Dylan Ehler came into the world running. He pummeled and squirmed his way through his mom’s pregnancy, kicked the hell out of her in the womb. He was a boy in constant motion. He moved when he slept. Almost as soon as he was crawling he was climbing. His parents—Ashley Brown and Jason Ehler—would walk into their living room, in a gray-green house in a place called Bible Hill near the town of Truro in Nova Scotia, to find him perched on the windowsill, grasping at the ledge above.
When they brought Dylan home from the hospital, the three of them slept curled together on the sectional, bunking down in the living room. By his third birthday, he was still getting up in the night to crawl into bed with his parents. Dylan had bright, round, rosy cheeks and mussy, brown hair when it wasn’t buzzed short. He had one hazel eye and one that was half-hazel, half-blue. The only words he could say were “mama” and “dada,” but he found other ways to speak. He’d taken to sliding his hand into his dad’s and, with a gentle tug, leading him around the house that way.
In the weeks after his third birthday, in April 2020, the atmosphere in the family’s gray-green semi-detached was tense. The town was in lockdown from the pandemic, and Ashley and Jason both lost their jobs. Money was tighter than usual, and it was usually pretty tight. They were in an ongoing battle with the neighbors; Jason says they thought he was repeatedly egging their house. Lily, Ashley’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, was in school remotely, which meant she was home all day. And Dylan was Dylan, running around the house with a smile, blink-and-you’d-miss-him like always.
Three-quarters of Nova Scotia is blanketed by gnarled firs, spruce, and pines, vegetation so wild and dense that for years the province held the title of lost-person capital of North America. Truro sits at the innermost point of an inlet off of Cobequid Bay, which in turn is an offshoot of the Bay of Fundy, a body of water governed by the highest tides on the planet and home to one of the most comprehensive fossil records in the world; 300 million years of life are imprinted on its shoreline cliffs.
The town is best known for being the headquarters of one of the world’s oldest underwear factories; it is a quiet, pastoral kind of place that offers little by way of excitement but ambling Holsteins. So in the early months of the pandemic, 32-year-old Ashley joined TikTok, the app she’d seen all over social media, as an escape. When she had time, she’d upload the clips in batches. She posted a video of her swaying in a hoodie and baseball cap, backlit in red, to a Nelly song. In another, soundtracked by the trap hit “What’s Poppin,” she blows puffs of smoke from a joint toward the camera. “I’m gonna get you high today,” she riffs in a third. In one clip, Dylan sits beside her, smiling widely: “You ever just look at somebody,” she mouths along to the meme, “and think to yourself, ‘this motherfucker is going to be the reason I go to jail?’”
One April afternoon she stood in the kitchen and pulled the phone in close, her brown bangs falling across her forehead. A TikTok filter called Euphoric Makeup swept deep purple across her eyes and sharply contoured her cheekbones. In the years since the Disney movie Frozen had come out, more than 100,000 people had participated in a popular, if sinister, meme that had made its way to TikTok, a parody of the movie’s song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” Ashley began to sing along: “Will you help me hide a body?” a high-pitched voice-over asked. “Come on, we can’t delay / No one can see him on the floor / Get him out the door before he can decayyyyyyy.” She uploaded the video, a few of her followers liked it, and she went back to an utterly unremarkable day.
Weeks turned to months in a pandemic blur. Breakfast, potty time, playtime, storytime. Ashley and Jason’s world grew smaller, revolving more tightly around Lily and Dylan as Covid continued. Dylan was the kind of kid who went looking for joy. He loved the rain. One afternoon he stood outside in his patched green parka, the fuzzy fur lining of his hood matting in the storm. He leaned his head up and stuck his tongue out as far as it would go, rain pattering against his cheeks as he licked the droplets, his face beaming with glee. Jason captured the moment on video, not knowing then that his son’s face in that frame would soon be seen the world over.
Ashley grew up around cars—her dad, Norman Brown, still runs a mechanic’s shop out of his garage about a 10-minute drive west along the two-lane highway that ribbons its way through this part of Colchester County. Norman used to drag race at derbies, before he sold his Monte Carlo to build his own mud car. He started taking it and his daughter to rallies instead. It made sense that Ashley would find work as a detailer for the Hyundai dealer a mile away from her house in Bible Hill.
Jason grew up down the road from Truro, in Masstown, a farm village of about 150 people. He went west in his early twenties thinking he’d maybe work on the oil rigs. When that didn’t pan out, he moved back home. He met Ashley one night at a friend’s place. He looked tough with a tattooed spider crawling down his right hand. But she liked his kind, hazel eyes that creased at the corners, his booming laugh and hulking frame. They began to party together, and eventually they began to live together. Ashley’s family didn’t much like him. He was loud and gruff. They thought he was a bad influence. Her dad felt Jason’s quick temper made it difficult to hold down a job (Jason says this never happened), and the couple dabbled in drugs. Jason was arrested once for shoplifting from the gas station, and then again from the liquor store. Ashley faced charges too. Police accused the couple of running a scam, bilking the government out of more than $55,000 (Canadian) by claiming welfare to which they weren’t entitled. (The charges were later dropped.)
They certainly weren’t perfect, but they were a family. For years Jason had wanted a child of his own. He was stepfather to Lily, but he’d been keen to have another kid. To Ashley, it never seemed like the right time. But when she turned 29, things had started to settle down. She had steady work, and they weren’t partying as much as they once did. Jason was working full-time, too, delivering water bottles for the Canadian Springs plant. Ashley said even her mom, Dorothy Dowe Parsons, who has struggled with alcoholism, was sober by then. So when he asked again, she said yes. Nine months later, Dylan was born.
One morning in May 2020, Ashley was just trying to keep her head on straight. The pandemic was dragging on. She was exhausted. Outside, Jason says, their neighbor’s buddy was banging on their windows, pissed about the egging and spoiling for a fight. Jason woke up angry. Ashley can’t remember exactly why, but things escalated fast, and she hit him. Jason sprang out of bed, and, suddenly, everyone was yelling. He’d kill her, he shouted after her. He grabbed her phone and smashed it on the kitchen’s tiled floor. Someone in the neighborhood called the cops. Ashley was charged with assault, and Jason for uttering threats and mischief. Both were released on an order to appear in court later that summer. (The charges were withdrawn after the two went to a court counseling program.)
In the meantime, a judge issued them a no-contact order. For days, Jason stayed with his parents, a 15-minute drive away, while Ashley took care of Dylan and Lily at home. The couple’s moms acted as intermediaries, shuttling Dylan between houses. Jason made sure that he saw Dylan almost every day; he was a devoted dad that way. But the situation also created tensions. Jason didn’t like that Dorothy was helping to care for his son, even if she was just ferrying him back to his home in Bible Hill. He didn’t trust her, in part, he says, because of her history of slipping in and out of sobriety. One day, in the fuss of it all, he didn’t realize until her car had pulled away that he’d forgotten to kiss Dylan goodbye.
The next morning, Ashley awoke around first light to find Dylan tucked in beside her. They spent a few minutes cuddled in bed. Then she got her boy up and took him to the coffee stop down the road. She ordered him his favorite breakfast, a chocolate glazed doughnut, and, as usual, he ate the icing off the top before zeroing in on the rest. She took her coffee to go, and the pair headed home.
Though Ashley enjoyed the morning with Dylan, she was tired. It had been a long time since she’d been a single parent. So when she got a text from her friend Vanessa, inviting her over for a coffee, she was relieved: She needed a break. She messaged her mom to ask if she could watch Dylan for a while, then packed him a bag—pullups, a snack. She drove by Truro’s dormant smokestacks and over Lepper Brook. The water was unusually high.
The neighborhood where Ashley’s mother lives was described to me as “the slums of Truro.” It’s the kind of place where people paper over their windows with skull-and-crossbones flags, where beer bottles sag in the creek bed. Dorothy’s house, shingled a muted gray-blue, is down the street from a halfway house and 450 feet away from Lepper Brook, a stream that flows to the mouth of the Salmon River, and from there to the Bay of Fundy. Dorothy had a puppy, and the dog was one of the only family members who could keep up with Dylan, nipping at his heels. She’d mentioned to Ashley that she was going to take the pair out to play in her backyard, which held a picnic table and a deep-freezer and opened on to dead-end Elizabeth Street. Ashley joked that Dorothy had better put both babies on a leash. “Dylan’s a runner. He needs one.” At around 11 am, Ashley pulled out of the driveway to go meet her friend. Like the sediment that lines the banks of a river, tragedy builds in layers, too, a series of tiny and inconspicuous choices that look clear only after the force of their cataclysmic outcomes.
At about 1:15 pm, Dorothy and Dylan were out in the yard. She turned around to tie her puppy to its lead, and when she turned again, she couldn’t find her grandson. She ran into the street, yelling for him. Her yells turned into screams, and she pleaded with her neighbors to call 911. The police arrived at the house just 4 minutes later. They fanned out, canvassing locals, searching the area’s nooks and crannies for anywhere a playful toddler might hide.
When Ashley’s father showed up at her friend’s front door, he was stone-faced. She had not been expecting him. She knew instantly something was wrong. “Get in the car,” he said. She complied, tucking her slender frame into the truck’s passenger seat like she had so many times when she was young. “Dylan is missing,” he told her, eyes on the road. For much of the rest of the ride, the two sat in silence, a harbinger of the quiet to come. “By the time we get there, they might have found him,” she thought to herself. She was certain they would find him.
Firefighters and search-and-rescue volunteers were called in, trudging waist-deep into the creek. For six hours, they searched the area, finding nothing. When a rescue volunteer pulled one of Dylan’s little gray rain boots from an errant shopping cart submerged in Lepper Brook, it didn’t look good. An hour and a half later, another volunteer found his other boot, stuck in the muck about 60 feet downstream.
For days, police investigators and ground rescue volunteers searched. A local pilot traced Dylan’s name into his flightpath in the sky. On stoops across the province, firefighters and parents left pairs of rain boots out for Dylan, beacons of hope in the night.
In the hours after Dylan went missing, a theory began to take shape: that Dylan had taken off running, made it to the creek. He didn’t yet know how to swim.
A dive team combed the riverbeds from below, using an underwater camera to take pictures they could later scan for something, anything, they may have missed. A helicopter flew low overhead, looking for Dylan and flagging areas of interest for searchers on the ground.
The next day, more and more Truro residents joined in. Word of Dylan’s disappearance spread—first across the province, then the country, then the continent. Thousands of web sleuths descended on Facebook groups created to discuss details of the case, armed with keyboards and curiosity. The same day, a family friend started a GoFundMe campaign. Jason and Ashley turned to Facebook for support, using it to plan searches, organize fundraisers, and update their community. The couple knew that keeping Dylan’s picture circulating, too, was critical.
A missing child captures the compassionate and curious among us, the ones with savior complexes, and the people who recognize themselves in these parents’ nightmares. Before long, Dylan had become a symbol for a collection of people awash with pain and nowhere to put it.
Two days after Dylan disappeared, Jason and Ashley were frantic. It felt surreal; their son still hadn’t been found. That morning, Ashley received a message from her sister-in-law. Don’t go on Facebook, she warned. It was too late: Ashley already had a stream of messages from strangers accusing her of killing her son. An internet sleuth had discovered her TikTok page and posted the videos she’d made to Facebook. Forty-eight hours after her son went missing, online detectives declared her suspect number one. Missing-person cases are magnets for psychics and obsessives, and a medium named Jada Brooke, who said she was based in the New York area, joined the conversations in one of the Facebook groups that had sprung up to dissect Ashley’s and Jason’s behavior. In a Facebook Live post, she described visions she’d seen of the boy. She told followers that a family member of Dylan’s called her to ask for her help. Soon, she was offering theories of the case and information she said came from locals.
Brooke also talked about Ashley and Dorothy, refusing to mention them by name. “The family is known to be into dark magic.” She then added, “As somebody who’s involved in magic myself and does rituals, I believe Dylan was offered as a sacrificial sentiment to Satan on the pink full Scorpio moon. I think they thought they were doing a good thing. And part of me thinks that’s why the mother and grandmother are not showing more remorse. What they did is simply killing a child.”
In another group, people criticized Ashley for getting a haircut. Was that a new nose piercing, they wondered. “It just seems they look better as time passes,” wrote Zoe Jackson. “All that new shit would be the least of my concerns with a missing baby.” Another member responded: “These devils are digging their graves. Keep on buying. Their time is well on its way.” In another, they mocked Jason’s search attempts, saying, “It’s just him lurking in the bushes.” They excoriated him even for sleeping. “I would be searching nonstop until my feet were bleeding if my child vanished,” wrote Kelly Plaine.
The vitriol spilled over into real life. People started standing outside their Bible Hill home glowering and taking photos, or following them in their cars. Someone at the area hospital looked up health records for Ashley, Lily, and Dylan, a privacy breach. When Jason and Ashley put up a memorial for Dylan in Bible Hill’s Holy Well Park—a blanket laden with teddy bears, a toy fishing rod, the boy’s first-ever pair of rain boots hanging from the tree overhead—locals tore it apart and dug a hole beneath it, looking for bones.
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.
Two years ago, Hurley’s son Nick died. He was 31, he hadn’t been sick; he was simply alive one day and dead the next. The couple was devastated. Nick, Moulton’s stepson, had been a bright light, quick to laugh or share a joint with her as he got older. And when Dylan Ehler’s story ripped across the news, a year later almost to the day, she felt summoned, called to help. “I was starting to get dreams,” she says. “I feel like he is reaching out wanting to be found, but he’s scared.” She’d never met Dylan, but she would do whatever she had to do to bring him home. She started a Facebook group, too, one that examined the case from every angle and explored each theory. As time dragged on, she grew fixated on managing the group, posting through the night.
In late January 2021, Jason and Ashley filed a lawsuit against Moulton and Hurley, asking the court to order the couple to shut down their Facebook group and stop posting about their family. (Group members chimed in. “I can assure you I would be completely devastated if that was my child or grandchild, I wouldn’t have time or energy to even consider taking people to court to sue them.”) When the courier tried to serve Hurley with papers in his yard, he ran into his mobile home, shouting profanities behind him before slamming the door. Harris eventually hired a special investigator, who returned to Hurley’s home escorted by police, to get the documents into his hands.
The case slogged along, and after two months Harris started making headway. Her clients didn’t want money; they just wanted the couple to agree not to post publicly about their family or contact them ever again. By the end of April, the couples were inching toward a settlement, and it looked like they were finally going to sign that agreement. On May 1, Moulton opened her Facebook account and typed: “This child is gone missing and they’re taking me to court to not ever mention his name again because I’ve been looking for him for a year! His name is Dylan Norman John Ehler!! His name is Dylan! His name is Dylan! His name is Dylan!” she incanted. “Don’t ever forget his name! This will be the last time I ever get to mention his name before I sign those papers!!” But it would not be the last time. She decided not to sign.
The rise of “internet detectives,” as Harris calls them, has drawn thousands of people with spare time, curiosity, and a streak of vigilantism to forums like Websleuths.com. And crowdsourcing justice can work: Michelle McNamara’s tireless quest to identify the Golden State Killer started there, and the Netflix documentary Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer explores how armchair detectives across the world banded together to identify Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta. “I think people see that documentary and they want to be that person,” Harris says. “They want their fame for being able to do that.” Someone like Moulton, Harris says, really believes she is seeking justice for Dylan, evidence be damned. “She’s trying to help this little boy at whatever cost,” Harris says. “They’re not thinking of these people as real people. They can’t be.”
From Dorothy’s house to the creek bed where Dylan’s first rain boot was found takes a couple of minutes at a brisk clip. Stretches of unfenced land lead down to the water; wizened tree roots and matted grasses create resting points along the shore. Dylan’s other boot was found lodged in a pocket of debris below the water’s surface, 60 feet from the first boot, just before the fork where Lepper Brook dips into the Salmon River. The river winds on for miles beyond the fork, past floodplains and brick chimneys, over waterfalls and under skeletal steel bridges. While most rivers flow in one direction, the Salmon is a tidal river, which means it runs in two. Every day, a tidal bore sends a wave 6 feet high rippling up the river, straight into town, and then back out again. The water, a mix of silt and clay, is a ruddy chocolate brown all the way out to the estuary where the river meets the bay.
The Bay of Fundy is a funnel of ferocity. From above, it’s a depression in the sandstone of Canada’s east coast, bordered by the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the state of Maine. There, peace is thin on the ground. Most oceans, on average, have a tidal range of 3 feet. The range in Fundy is 53. Imagine the force created by the pounding hooves of 24 million charging horses, and still Fundy’s tides are stronger.
The search and rescue team had attached RF trackers to a mannequin about Dylan’s weight and height, then dropped it into Lepper Brook, tracking it as it disappeared into deep, invisible pockets under the water. It took less than an hour for the mannequin to be swept up by those powerful tides.
“Nature was working against Dylan from square one,” says Tom Fitzpatrick, president of the team that led the search on the ground. The banks of the brook were so swollen that the currents knocked full-grown men off their feet. Fitzpatrick’s crew has spent almost 6,000 hours searching for Dylan, speaking to fishers and beachcombers and tidal experts to better understand what they’re up against. They’ve searched racetracks, gravel pits, cheese factories—anywhere else there’s been a tip, a possible sighting. Fitzpatrick is watchful, peering out of his car windows for scavenging birds or misshapen lumps of clay when he crosses the river each day. Four members of his crew have left the team, unable to cope with the unanswered questions still swirling around the case. “Did I miss him? Did I miss something?” Fitzpatrick says. “That’s a heavy load to carry home.”
Fitzpatrick is confident he knows what happened that day. “We think the child was in the backyard and his grandmother got distracted—we’re not sure by what and not sure how long. We think the child went out the corner of the yard, behind the neighbor’s house. There’s a path that leads down to the brook, and just below there’s a bit of a logjam,” he says, pausing. “About 50 feet down the water from there is where we found the first boot.” He can’t bring himself to say it, exactly, that the boy was caught up in the tides, so forceful and thick with mud that, underwater, it’s impossible to see.
On the day I visited, Ashley sat cross-legged in her dim living room, folding neat white squares of paper into origami shapes. On the squares, she’d written words like hope and strength in marker. The room is somewhere between time capsule and shrine. Dylan’s rain boots sat on a wooden bookshelf. “Missing” posters papered the windows. Art from people across the continent, commemorating Dylan, hung on the walls alongside Dylan’s list of things to do each day. (“Brush teeth. Learning time. Time with Lily. Lunch time.”)
Since Dylan disappeared, Ashley has retreated into herself, drifting from friends and family who haven’t shown up for her this year. She avoids her old grocery store now, suspicious eyes trailing her down the aisles. She no longer speaks to her mom, who she feels hasn’t apologized for her role in what happened. She rarely speaks to Jason’s family, who she says believed she was involved once they saw the TikTok videos she made.
In late May, April Moulton finally agreed to settle the court case. “It’s going to feel good to let go of one thing,” Ashley says, resigned. By July, Tom Hurley settled too. Meanwhile, the other Facebook group, run by anonymous critics, carries on. Ashley and Jason could go to court to compel Facebook to reveal who’s behind the accounts and then, if the company were to relinquish the data, could file suit. They’ll probably have to let it go, though, Ashley says. They don’t have the money.
They’ve talked about leaving, about starting anew someplace else. “We want to disappear,” Jason says. “Not until we get answers,” he adds. They’ve talked about having another child together, about reversing the tubal ligation surgery Ashley had the year after Dylan was born. “In one way, you think that is something you might want, and then in another way, you’d feel like, that’s wrong,” she says. “What if you had another boy and he resembled Dylan, but then at the same time you feel like, we’re replacing him?” Jason asks. Ashley adds, “There are circumstances where parents do have another kid to kind of replace what was lost, and then that child’s living up to a standard of a child that’s missing. Who can compare to that, right? That wouldn’t be fair.” No one gives you a pamphlet on how to be the parent of a missing child.
When Jason wakes up in the night, he takes long drags from a joint to fall back to sleep. When Ashley does, she doesn’t bother trying to find sleep again. She gets up, another morning in an endless day. At 4 am, she sits alone at the kitchen table, sipping black coffee in the dark. “Once I’m awake, I’m awake. And my mind starts going,” she says. “Every morning you wake up and there’s a couple of seconds where you don’t … where you forget. And then it hits you again. And you’re like, this is my life.”
The preceding months have brought depths of disappointment neither Ashley nor Jason thought possible. New tips are no longer a source of excitement, but an inevitable letdown. Jason filed a complaint with the police commissioner, alleging that the police were negligent in their initial investigation and search because they didn’t send out an Amber Alert. Since then, the cops will meet only with Ashley and only if new information comes in. If Dylan was the son of the mayor or the chief of police, Jason later says, this story would have a different ending. “Dylan would be home.” (The police say Jason is misconstruing facts online, and declined to comment further, citing the open missing-persons case.)
The couple hired a private investigator, Dave Worrell. He told the parents what Jason, by then, already believed: that Dylan’s grandmother’s timeline didn’t check out, that it could be investigated further. Dorothy says she passed a polygraph administered by the police. “They can investigate all they want,” she adds. “I have nothing to hide.”
In their home, Ashley and Jason and I talked for hours. Her hands never stopped moving. At her feet was a bin, holding near a hundred folded white paper boats. They’re for Dylan, she says. Tomorrow would be the anniversary of the day he disappeared, and, in a tribute, they’re going to send them out to sea.
A few days later, early one Saturday morning, Jason, Ashley, and Jason’s twin brother, Justin, climb into their white SUV and drive through Bible Hill, Truro, and Masstown and on toward familiar shores. The morning is misty gray, and they pass winding driveways, where wary barn cats keep neighborhood watch. The gravel turns to sand, and they pull into a makeshift parking spot in front of the rolling dunes of Fundy.
Jason pulls gear out of his trunk: neon orange vests, a briefcase holding the drone that he’ll fly up and down the shoreline. We pass orange tape tied to cedar branches and pieces of driftwood, markers made by another couple who come looking for Dylan sometimes. Jason has spent months begging for people to come help, scouring thousands of photographs for traces as small as the patches on Dylan’s jacket. Because while he believes that his son might still be alive—must still be alive—that someone took him from the backyard that day and vanished, the only clues in the case point to the water.
The dry grass crunches underfoot as we walk. We’ve gone 3 miles and will walk the line once more. I think of the bumper sticker, Dylan’s eyes trained upward. Out on the dunes, it starts to rain. Detritus has washed up here, scraps the tides have deigned to return: soggy red Tim Hortons coffee cups, cracked scalloped shells, one of the eight boots Jason threw into the creek last year to see how far they would go.
Early on, someone at Wings of Mercy, a volunteer search support group, told Jason to be careful, that it’s easy to get lost in the looking. But no body means hope, and his hope is a pilot light. He’ll come out here on the same day again next week, because he does this every week, walking the shores of the river and the bay, then going home to post the footage to a Facebook group dedicated to his ongoing search. In his hand will be a binder filled with images and maps of where he’s already been and where he thinks they should try again. The tidal force means the landscape’s always shifting, so there is value here in retracing steps, looking for anything human against the loam.
He walks interminably on, trudging his way along the shoreline of a bay where the water never runs clear.
Updated 9/13/2021 12:00 pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify that Jason says he never lost a job due to anger.
This article appears in the October, 2021 issue. Subscribe now.
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