LANCASTER, N.H. — When Joe Canfield learned of the mysterious disappearance of Alberta Leeman, the unsolved case piqued the conservation officer’s interest.
Canfield, who heads the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Remotely Operated Vehicle/Sonar Team, had experience using the team’s equipment to solve cold cases. He began looking at the 43-year-old case.
Leeman, 63, of Gorham, vanished July 25, 1978, while driving home from Gilman, Vermont, where some of her family lives. She never made it home, leaving her loved ones worried — and wondering whether she had met with foul play.
“Your mind goes that way anyway,” Leeman’s granddaughter, Roxanne McLain, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “They got suspicious about where she could have gone. She could have been taken.”
Canfield began conducting regular ROV/sonar training sessions in the areas he believed Leeman might have accidentally driven off the roadway. A recent training session focused on a stretch of the Connecticut River near Lancaster, a tiny town close to the state border with Vermont.
“During this scheduled training, a vehicle was found submerged in approximately 14 feet of water,” according to a news release from the department.
A dive team from Fish and Game went into the water on Thursday and examined the vehicle, which was submerged upside-down about a quarter-mile south of the Mount Orne Covered Bridge. The bridge crosses the Connecticut and connects Lancaster with Lunenburg, Vermont.
They identified the car as a 1972 Pontiac LeMans. The license plate, which was found near the vehicle, bore the number OB610.
That number was registered to Leeman.
On Friday morning, Leeman’s daughter and grandchildren watched from the bank of the river as a dive team dug through more than 40 years of silt in search of human remains.
“The search of the submerged vehicle proved to be extremely difficult due to the deteriorated condition of the vehicle and the amount of silt contained inside,” Fish and Game officials said. “Due to the condition of the vehicle, it was not removed from the river out of concern that the vehicle would break into pieces under the stress of being pulled.”
Leeman’s family prayed that they would finally have the answers they sought for so long.
“You never give up,” Leeman’s daughter, Nancy McLain, told the Union Leader.
Fish and Game Lt. Robert Mancini Jr. confirmed to the newspaper Friday evening that the day-long search in and around the submerged car had resulted in the discovery of human remains. Positive identification of the remains was still pending Monday.
“Hopefully, the remains found today can one day bring Ms. Leeman’s family the closure they deserve,” the agency’s news release said.
“We never thought she was here,” Roxanne McLain told the Union Leader. “They had looked in Maine. They were getting sightings in New Hampshire. The sightings were terrible at the time. They spotted her everywhere.”
McLain and other family members still live in Gilman, just 5 miles from where her grandmother’s car was found.
Only Leeman and her car were missing. All her other belongings, including her purse, remained at her home.
A cold cup of coffee sat on a table, further raising suspicions in 1978.
“The circumstances surrounding how the vehicle ended up in the Connecticut River are under investigation by the New Hampshire State Police, in collaboration with Vermont State Police,” New Hampshire State Police officials said in a statement. “Based on the investigation to date, there appears to be no danger to the public in connection with this incident.”
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