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A year without Shane

Last Thanksgiving Eve, Shane Montgomery vanished after leaving a Manayunk bar. His family still isn’t used to the new normal.

Karen Montgomery is consoled after her son’s body was found in the Schuylkill on Jan. 3 after he was missing for 38 days.
Karen Montgomery is consoled after her son’s body was found in the Schuylkill on Jan. 3 after he was missing for 38 days.Read more

KAREN MONTGOMERY talks about Shane and begins to weep.

She is sitting in a small conference room at the Daily News, and my eyes dart around the place, looking for tissues, napkins, a paper towel - anything - to help her dab the tears. But she beats me to it, pulling a mini-pack of Kleenex from her pocket.

Before Shane disappeared in the wee hours of last Thanksgiving, Montgomery didn't need to keep tissues with her at all times. Her life was beautiful.

"Now, I cry every day," she says when I ask what life has been like for her family - including husband Kevin Montgomery and surviving son Tom LaCorte - in the 12 months since Shane's name first made headlines.

"I cry, too," says her brother Kevin Verbrugge, Shane's doting godfather, who is with Montgomery today for emotional support. "Shane was like a son to me."

Their big, extended family had lost children before - one to a car wreck, one to cancer. Those losses were searing. But the way they lost Shane, 21, was a horror.

He had just arrived home for the long weekend from West Chester University, where he was a communications major. He partied on Thanksgiving Eve with friends at Kildare's Irish Pub in Manayunk alongside revelers packed seven deep at the bar.

And then he vanished.

For weeks, Shane's family, friends and hundreds of volunteers papered the region with flyers begging for clues to his whereabouts.

It wasn't until his body was pulled from the Schuylkill River 38 agonizing days later that they knew what had happened to the funny college senior with the crazy red hair and Celtic-cross shoulder tattoo. There had been no foul play, no suicide. Surveillance video finally surfaced, showing him walking toward the river. He had drowned, probably after losing his footing by the water.

"I think he had to pee but he wasn't going to be one of those guys who pees in an alley off Main Street," says Verbrugge. "I think he got to the river and just fell."

Had his body been found quickly, it would've barely triggered a headline. But during the long weeks, as his relatives and friends, Roxborough neighbors and worshippers from St. John the Baptist Church fanned out to find him, their howl of agony was loud enough to bring the larger Philadelphia community stampeding forward to help.

Has it really been a year?

Most supporters have returned to their normally scheduled lives. But the Montgomery kin have yet to adjust to a new normal in which they relive the hell of not knowing where Shane was.

"I don't have a date of death for Shane," says Montgomery, a small, sweet-faced woman whose blue eyes look as sad as when she appeared on TV newscasts pleading for information. "I have a period of terror that lasted 38 days. When he didn't come home Thanksgiving Day, a hole opened inside me. The void will never be filled."

She also did not get a chance to see Shane one last time before he was laid to rest Jan. 12 in Calvary Cemetery, to caress his hair and kiss his forehead. Verbrugge did not want her final image of her son to be what he looked like after being in the river. So he identified Shane's body at the Medical Examiner's Office, sparing Shane's parents an awful memory.

Montgomery regrets that her last interaction with Shane as he headed to Kildare's was a quick kiss and a plea not to stay out too late. He in turn asked her to remind Montgomery's mom - his Nan - to fix him a batch of her turkey-noodle soup to bring back to West Chester.

"In my head, I know that Shane knew he meant the world to me," Montgomery says. "But it hurts that I didn't tell him I loved him that night."

Since his death, Montgomery takes goodbyes seriously. She hugs tight whomever she is with and tells them she loves them.

"You don't know if it's the last time you'll see them," she says.

While Montgomery and her family have been deeply moved by the uncountable kindnesses shown them over the past year - they even receive a condolence note every six weeks from a dear stranger in Tennessee who learned of their loss - it also has been difficult to accept them.

"I had to leave my job at Morrison's," the Roxborough pharmacy where she'd worked as a tech for almost two decades. "The customers all knew me. They kept hugging me. I couldn't function."

She found a new job answering phones in the human-resources department of First Judicial District Court downtown. It doesn't consume enough of her day, but it gets her out of bed. "The bus ride to work is terrible," she says, as she confronts another morning without Shane. But a few days a week, Verbrugge, who also works in Center City, gives her a lift.

They chit-chat. It helps.

Verbrugge has not been back to Manayunk's Main Street since divers from Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit found Shane on Jan. 3. And he will never return to the river that took his godson's life. He can't, not after spending nearly six weeks searching its banks for clues.

"When they found Shane, his dad hugged me and said, 'We never have to come back here again,' " says Verbrugge.

This week, I strolled Manayunk's Main Street, remembering the sadness that frosted the air during last year's holidays as the search for Shane stretched into the new year. This week, the vibe was cheery. But there are changes; most notably, more outdoor video cameras dot the area.

The search for Shane had been thwarted by a scarcity of surveillance footage that might've shown where he headed after leaving Kildare's. His family has no illusions that security cameras would have saved his life. But more footage might've helped them learn more quickly what had become of him.

That knowledge has not been lost on local business owners, says Gwen McCauley, director of operations for the Manayunk Development Corp. In the last year, 15 businesses have installed or upgraded their outdoor surveillance systems with help from the Philadelphia Police Department's SafeCam program, which pays 50 percent of the equipment's cost. The development corporation has chipped in an extra 12.5 percent.

Brendan McGrew, owner of Bourbon Blue on Rector Street, upgraded his system, which includes seven outdoor cameras.

"Shane's mom came in last year, asking if we could look at our footage for her," he says. No images of Shane were found. "We were glad to help. Some people don't like the cameras, but I'm glad we have them."

Last summer, Montgomery, in a shaky voice, testified at a City Council Public Safety Committee hearing to discuss the "Shane Montgomery Bill" proposed by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., in whose district Shane went missing. It would require every special-occupancy licensee to install a surveillance camera outside each public exit.

It was a surreal experience for Montgomery, who, at this time last year, never in her wildest dreams - or nightmares - would have imagined a reason she'd ever speak before City Council about anything, let alone a bill named for the son she never imagined losing.

"Every day is hard," she says, reaching again for the Kleenex. "People say you move on, you get over it. I will never get over losing Shane."

Her family will gather tomorrow for Thanksgiving, because it's what Shane would have wanted. But no one is required to attend, says Verbrugge. If they'd rather be alone, that's OK.

"We're all just trying to get through the holidays," he says. "One hour at a time."


Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly