EVANSDALE, Iowa — Gary McGowan lives in Bozeman, Mont. He has never visited the Cedar Valley.
But he watched a small Facebook discussion group turn into a nonstop army of action to find two young girls missing from Evansdale.
He didn’t realize the power of the social networking website until he joined the effort after seeing a Waterloo friend post a picture of cousins Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins in July.
“I just wish — and everyone wishes — it would have netted the results we wanted,” McGowan said.
Authorities say they are confident that two bodies found Wednesday in rural Bremer County are those of Lyric and Elizabeth.
“For the onlookers, it was a very dramatic day,” he said. “I can’t express how bad it feels to have all the momentum come to a stop the way it did. Realistically, you knew the good news or the bad news was eventually going to come and hit us, but it felt too surreal.
“It was like a worst-case scenario that some people had thought of, but it went unspoken,” he added. “Or people just refused to allow themselves to think it.”
Facebook group pages have become forums for people around the world, including strangers and former residents, to offer prayers or condolences.
By Friday morning, nearly 6,000 had clicked “Like” on a new page titled “Rest in Peace Lyric Cook Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins.” Other groups now are calling for justice.
McGowan helps oversee “Leave no Stone unturned, Bring home Liz and Lyric Discussion Group,” which has more than 3,500 members and is among the largest pages.
The group was established soon after the girls vanished and previously served as a place to spread the word, voice emotions, swap theories, organize fundraising and awareness events and learn news updates. McGowan forwarded unusual posts or seemingly inside information to local, state and federal investigators.
“People added faith and hope,” he said. “Because of that, it triggered a life stream of its own. It became its own body, and we were able to organize and mobilize people everywhere.”
That unity continued to fuel the operation until the apparent end. In mid-November, McGowan logged onto the Greater Cedar Valley Chamber of Commerce website and emailed more than 500 businesses, asking them to commit to keeping the girls’ faces in the public eye. About 30 responded. Also, more than 100,000 fliers were set to go out this month.
Sara Kipp of Waterloo, another administrator of the group, met Elizabeth’s parents, Drew and Heather Collins, for the first time while organizing awareness events.
They have become good friends, Kipp said. She spent most of Wednesday evening with the Collinses and Lyric’s mom, Misty Cook-Morrissey, at Countryside Vineyard Church. Kipp has a son, Joshua, 13, not much older than Lyric, which compelled her to help.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “We did good things, and we kept people’s eyes open to the possibility that they could be out there. Hopefully, still that message is keep your eyes open and be aware of anything strange.”
Another group, “Honor The Safe Return of Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook,” is run in part by Lisa Bertch-Lindholm and her daughter, Nikki Schlarmann. More than 50 have requested to join since the possible break in the case was announced Wednesday. That group’s total stood at 3,599 as of Friday morning.
“I’m very grateful to Facebook to be able to carry messages for everyone,” Bertch-Lindholm said. “Without it, I don’t think it would’ve happened to the intensity and degree that it has. The community just made this so much of their own life. It’s affected everybody because it’s children and it’s Evansdale. Nobody goes missing in Evansdale.”
Bertch-Lindholm was married to Russ, the half-brother of Heather Collins and Misty Cook-Morrissey, for several years, and she remains close with the family.
“It just really has brought not just this community together, but other communities, as well,” she added. “And heightened awareness in the safety for children.”
McGowan, who has a 7-year-old daughter, agrees. At the beginning of the school year, he asked a local school principal to consider teaching safety to students. Then in October, a man who lived about 20 miles west of Bozeman was charged with kidnapping and assaulting an 11-year-old girl in Wyoming after allegedly luring her to his car to help find a missing puppy.
“It gave me new ammunition to go back into his office and say, ‘This needs to be handled right now,’” he said. “So, it was.”
Bertch-Lindholm expects the sounding boards to continue with the Evansdale case.
“To me, it’s not over because they haven’t found the person,” she said. “Hopefully, they get enough evidence where they found the girls, and if not, somebody will post something on Facebook that will provoke something that will lead to something else. That’s kind of how it happens.”
McGowan believes the Collinses’ bravery and courage, as evidenced by Heather’s Facebook posts, have driven volunteers to go the extra mile.
“Their appearances and their vigilance in the darkest hour, it’s impossible for people to not be inspired by that,” he said.
“Because of their tragedy, they went to war for Iowa’s children,” he added. “They covered the state creating awareness. They took the high road, and they went to go fight for everyone else’s children, and along the way delivered fliers to bring home their own.”