WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. – Searchers looking for Marilane Carter had spotted the three large shipping containers sitting in a field of tall grass off of Interstate 55 but no one had peered inside.
It was a regrettable mistake. The missing Kansas wife and mother, who left home Aug. 1 on a trip to Alabama for mental health care, was apparently found inside one of the containers Tuesday, still sitting in the dark-gray SUV that people across the country had been keeping an eye out for.
Investigators and Carter’s loved ones were still awaiting a positive identification Thursday morning but said the body was likely that of the 36-year-old. Authorities believe she died of carbon monoxide poisoning, The Kansas City Star reported.
Chief Todd Grooms, of the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department, told the Star the vehicle’s ignition was in the “on” position when the car was found, and there was evidence it had been running while closed inside the container.
The body was sent Wednesday to the Arkansas State Crime Lab for official identification and an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
“Information gathered from family members concerning her mental and emotional state during her final communications, along with facts gathered from the scene, have led investigators to believe that Marilane Carter drove the vehicle into the container and, in doing so, caused her demise,” Grooms said in a statement obtained by the Star.
Leawood Baptist Church, the Kansas church at which Carter’s husband serves as head pastor, announced Wednesday morning that Carter had died and that investigators suspected no foul play in her death.
“Please keep Pastor Adam and the children in your prayers,” read a Facebook post from church officials. “Many of you have already been asking if there is anything else you can do to help the family at this time. The best thing that we can do right now is pray for them.”
Grooms told reporters Tuesday that the family was doing about as expected under the circumstances. Carter leaves behind her husband and three children, including a daughter who turned 3 the day before the body was found.
“They are dealing with grief and the loss of a loved one,” Grooms said.
Watch Tuesday’s news conference below, courtesy of KSHB in Kansas City.
Carter left her Overland Park home the night of Aug. 1 for a trip to Birmingham, both to seek mental health care and to visit family, authorities have said. She previously worked as a hospital chaplain in the Alabama city and wanted to get help in a familiar setting, her husband told reporters.
She was spotted the next morning in surveillance footage as she checked into, and out of, a Quality Inn in West Plains, Missouri. In the footage, her gray GMC Acadia was seen entering and leaving the parking lot.
Her husband, Adam Carter, told KMBC in Kansas City that his wife spent about three hours at the hotel before getting back in her Acadia. The couple were speaking on their cellphones when Marilane Carter’s cellphone apparently cut out.
Marilane Carter spoke to her mother, Marlene Mesler, of Birmingham, about 15 minutes later. Again, her phone cut out or died.
“We were in contact with her all the way but then, partway through the trip, she started seeming confused and disoriented. She said she kept on getting lost,” Mesler said, according to ABC 33/40 in Birmingham.
Overland Park police Detective Blake Larsen said during a news conference Friday that Carter fueled up her Acadia at a Shell station in West Memphis, Arkansas, where she went inside for some ice water. West Memphis is just west of the Mississippi River, on the Arkansas-Tennessee state line.
That sighting was just before 5 p.m., according to Find Marilane, a Facebook page created by Carter’s family during the search. The page has since been taken down.
Carter’s cellphone last pinged around 8:02 p.m. Aug. 2 on Interstate 55 near the Arkansas weigh station, about 3 miles from the Shell station.
Grooms said the data gave searchers a 2,500-meter radius, which included the area of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge. The bridge crosses the Mississippi River and takes drivers from Arkansas into Memphis.
Law enforcement officers and Carter’s family spent more than a week searching for her in the area around the bridge, including searches by air. In the final days of the search, volunteers with sonar equipment had begun searching for Carter and her SUV in the Mississippi.
Carter’s vehicle would ultimately be found in a field on private property across from the weigh station, the Star reported.
Grooms told reporters Tuesday that searchers had come face-to-face with the containers where Carter’s vehicle, and the decomposing human remains, were found.
“Several of the searchers, including some of the family members, had seen the Conex trailers but just didn’t think to look in them,” Grooms said. “You assume they’re locked, and we were looking for a vehicle.
“I just never would have dreamed that her vehicle would have been up inside one of them.”
Carter’s uncle, who had traveled to West Memphis to aid in the search for his niece, stumbled upon the containers, including the one with the SUV inside. When other family members returned home, he remained in the area, looking in places one wouldn’t ordinarily look, Grooms said.
He found the containers just before 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“He saw that one of the doors was partially open and he walked up to it and discovered her vehicle in there,” Grooms said.
Grooms said he, Arkansas state troopers and FBI agents responded to the scene and confirmed that the vehicle was Carter’s SUV.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know what I was expecting,” Grooms said. “I was hoping for a more positive outcome, where she would show up somewhere and maybe had been somewhere getting some mental health treatment.”