Helen Banach realizes that her baby sister could be anywhere in South Carolina, but she refuses to sit and stew over the thought.
With her dog, the Summerville woman has traipsed through the woods of West Ashley more than two dozen times, looking for any sign of Gayle McCaffrey, who disappeared two months ago. Banach's skin is pocked with the chigger bites to prove it.
She adheres a cardboard sign to her car's windows, apologizing in black ink for trespassing on landowners' property.
“I can't wait for the next official search party,” Banach said. “So I do whatever I can to find her. I can't give up.”
Like her, detectives looking into the case lose sleep. Their thoughts are consumed as they dedicate their working hours to the case. The matter has become personal for Sheriff Al Cannon, who embarks on his own solo expeditions along S.C. Highway 61.
That's why it perplexes family members that the missing woman's husband, Bob McCaffrey, hasn't again spoken with investigators. For the first time, relatives who have long publicly supported McCaffrey are expressing that consternation.
Instead, those trying to determine what happened to the woman who is presumed dead are left to rely on physical evidence, which sheriff's officials have admitted is sparse.
“We understand that a suspect has rights, but my sister has rights too,” Banach said. “She doesn't deserve to be lying in a field somewhere like a piece of garbage, covered in leaves and bugs.”
Banach appealed to McCaffrey, who is considered the suspect in a homicide case, in hopes that he would step forward.
The 40-year-old carpenter comes and goes from the Lowcountry, but he spends most days in Brevard, N.C., where he is renovating a relative's house. He visits his two children on the weekends, and sheriff's officials said they have contacted him often with interview requests.
His attorney, Chris Lizzi, told The Post and Courier in early May that he offered his client for questioning. Lizzi could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“We've asked for him to come talk to us,” sheriff's Maj. Jim Brady said. “He has not been presented. He has not cooperated.”
Family problems The portrayal of Bob McCaffrey as a killer has opened fissures in a normally close-knit family. Contacted Tuesday, a relative said those who support him are a “small contingent,” and because of that, the woman asked not to be identified.
“I continue to love Bob,” she said. “I can't help but to think that he wasn't involved. So we can't deny him access to his children or treat him like he's not part of the family.”
Relatives on Tuesday offered few additional details about the disappearance.
The couple had a disagreement during a St. Patrick's Day meal. Relatives said it was over a phone call from a Bob McCaffrey “love interest,” a Greenville County woman with whom he had been exchanging text messages, emails and phone calls for at least a month.
“My sister was in tears because he was texting and talking to her constantly,” Banach said. “But she thought it was just going to blow over, that it was a mistake and everything would get back to normal.”
That evening, something prompted McCaffrey to make a trip to the Upstate to see the woman, but she would not see him.
En route home, McCaffrey was ticketed for speeding in Travelers Rest, where a police officer noted in a report that McCaffrey was speaking on a cellphone with someone whom he referred to as “dude.”
Investigators have identified the caller, but they won't publicly disclose a name.
Relatives said the caller wasn't his 36-year-old wife. McCaffrey did send her text messages on the night of the disappearance, but they went unanswered.
When he returned to his Limestone Boulevard house, McCaffrey said his wife was gone. Her wedding ring, cellphone, Jeep and two children were left alone.
A note, which was later determined to be bogus, said she had left to be with another man.
McCaffrey reported his wife missing 12 hours later, and only after prodding. Relatives said he first consulted with his father, a retired police officer who lives in the Outer Banks.
“My aunt called me, and she was reading the goodbye note to me,” Banach said. “I stopped her five lines in and said that this is wrong and that if he doesn't call the police, I'm going to.”
Dealing with tragedy In the past two months, relatives have picked up the pieces of a life that once was and tried to make sense of how it likely ended. They have contacted two psychic mediums, both of whom said Gayle McCaffrey is resting in a forest.
Her office at The Citadel, where she worked as the director of facilities finance, was cleared out and stuffed into two boxes this week. School officials had left the room untouched for two months, hoping for her return.
A sweater remained draped over her chair and the packages of Ramen noodles she often ate for lunch were still in drawers.
The couple's children, 5 and 11, cope with the loss in different ways, family members have said.
The youngest knows his mother is gone and that the police are looking for her. The eldest thinks she deliberately left them.
The youngsters visit counselors, who reportedly are torn about what comfort to offer them, because so much about their mother is unknown.
“That makes me sad,” Banach said, alluding to her sister's background in the Baptist church. “But I tell them she's in heaven now and how happy she is up there. And that she's definitely singing in the choir and ringing her bells.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.