A billboard on the road to Conway, N.H., posts missing teen Abigail Hernandez, Tuesday July 22, 2014, in Conway, N.H.AP
CONWAY (AP) – After a 15-year-old girl returned safely to her family nine months after vanishing on the way home from school, townspeople who searched and prayed that she would return are relieved — and looking for answers about where she's been and how she got home.
State Attorney General Joseph Foster said Abigail Hernandez was reunited with her family Sunday, and so far, her return is cloaked in just as much mystery as her Oct. 9 disappearance after leaving Kennett High School in Conway.
The family has asked for privacy, but in a brief statement, Foster said Abigail's mother, Zenya Hernandez, said "today we are the happiest people on earth."
At The Naked Bohemian gift shop in North Conway on Tuesday, owner Joe Downs used a black magic marker to write "Found" over a missing-persons poster bearing a photo of Abigail's face.
"I'm glad to see she's home in one piece," he said. "Hopefully, her life gets back to normal, she goes back to school and everything's good."
Police said Abigail left school at the normal time and walked the usual route toward her house that October day, sending several texts between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. But she never made it home.
Police revealed several months ago that she had written home to her mother. When the letter surfaced, FBI agent Kieran Ramsey said there was the possibility that Abigail, who turned 15 a week after disappearing, had run away but that someone could be coercing her into staying away. Police have not revealed the contents of the letter.
Foster said the criminal investigation into Abigail's disappearance will continue. After she vanished, police consistently said they had no evidence to suggest anything suspicious and were treating her disappearance as a missing-person's case. In Conway, rescuers fanned out for days over the heavily forested terrain that surrounds the town house where Hernandez lives with her mother. Police also searched by air, stopped traffic and handed out fliers, and used boats on the Saco River and Pudding Pond.
When questioned over the months about the scope of the search, law enforcement said it was appropriate to try to recover a missing child.
Downs remembers the effect the disappearance had on the community and said people here deserve some answers. The thought that someone could snatch a child sent shudders down the spines of people in the northern New Hampshire town that relies heavily on family-oriented tourism.
"I don't know how much this cost the town but somebody should come clean about what happened," he said of the heavy law enforcement effort. "They didn't find her; she came home on her own, from what I know."
"I want to know where she was, where she's been for nine months," Downs said. "It should have been figured out. Everybody wants to know the truth."
Police Chief Edward Wagner said the search cost his department more than $20,000, a third of his annual overtime budget, and that didn't include hours worked by officers who don't get overtime.
At the school on Tuesday, Principal Neal Moylan pulled together summer school students to see how they were handling the news.
"These are young people who've gone through a whole range of emotions this past year," Moylan said.
"Everybody wonders what's going on," Moylan said. "We're patient. We're going to stay out of the way and let the professionals do their job and when it's time for us to do our job, we'll be here."