While the official search for a missing Courtenay man has been stood down, there is work going on behind the scenes to look for a lead.
The hope is to find some clue that can prompt another official search for Michael Gazetas. A previous one in February focused on the highway west of Campbell River toward Gold River.
Gazetas was last seen Jan. 31 leaving his Courtenay home in his red Ford Ranger pickup. The search yielded little information, beyond the odd clue such as a service vehicle that seemed to be on the same stretch of road around the same time Gazetas was presumed to be driving. The official search was stood down following the second weekend of the effort.
There were ground crews looking for some sign. In addition, there were aerial searches, and what they have now is a massive collection of high-resolution photographs taken from helicopters. Friends and family had raised thousands of dollars to pay for helicopter flights to help narrow down potential locations on Vancouver Island where Gazetas might have gone.
Jay Pretula, one of Gazetas’s friends from the Lower Mainland, has been co-ordinating the efforts of many people to scour through the images for some sign of where Gazetas might have gone.
“It was a mountainous task that we chose to take on, but we felt we wanted to do it properly,” he said.
In all, he estimates they have about 17 hours of helicopter flight time, including about 12 hours from the privately funded search. Gold River RCMP and Campbell River SAR received a tip they needed to check, and Pretula said they were able to comb through the footage to find a couple of “noteworthy items” to send to the SAR, who passed it onto RCMP. The likelihood of it as an “item of actual interest” was seen to be low, but the authorities wanted to check in any case.
“They went up into the air as well to check some of the places they wanted to check … just so they could cross it off,” he said.
In all, Pretula said there are thousands of images to go through to look for clues such as the red truck.
“We’ve been scouring the imagery for red items … but we didn’t exclude any other objects,” he said.
This could include anything from a cabin to a container – anything that might be a sign – though Gazetas’s Ford Ranger has been the focal point.
“Everything right now is still about that truck,” he added.
As of late February, they had almost 240 people volunteering their time to go through the images. The intention was to have at least two sets of eyes to look through every folder. Their first helicopter flight alone generated about 12,000 images.
“We’re going to have viewed just about 65,000 images when we’re finished,” he said. “It’s a lot of imagery, and we’ve parsed it out as best we can to people…. It’s a lot of data to go through.”
As well, the organizers held a town hall meeting in Vancouver at the beginning of March to inform people in the Lower Mainland taking part in the effort on the current status.
“People have questions, and lots of them are good questions, but they’re the questions we answered fairly early on in our search,” he said. “There’s a lot of those questions that seem to persist.”
Some people have also joined since the effort began, so this meeting allowed organizers the opportunity to bring people up to date.
Pretula said they will take all the tips that come back and prioritize them for significance that could lead to start up the helicopter searches again.
“We don’t want to give up just yet,” he added. “It may be a waiting game, depending on what we find.”