A Maine State Police trooper failed to follow department policy when he made no effort to contact the owners of an SUV parked along Interstate 295 and did not inventory the vehicle’s contents before he ordered it towed and impounded, potentially delaying the search for a woman who remains missing more than a week later.

Anneliese Heinig Courtesy photo

Cpl. Fern Cloutier discovered the 2008 Mercury Mariner that had been driven by Anneliese Heinig, a 37-year-old mother of two, in the breakdown lane of I-295 north at about 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 26. Cloutier conducted “a quick check” of the SUV and the surrounding area before he headed back out on patrol, according to a statement released by Maine State Police on Thursday night.

He ordered it to be towed later that day, again without taking inventory of the car’s contents or calling the owners. The vehicle is owned by Heinig’s parents, who have said they would have known something was wrong and initiated a search if they had been called that day.

Heinig’s parents would learn their daughter was missing two days later when she didn’t show up at a Thanksgiving dinner. It’s unclear what impact the delay had on the investigation into Heinig’s disappearance.

A state police spokesman said Thursday that, despite the written policy, troopers in many cases do not attempt to contact vehicle owners because of the volume of vehicles left along roadways. The policy also provides that locked vehicles do not have to be inventoried, “but the fact and reason why the vehicle was not inventoried must be documented.”

“The state police policy on abandoned vehicles does encourage contact with a registered owner, but many times that does not take place, primarily because of the sheer volume of vehicles left along the roadways,” Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said in the statement. “In this case, state police did not attempt to contact the owners, nor did we conduct an inventory of the vehicle’s contents.”

McCausland said troopers respond to more than 6,000 aid-to-motorist calls annually, or roughly 16 calls per day statewide on average, and that typically, troopers allow time for the driver or owner of a car to return to the vehicle or make arrangements to remove it.

A passing motorist saw Heinig, who lives in Richmond, walking away from the SUV at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 26. She had left her keys, wallet and cellphone inside the vehicle. It was the last known sighting of Heinig, and since then, multiple agencies have scoured the Presumpscot River in Falmouth near where the vehicle was parked, looking for any signs of her.

Maine State Police divers and game wardens using boats with sonar searched a section of the Presumpscot River on Wednesday, but found no trace of Heinig. The search continued Thursday morning using an airplane that flew over the area for several hours during low tide.

Written state police policy says troopers should contact the owners of vehicles they discover on the roadside and inventory the contents of the vehicle before ordering it towed, with some narrow exceptions. But Cloutier made no attempt to contact the registered owner – Christopher Heinig, Anneliese’s father, of Harpswell.

Had Cloutier performed a cursory Google search, he would have found an accurate home phone number for Heinig’s parents, and the effort to locate Heinig could have been initiated immediately.

McCausland said state police officials interviewed Cloutier about the incident, but McCausland could not provide an explanation for why Cloutier did not attempt to call the SUV’s owners. McCausland also said he did not know whether any of the officials asked Cloutier why he did not call, or whether he looked inside the vehicle.

McCausland said Cloutier made no mention of the wallet, keys and cellphone that were later found inside, and McCausland refused to generally describe Cloutier’s recollections about his actions involving the vehicle.

After a vehicle is towed, the license plate number and information about which tow company stored the vehicle is kept on a tow list. In many cases, it is up to motorists or other police agencies to call the state police dispatch center in Augusta to inquire if a specific vehicle has been impounded and where it is.

After Cloutier left the area that morning and went back out on patrol, he passed the vehicle again a couple of times during his shift, but he did not take any action until about 1:30 p.m. when a Department of Transportation employee complained about the SUV and asked whether it could be removed.

“Corporal Cloutier … decided to have the vehicle towed as enough time had passed for the operator or owner to have made their own arrangements coupled with the fact that it was now later in the afternoon and the vehicle could present a hazard when commuter traffic increased,” McCausland said.

Falmouth police Lt. Frank Soule looks out on the Presumpscot River from the bridge on Route 9 in Falmouth on Wednesday as the search continued for Anneliese Heinig. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Often, when the trooper arrives, the vehicle has been left unattended on the side of the road. The trooper will generally give a quick look over the inside and outside of the vehicle and the surrounding area. At that point the trooper exercises discretion in determining whether to leave the vehicle on the side of the road or to have it removed.

“Several factors are used in making that decision such as, the time of day, road and weather conditions, traffic flow, where in the road the vehicle is left, and hazards due to visibility.”

State police had refused to answer repeated questions this week about how and why the vehicle was towed until they released the statement Thursday – but some questions still remain unanswered.

McCausland could not say whether Richmond police, when notified Heinig was missing, called state police dispatchers to ask whether Heinig’s vehicle was on the tow list.

But it appears that Richmond police did not know that Maine State Police had interacted with the vehicle. Heinig’s family posted online Nov. 30, two days after they reported Heinig missing, that investigators pinged her phone, which led them to a towing company in South Portland that had the Mercury SUV in its lot all along.

On Thursday night, Falmouth police said the search will continue for the foreseeable future with Maine Marine Patrol remaining as the primary presence in the Presumpscot River area. The marine patrol also will continue to fly aircraft over the area during times of favorable visibility.

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