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Family, friends, strangers kept their faith during search for Darlington woman

Before Melissa Lehew’s body was found around 1 p.m. Monday near the Churchville Quarry lake, friends, family and strangers had spent much of the morning searching for her in nearby Broad Run that flows into James Run.

Lehew, a 34-year-old mother of four from Darlington, was swept away by raging floodwaters during Friday night’s storm while she and her boyfriend, Kyle Bowman, tried to help a stranded driver.

About two dozen people gathered at a church on Calvary Road early Monday before starting their search, organized by Brian Malcolm, an associate pastor at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, where Lehew had been attending since the beginning of the summer.

Joining the search were Bowman, his friends, his parents, members of Mount Zion and others who had heard about it on social media and wanted to help.

“We’re praying for a miracle,” Malcolm said before the search, done with the approval of Maryland State Police, who had been leading the search and rescue efforts since Friday’s storm.

The volunteers joined and split up into groups to cover as much of James Run as possible.

“It’s a longshot, but it’s all we have,” Liz Bowman, Kyle’s mother, said.

It had been nearly three days since Lehew had disappeared on Friday, which added a sense of urgency to the search, Malcolm said.

“We’re just trying to find her and bring her home safe and we’re just praying for that miracle,” he said. “She risked her life to save others so we just owe that to her to give back to her as well.”

As the group split up, Bowman and a friend went to kayak along James Run.

After several hours along the creek without finding anything, they came ashore. Bowman said he could always go back and look again.

“Anything is possible,” Bowman said. “But it just didn’t look good when she was washed down the creek.”

“We’re just praying that we find her,” he said. “And we’re also praying for the first responders who are risking their lives, too. They’re very risky situations and we appreciate what they’re doing.”

Another group had started at James Run across from the quarry, hiking along the twists and turns of the creek bed to Nova Scotia Road.

Armed with hiking sticks, machetes and other tools, they spread out on both sides of the creek, criss-crossing when the terrain was too rough on one side.

They used their sticks to poke in the deep pockets of water, under piles of debris or under rock formations to see if Lehew had been washed that far.

Bowman’s father, Lawrence Bowman, is an avid hunter and had walked through woods numerous times, but never on a search like the one he was on Monday.

“You’re just trying to do the best you can,” Lawrence Bowman said as he walked along the banks where vegetation was flattened by the raging water and debris was stuck up against rocks and other trees.

The breadth and depth of the damage was obvious.

Volunteer Lance Lader put his cheek against a tree about 5 feet up the trunk.

“When it’s cold to the cheek, that means it got wet,” Lader said.

Lader lives nearby James Run, about 10 houses up. He felt it important to help with Monday’s search.

“I would want people to come and help look [if it were one of my sons or daughter that was missing],” Lader said.

He’s familiar with woods and creeks and has hiked several portions of the Appalachian Trail. He and his sister learned survival skills from his father, an Army ranger.

He didn’t think Lehew’s body traveled so far downstream, given all the debris, tree trunks and rock formations that could have easily held up, or down, a body. Nevertheless, he continued to help search.

“You’ve got to look everywhere,” he said.

Searchers found everything, but Lehew’s body. Bottles, cans, clothes and pieces of a shredded boat were scattered along the shorelines.

The owner of property that James Run flows through said a large boulder, about the size of a pickup truck, had been moved about 40 feet by the water.

Twelve-year-old Nick Heiger wanted to go fishing Monday. But his father, Craig, suggested they do something “more beneficial for our karma,” Craig Heiger said.

“We saw it on the news,” Heiger, who lives in Fallston, said. “It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? If it happened to anyone I know, I would appreciate it if others helped.”

Nick, a seventh-grader at Fallston Middle School, is the outdoorsman of the family and he hiked along the more treacherous rock formations like a pro. He poked and prodded a snake he found in the water, then jumped when it moved a little closer to him.

Their search wasn’t successful, but Bowman and his family appreciated the help.

“It was a tremendous testament to how people loved her and are committed to helping other people,” Liz Bowman said. “We weren’t successful in our search, but we are grateful.”

Shed help anyone

Bowman described his girlfriend as a “great person.”

“She was very selfless. She’d help anyone she could,” he said.

He was trying to sell her house to buy property where she could open a camp or shelter for homeless people.

“She wanted to help as many people as she could,” Bowman said.

His mother, Liz Bowman, said Lehew was a beautiful girl.

“She only wanted to help people,” Liz Bowman said. “She had a great personality and was giving, loving.”

Malcolm, the director of special needs ministries at Mount Zion, said Lehew was full of life and he had been getting to know her since she joined the church at the beginning of the summer.

Lehew had some struggles in life, including addiction, Malcolm said.

Bowman said he met Lehew when they were both seeking therapy for their addictions and he attended Mount Zion with her.

Also a recovering addict, Malcolm said a significant portion of the Mount Zion congregation has been touched by addiction, one reason Lehew joined.

Hannah McLaughlin, the daughter of Mount Zion Pastor Craig McLaughlin, died of a heroin overdose in March 2014. Since then, McLaughlin and his wife have become staunch supporters in the fight against the heroin epidemic that is plaguing Harford and elsewhere.

On Aug. 23, the Harford County Department of Social Services filed a petition for child support against Lehew, and on Sept. 5 she was scheduled to appear in Harford County District Court to face charges of driving with a revoked license, according to court records.

She was scheduled for a Sept. 13 district court hearing for a probation violation related to a conviction for trespassing last year. The terms of her probation included beginning a “substance abuse program,” court records state.

She was scheduled for a hearing on Oct. 22 in Harford for a violation of probation related to a neglect of minor charge dating to Jan. 13, 2016. She pleaded guilty on March 1, 2017 and was sentenced to four years and six months with all of it but nine months suspended. The neglect of minor charge was from Jan. 13, 2016.

On May 29, 2015 she pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol while transporting a minor.

Despite her struggles, Lehew was “vibrant, a really, really strong woman, a wife, a mom of four, recently separated who loved life,” Malcolm said.

She also loved sports and was really active. She attended Mount Zion on Sunday nights, he said, and everyone has just gotten to know her really well.

Finally found

After searching their respective areas, many of the searchers regrouped back at the church on Calvary Road for a prayer.

Once they concluded, Bowman and his friend drove their kayaks to the spot on James Run Road where search crews had been putting their search vessels and other equipment in the water of the quarry lake the day before.

“They weren’t in there 10 minutes and they found her,” Malcolm said. “It was that quick.”

Malcolm said he knows Bowman was devastated, but thinks finding Lehew’s body “brings some peace to the whole situation.”

McLaughlin, the Mount Zion pastor, came down to where Bowman was.

“We had a chance to pray over the body and pray with the family,” Malcolm said. “It’s devastating to hear she’s gone, but she’s a Christian and she did know the Lord. You can’t ge too upset because she’s in heaven with the King of kings. So there’s something to rejoice about.”

Bowman said he’s glad he’s the one who found her.

“I felt like I was partly responsible for what happened, that I had an obligation to find her,” he said. “This gives me some closure that I know what happened to her. The whole process is over and we can start the grieving process.”

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