The disappearance of Denise

Denise Thiem, an American woman of Chinese descent, was last seen in Astorga on April 5th this year, when she told a fellow pilgrim she wanted to look around a bit and then move on. Neither pilgrims nor her family have seen or heard from her since. The police have searched for her in the local area, but until now there has not been any concrete news.

Of course there has been speculation – did she get kidnapped, walk off the trail and have a fatal accident, has she taken some time off somewhere or even run away from a stifling life or family? I first heard of this when her brother Cedric appealed to the pilgrim forum for help. I must admit I was one of the people who advised caution when he asked the pilgrim community for information about Denise, when we had no idea who he was (he could have just claimed to be her brother) and suggested that if anyone met her, they should instead ask her to get in touch with her family. You might wonder why I and a few others reacted like that when someone come to us in distress. I have had some experience with people needing to remove themselves from a negative environment and I know that sometimes people want to keep tabs on others for the wrong reasons. What made me slightly worried was that her brother had checked her email and bank accounts, and I don’t know anyone who would let their siblings have access to those kinds of things. But then maybe she had no password protection on her PC, or maybe her account passwords were stored on the machine so anyone who opened it could log on. Or maybe they really were that close that she left him the information to deal with her banking while she was away – I don’t know. As it was, the fact that he had this access proved very useful as he could tell the authorities when she last sent an email or got money out.

Days and weeks went by and Denise was still missing. The police seemed to be stuck, and even though the pilgrim community helped look for her on the way as well as searching the area where she disappeared, as far as we know not a single clue was found. Then there was a news story about the attempted kidnap of a woman from a village not far from where Denise went missing. And stories about pilgrims being tasered and robbed, both male and female. Female solo pilgrims started getting scared of the stretch out of Astorga, as it is quite isolated in parts, and the path follows the road in others. What would a woman do if a car stopped and two men wanted to pull her in? They started walking in pairs or groups, and the police even recommended they walk in groups of four with at least one male pilgrim. This might prevent other women from disappearing – but it didn’t stop the worry or find Denise.

Yesterday there was news. Today even more. Apparently 300 army and police personnel are in the Astorga area, and the first bit of news was that they would be looking through all the 100+ wells in the area. It also turns out the police have a suspect whom they have been keeping under surveillance, but who is now missing. Today we were told (on the forum, by a journalist who lives on the Camino) that the police are showing photos of the suspect and warning that he might be travelling as a pilgrim with dual Spanish and Irish ID. Though I am glad to hear there is progress, the idea that the suspect could be travelling amongst solo peregrinas who have been told to group up with male pilgrims, makes me a bit uneasy. Especially since I will be one of those solo peregrinas starting from Astorga very soon …

I will not be afraid, that will only serve to ruin my Camino. I will think of Denise and take precautions. I will make sure I always have more than one pilgrim in view. I will check that my whistle work before I go. I will not put my iPod on, but keep alert to sounds of people and cars. If I see peregrinas who are afraid, I will walk with them or keep them in my sight. I will walk my Camino and I will enjoy it, and I will keep an eye on the news. (I’m not afraid to use the handles of my Pacerpoles to whack someone on the head either.)

Until Denise is found, there will be a certain amount of worry amongst the women walking the Camino. Some have probably skipped that section, others could have chosen to walk a different Camino or a different section. Some might have decided to drop it altogether – we will never know for sure. For me walking now is taking a stand against fear, against all men who treat women as prey in any way, against the belief that if a woman gets attacked or insulted, she is somehow to blame for getting herself into that situation. I will walk, I will be safe, and I will be thinking of Denise and hoping that this case will soon be solved.

EDIT: This afternoon the news came that a suspect had been arrested in this case, and tonight the Spanish press reported the news that we had all been dreading; Denise’s body has been found. May she rest in peace and her family find strength to deal with the pain of certainty.

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