Later that week, in a video now viewed tens of thousands of times, Jada Brooke fanned the flames. She’d spoken to a family member of Dylan’s, she said, who was “on our side and agrees that something’s not right here.” “I had a vision of him being kicked down a set of stairs … That was actually verified to me,” she told viewers, providing no evidence. She said she’d had a vision of a shallow grave between two trees, 5 or 6 feet apart, on a property that also held a red and white truck. That led a Truro resident named Dawn to a field that held a red and white horse trailer. Inspired, a band of residents broke into the trailer. They found a pile of dry hay, which Brooke called suspicious for its lack of mold. Brooke triumphantly pointed out that the trailer, which sat in front of a stand of trees, was proof her vision had been accurate. “If I go quiet or something in the group for a while, just remember, I have six kids of my own, I home-school four. I’m a very involved mother. My kids don’t go missing, you know what I mean?”
The abuse spilled beyond accusations about the couple’s parenting. Jason received scam ransom notes from online trolls; one included a doctored picture of Dylan’s face, battered with bruises over his right eye and a deep gash on his lip. “You must transfer 3 bitcoins,” the message read, “within 72 hours.” The sender, a Facebook account under the name Brad, told Jason he’d release his son once the transfer was made, and if he didn’t, he’d never see him again. “You have 3 days to save Dylan’s life,” he wrote.
After six days, with no new evidence—no footprints or debris or credible sightings—the police called off their search. Nothing but rain boots. But Jason didn’t stop. He walked the creek bed day after day, drawing dozens of locals to help. The GoFundMe page would raise about $12,500 for the family. Ashley and Jason offered it up as a reward for any information.
Jason handed out lapel pins, a blue ribbon and a green ribbon intertwined. He gave away key chains bearing his son’s face. He ordered bumper stickers of Dylan looking upward, mismatched eyes scanning the sky. “Do you want some swag?” he asked me sadly, the first time we met. He handed me a green and blue bracelet and a sticker. Maybe, he said, if I put it on my car back home, two provinces over, someone there would see it and call in a sighting.
In Canada, parents receive a benefit if one of their children goes missing or dies in a likely crime. Because local police didn’t label the incident a crime, Ashley and Jason didn’t qualify. “No one gives you a pamphlet on how to be a missing child’s mother,” Ashley says. By October, with the province’s lockdown lifted and the dealership fully open again, she went back to work.
For months, Facebook group members examined the case’s scant evidence, gnashing details like bolts of hardening chewing gum. It was a dizzying, dystopian fun house of rumor and speculation. Theories raged: To many, the grandmother’s story didn’t track. Others believed she was covering for her daughter. That the family was collecting money on a GoFundMe page meant they’d gotten rid of Dylan because they needed the money—for booze or drugs or both. At one point, the groups’ ranks topped 23,000 people, the same as the entire population of Truro.
By the end of September 2020, the harassment and threats had gotten so bad that one group member began to research the laws that govern cyberbullying in the province and even contacted a local lawyer named Allison Harris. Harris knew about the missing boy—Dylan’s story was in the news for weeks after his disappearance—but she was shocked to learn about the abuse the online sleuthing community had spawned. Just a year and a half out of law school, Harris exudes an air of utter unflappability. She speaks in clipped, exacting sentences, and even her smile seems precise when it reveals a perfectly centered gap between her front teeth. Harris was one of just two lawyers in the province who had argued online personal injury cases in court. She told the group member to have Ashley and Jason get in touch and, after hearing their story, offered her services pro bono.
Together the three of them set to work documenting thousands of abusive screenshots, hundreds of awful messages, dozens of death threats. They wrote letters to the administrators of two of the Facebook groups, asking them to shut down. At first, both refused, though one changed her mind after becoming the target of a harassment campaign within her own group. “This case has surprised me,” Harris says. “Instead of appreciating that they’re doing damage and harm, they seem to feel they have a right to have these groups.” (Still, the groups were like a hydra: When one shut down, Ashley and Jason’s most vocal detractors simply started others under untraceable noms de plume like “Holiday Precious.”)
The administrators of the second group were local Truro residents: a couple named April Moulton and Tom Hurley who lived down the road from the backyard where Dylan was last seen. Moulton, who has dyed red hair and Cheshire-cat eyes, was certain she was doing critical work, her stout hands weighed down with silver rings on almost every finger as she examined the minutiae of the case, parsing rumored fiction from rumored fact, Hurley shuffling back and forth behind her. They didn’t know Jason or Ashley before Dylan’s story hit headlines, but they emerged as two of the most vocal proponents demanding justice for the boy. They knew as well as anyone what it was to lose a child.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/search-missing-boy-dylan-ehler-nova-scotia