for any leads. 

Queen said he’s seen other instances when a teen walked off from a wilderness therapy program — “Anytime you put troubled teens together, you have the possibility of that,” he said. 

Earlier this month, in fact, a pair of teens ran away from a wilderness therapy program in Transylvania County and were arrested for allegedly breaking into homes in the area. Those teens were also with a group from Trails Carolina. 

However, Queen said the community doesn’t have anything to worry about safety-wise as far as Lansing is concerned. 

“There’s nothing to suggest he’s a danger to anyone,” Queen said. 

Trails Carolina isn’t the only organization that runs wilderness therapy trips for teens in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. According to the forests’ public information officer, Stevin Westcott, six such groups are permitted to run trips there. 

“Anytime something negative happens in the community, we all feel it,” said Todd Murdoch, director of Project Discovery. “We all certainly feel it.”

Unlike Trails Carolina, Project Discovery is not a program specifically for “troubled” youth — rather, the Western Carolina University program’s emphasis is on boosting college enrollment in low-income high school students. But like Trails Carolina, Project Discovery uses wilderness experiences to accomplish its goal. 

Murdoch said he’s never had a student walk off from one of his trips, but teens enrolled in his program don’t typically have the kinds of behavior issues that students in Trails Carolina may. He postulated that it would be difficult to keep a teen from leaving if they decided to abandon the group. 

“Certainly anytime you’re going to bring a group out, if an individual wanted to walk off and not be found it would be tough to find them,” Murdoch said. “I don’t know how you could predict it, really.”

Murdoch said he sees this as an isolated incident and hopes it won’t affect parents’ appetite to use wilderness programs in the future.  

“It’s a great medium for taking kids out and helping them learn,” he said. “You don’t have to make up consequences. They’re natural. They’re not contrived. They’re real. They learn to take care of themselves and not just get by. Hopefully they learn to contribute to the group and help take care of the group, too.” 

Trails Carolina did not return phone calls requesting an interview.


Keep your eyes open

Alec Lansing, 17, was last seen wearing a red fleece hoodie and black pants carrying a string pack on his back. He has a slim build at 5-foot-10-inches and 130 pounds. He could still be in the forest near the Heady Mountain Church Road area where he left his group, or he could be trying to get back to Atlanta, where he lives. Contact 828.586.1911 with information.

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