Hours before law enforcement believed they found Kayla Gomez-Orozco’s remains, East Texans came out en masse Saturday in hopes of helping find the girl.
Though check-in time was scheduled for 7 a.m., people arrived at Bullard High School more than a half hour early to volunteer to search for the 10-year-old from Tyler, who went missing in Bullard Tuesday evening. By day’s end, about 600 people had volunteered in the search.
“I’ve got a 6-year-old kid at home and if it happened to him, I’d want the help,” 34-year-old Kris Byboth, a material manager from Tyler, said. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
Byboth’s sentiment was a common one among those who came out to lend themselves to a search that has captivated not only this region, but also people across the nation.
“I don’t have a connection to anybody that’s a part of this tragedy, but I’m a part of the East Texas community that cares,” said 31-year-old Jessica Bullock, of Van, who fought back tears as she spoke.
Isai Leguizamo, 19, a Tyler Junior College biology student, said he came to help out the community and the family in need.
Volunteers included people of all walks of life: professors, retirees, college students and stay-at-home mothers.
In briefing law enforcement officers and volunteers, Texas Ranger Brent Davis said the search area spanned between 1,400 to 1,500 acres.
Search crews were looking for articles of clothing - anything that might have matched what Kayla was wearing the last time she was seen. But they were also looking for her.
Volunteers were repeatedly urged to flag down an official if they saw anything that might match Kayla’s clothes or appear out of the ordinary.
Davis said while volunteers were searching from the ground especially in densely wooded areas, a helicopter and drones would be searching open areas from the sky.
If those in the air found something they wanted to get a better look at, they would communicate with a ground team to do so.
Search teams comprised 10 volunteers each with at least two law enforcement officials per team.
Once registered and assigned to a team, the groups boarded Bullard ISD school buses to be taken out to their search sites.
The search area was divided into four sections spreading out from the church on U.S. Highway 69 where Kayla was last seen.
One group searched southwest of the church, off of Schoolhouse Road. Once on site, they lined up arms length apart, and began to walk to do a grid search.
The search was slow-going at times with very thick brush and thorn bushes in places. But slow was OK in this case. In fact, it was advised.
“We’re not gonna get in any kind of hurry,” Detective Ron Rathbun with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office said.
Christina Fleming, 33, of Bullard, was among the search volunteers. Ms. Fleming is a mother of eight and her oldest son, Christian Bullard, 16, joined her in the search.
She said right after Kayla went missing, her youngest child, an 11-year-old girl, came into her bedroom and asked to sleep with her at night because she was scared.
“Momma, what if they try to get me,” she asked.
“That just gave me the motivation to get out and find justice for her,” Ms. Fleming said.
Throughout the search, there were occasional shouts of “Hold up” or “Alright, let’s go, slowly,” depending upon if someone needed a team leader to check something out, or a portion of the group was moving more slowly than another.
Missy Wilson, 47, a Bullard Intermediate School teacher, said she wanted to help because if one of her daughters went missing there would be people searching for her. She said it also hits home because she teaches children about Kayla’s age.
Her cousin, Tony Foster, 67, of Bullard said he came out for much the same reason as everyone else, to get some answers for Kayla’s family.
Foster said he had been through this before when his wife’s grandfather went missing in the Bullard area for eight days many years ago. He eventually was found, but had passed away.
Though the day was somber in a sense because of the heartbreak brought on by this missing child, hope shined through in small places and exchanges, one of which involved Whitehouse resident Brenda Davis and one of Kayla’s relatives.
Ms. Davis, 64, knows the pain of losing a child, though in a different way. Ms. Davis’ granddaughter, Haven Grace Davis, died in 2012 at the age of 3 because of a heart condition.
Since that time, Ms. Davis has started giving away lamb stuffed animals that have a little patch on the front in memory of Haven Grace. She gives them to children who are suffering and sick.
She brought one for Kayla, in case she was found, but another opportunity presented itself.
When Ms. Davis realized she was on the same search team as Sabrina Garcia, who is related to Kayla through marriage, Ms. Davis gave her the lamb to pass on to Kayla’s mother.
“Tell her it’s from a little girl in heaven who would absolutely love for her to have this to hold while all of this is going on,” she said.
Ms. Garcia, 46, of Tyler, took the stuffed animal appreciatively. She said it’s been a trying week for the family.
“They’re just waiting, hoping, praying,” she said. “A whole lot of praying. That’s all we’ve done is pray.”