It takes a village
Community effort leads to finding 16-year old Connor Hoff
They turned out to help a heart-broken mother. They turned out because, as one person put it, it was “Every parent’s worst nightmare.” They turned out because a child was missing, and no one knew where he was or whether he was safe.
That was on Tuesday night. A day later, 16-year-old Connor Hoff, who had been missing since June 17, was found alive and OK in Utah. The family and police are not yet releasing details of what was behind Connor’s disappearance, nor are they revealing under what circumstances he was found. That will come later, they said.
As of Wednesday, Connor was still in Utah in protective custody waiting for his family to come get him.
For those who had not heard of Connor’s disappearance or the communitywide effort to locate him, it was remarkable.
Connor’s mother, Tammy Hoff, reached out to friends in the community and soon Connor Hoff’s missing signs were along every street and road in Ocala/Marion County. Gas pump video screens showed his picture to thousands of customers in the region, and computer experts – Connor was a sophisticated gamer and computer user – went through the teen’s phone and computer looking for clues.
Tuesday night a community meeting was held in downtown Ocala and drew dozens of people offering to help join the search effort and expand it further.
Tammy Hoff told the Gazette the ordeal had been difficult. She said she was convinced Connor had been “coerced” by someone online to leave. When he left, he posted a note on his grandfather’s door saying he would be back when he was 18, that he needed to go find himself.
A neighbor reported seeing Connor get into a blue car, and that was the last anyone had seen of him until Wednesday.
“Parents need to know there are phone numbers out there that are untraceable,” Tammy Hoff said. “They need to know there are apps out there that are untraceable.”
She said she had noticed Connor exhibiting strange behaviors leading up to his disappearance but did not know what was causing them. He was on the computer a lot more. He became more distant.
But on Wednesday, Connor was found in Utah. Again, authorities and the family are not releasing details, but they are cheering the community’s rallying to the search effort.
Hundreds of signs were posted. Thousands of fliers were handed out. Online posts were updated with regularity.
“The community effort was amazing,” said Laurie Zink, a family friend who was speaking on behalf of Tammy Hoff after Connor being found. “People put up fliers, put out signs. Other people drove all over – Lakeland and Tampa, all over.
But all along Tammy Hoff and Ocala Police Department Detective Dan Collier, who was investigating the boy’s disappearance, believed the answer to the mystery was in Connor’s computer or phone, which reportedly had been swept clean.
When after a month police and others had had no luck finding the answer they were looking for, Zink said a number of “very high-tech, very advanced young people, came together to help detectives.”
In the end, these young people who Zink described as sophisticated gamers and computer geeks were able to find things in the computers that OPD and others had not been able to find, and their findings led to locating Connor.
It was a tale of a community coming together, Zink said.
“The kids would not have gotten involved if they hadn’t seen what the rest of the community did,” she said.
“This same community now needs to allow this family time to heal so we can all learn from this experience.”