No signs of boy found in Lake Elizabeth: Search galvanizes community but reveals no clues
on September 5, 2009
By S. Howard Bransford/Oakland North
Volunteers from throughout the East Bay formed a prayer circle near a reedy lagoon called Lake Elizabeth in Fremont on Saturday morning as they gathered to undertake a grim task.
The official goal of the search party—some 100 people strong—was to find the missing five-year-old Hassani Campbell, a Fremont resident who vanished sometime around August 10. Yet in their appeals to a higher power, they were already girding themselves for the chance of finishing empty-handed.
“It is our prayer, Lord, that Hassani Campbell is alive and well,” said the Rev. Dr. Ramona Tascoe-Burris of Miracles of Faith Community Church in Oakland as the volunteers bowed their heads. Tascoe-Burris is the former wife of attorney John Burris, who has been advising Campbell’s foster parents on legal matters in the wake of the boy’s disappearance.
Hours later, only mysteries remained, as volunteers found no clues to clear up Campbell’s disappearance, which the Oakland Police Department is calling a homicide.
The search encompassed the shores of the 88-acre lake, located in the center of Fremont, as well as the water itself. One volunteer donned SCUBA gear and dove from a pier plastered with goose dung to probe waters topped with feathers, trash, and streaks of gasoline. From the bottom of the lake he gleaned some muddy pieces of cloth, but no definite signs of the boy.
Sonna Pask, one of many Fremont residents who gathered at the scene, still commended the diver’s gumption. “They’ve got to go someplace and look somewhere,” said Pask, 59.
San Jose Search and Rescue, a nonprofit rescue response team, handled the logistics of the search on both land and water. Trained workers from the group, who wore blaze orange uniforms, led volunteers dressed in yellow “Hassani Campbell Search Team” T-Shirts made by Sherri-Lynn Miller, a San Leandro print shop owner who launched a campaign to find Campbell when he went missing and organized today’s search.
Search volunteers, who were divided up into teams, were advised not to touch any possible evidence they might find, but instead to report it directly to the San Jose Search and Rescue leaders. Despite the seriousness of the occasion, volunteers swapped jokes and casual conversation as they split up into search parties.
After coming up empty at Lake Elizabeth, the volunteers widened their search to other open spaces in Alameda County, including Coyote Hills Regional Park and the Don Edwards Game Reserve, but found no sign of the missing boy.
Despite the search’s failure to turn up any evidence of the boy’s whereabouts, Miller said the large turnout was still a hopeful symbol of community involvement. “It’s been more than I could have imagined,” said Miller. “It’s just amazing.”
Hassani Campbell’s 16-year-old aunt, Trinity Campbell, attended the search, but the boy’s foster parents, Louis Ross and Jennifer Campbell, were not present. The Oakland Police Department arrested the couple on August 28 on suspicion of murder, but the Alameda County District Attorney’s office declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence.
Oakland Attorney John Burris, who has acted as a legal advisor to the couple, says officers abused their power by arresting them without probable cause.
His former wife, Tascoe-Burris, and her daughter Courtney, a paralegal who works for John Burris, helped launch the search for Campbell because the boy may still be alive, Tascoe-Burris said, adding that the five-year-old still deserves a chance of being found.
Tascoe-Burris, a doctor who runs an Oakland wellness center in conjunction with her religious work, said her interest in finding Campbell has nothing to do with her ex-husband’s role in the case. The two often work on the same community issues simply because they both have an interest in social justice, she said. “John and I just happen to have portfolios of work that serve the good of the community, and that serve a parallel course,” said Tascoe-Burris.
East Palo Alto resident Reginald Paige, 46, attended the search with his 4-year-old son because he felt empathy for Hassani Campbell’s parents. He said he would want a similar community response if his own son disappeared.
“I just felt a need to be out here,” Paige said, holding his son close. “I wouldn’t rest if something happened to him.”
The Oakland Police Department Crime Stoppers reward for finding Campbell is $60,000. Anyone with information regarding the case can call the Oakland Police Department at (510) 777-8572 or (510) 777-3211.
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.