Family of Weathersfield woman, missing for months then found dead, seeks reform in searches

  • Tonia Bushway, right, with her sisters Wanda Nickerson, left, and Tammy Bushway, and their father Charles Bushway on Thanksgiving Day 2016 at his home in Ascutney, Vt. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Tonia Bushway's home at 513 Little Ascutney Road in Weathersfield, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (Valley News - John P. Gregg) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2021 10:03:05 PM
Modified: 11/14/2021 6:24:12 AM

WEATHERSFIELD — Tonia Bushway’s loved ones will tell you that she was a caring soul with an infectious laugh but whose life was dragged down in recent years by injury, loss and addiction.

When the 50-year-old Weathersfield native went missing in early July, her family would only learn there was reason to be alarmed some 10 days later, prompting them to alert town police. Unlike some other people who went missing in Vermont this year, Bushway’s disappearance garnered little public attention in the subsequent weeks and months.

In early October, when Vermont State Police and New England K-9 were finally called in to search for her, Bushway’s remains were soon found behind a rock in a wooded area on a neighboring property, about 50 yards above her home on Little Ascutney Road.

By then, her body had been reduced to skeletal remains, and an autopsy last month could not determine the cause or time of her death.

Today, Bushway’s family and friends want to know why it took three months for Weathersfield police to arrange a full-scale search with dogs around the home, which was where she had last been seen. They also are frustrated that her disappearance didn’t attract the media attention other cases have.

At the same time, they want to support the ongoing Vermont State Police investigation into her death.

“This case has highlighted that a small local police department does not always have the manpower, resources nor experience needed to handle cases such as missing persons. It is an injustice to allow a case such as this to not be escalated to the state police level where they are more equipped to handle it,” her older sister, Wanda Nickerson, and Bushway’s daughter Toshia Emery, said via email to the Valley News.

‘Fun-loving individual with a kind heart’

Bushway grew up in Ascutney and graduated from Windsor High School in 1989. With Max Alan Emery, who died in 2011, she had two daughters, Toshia and Tiffany.

But a car accident in 2007 left her disabled and unable to work. Then a fire in 2008 heavily damaged her home.

Bushway also struggled with substance misuse and recently wound up allowing people unrelated to her to live in her home and in a camper in the yard, with some friends and family calling them “squatters.”

Though her home is currently posted with no-trespassing signs and windows are boarded up, a memorial near the driveway, comprising Halloween-themed scarecrows, includes a small sign that reads “Love u always Tonia.”

“We would like people to know that Tonia was more than just a missing person or name in the news. … She was a mother, a sister and daughter and a friend to many. She was a fun-loving individual with a kind heart and was always willing to help others, even opening her home to others in need,” Nickerson and Emery said in the email.

She also was known to Weathersfield police. In fact, they had arrested Bushway on June 30, after stopping her as she walked along Route 131, for failing to appear for a court hearing related to an earlier arrest for allegedly attempting to elude Police Chief William Daniels during a traffic stop in December 2020. An affidavit he filed at the time said she was driving with an expired license.

Her father Charles Bushway accompanied her to court on July 1, and she was released on bail.

Eleven days later, another sister of Tonia’s, Tammy Bushway, received a Facebook message from a woman who had also been living at the Little Ascutney Road home but said she had not seen Tonia for a couple of weeks, according to Nickerson.

Tammy went to the house, and when she saw her sister was not there, called Weathersfield police.

While an officer responded to the house, the family says Weathersfield police didn’t call in help that they have seen state police mobilize in other missing-person cases, which in turn attracts media attention.

In late August, for example, members of the Vermont State Police Scuba Team joined local authorities and searched the Saxtons River for a 36-year-old New York City woman who had been staying with her husband in a home in Westminster, Vt., and had disappeared the day before when she took their dog for a walk. Her body was found in the river.

And earlier this month in the Upper Valley, Hartford police called in aerial drones and K-9 teams, with help from the state police, searching for a missing school bus driver from Sharon. Randy Koloski’s body was later found in the Connecticut River in Charlestown by hunters.

Nickerson and Emery said police should follow the same protocols for all missing person cases — in fact, state law has some requirements regarding conducting a search as soon as a report is received and disseminating it to relevant media and agencies.

“The outcome of a missing person’s case should not be affected negatively due to the location of their disappearance,” Nickerson and Emery wrote. “Unfortunately another issue that comes into play is personal bias and prejudices regarding the missing person or their lifestyle and situational assumptions made by police. This is unacceptable and needs to change.”

Friends of Bushway have also taken up the theme with #justicefortonia posts on social media.

False leads

Daniels, the Weathersfield chief, said that Bushway’s drug problems didn’t prejudice how police approached the case. In an interview earlier this month, he said police had spent time early in the investigation tracking down leads that didn’t pan out.

“The family is saying it was because she was a drug addict, and that had no bearing in this case,” Daniels said. “Unfortunately, we were given a two-week late start.”

According to Daniels, Tammy Bushway called police on July 13 to say she had not heard from her sister and officially reported her as missing the following day.

Police went to the house on July 14, looked around, and asked dispatchers to place a “stop and hold” on Bushway if anyone should come into contact with her, the police chief said.

Police were also told that when Bushway was last seen, she had planned to walk to Springfield, Vt., or perhaps gotten a ride there.

“The case was hampered by the fact that she had no car she was driving, no cellphone we could ping,” Daniels said.

Police also checked with a couple of drug rehabilitation centers after having been told she might be in recovery, Daniels said. After verifying that she had not been in any of the facilities in the area, police notified the Vermont Intelligence Center on July 22, categorizing her as a missing person.

The police department — which has a budget of about $321,000 and one full-time officer and some part-timers along with Daniels, according to the town’s annual report — posted photos of Bushway as a missing person on its Facebook page on July 23 and asked anyone with information to call the department.

The VIC, which is affiliated with the Vermont Department of Public Safety and also works with federal Homeland Security agencies, also created a flyer about her case.

Daniels said he did have a discussion in the summer with state police about having them possibly conduct a search, “but because of how we were following up on various leads, they didn’t activate then.”

Bushway’s family moved to evict the people living at the Little Ascutney Road home, and Daniels said some had not been forthcoming with authorities.

“The people who were of interest in this case were reluctant to cooperate with police because of their past interaction with police,” he said.

Daniels said police had been called to the house a couple of times while Bushway was alive after complaints from neighbors about vehicle traffic there.

He said there was “drug activity” at the house, but that he could not say Bushway herself had been dealing narcotics.

“I feel, unfortunately, that people may have taken advantage of her because of her nature,” he said.

A video from a niece this summer, recorded after the occupants departed, showed the property had been littered with debris, including some needles, and that some windows had been smashed. Two rooms in the house had padlocks on them.

Daniels said Weathersfield police returned to the property on Aug. 24 with members of the West Weathersfield Volunteer Fire Department after receiving a tip via her family that Bushway’s body might be found in a well in the area. They searched her property and some neighboring parcels, and also along the roadway, but found nothing.

During at least one of the visits to the property this summer, police also went into the woods, Daniels said, but not as far up the slope as where Bushway’s remains were ultimately found.

Quickly found, eventually

Media attention eventually grew — VTDigger ran a story in late August, which the Valley News published, and on Oct. 4, WCAX-TV reported on the disparities on how missing person cases were handled that included criticism from Emery that police hadn’t been doing more to look for her mother.

Two days later, a full search with dogs began, and by 9:45 that morning, a New England K-9 unit had located Bushway’s remains in the wooded area.

The Vermont State Police Major Crime Unit took over the investigation. “They are following up on any interviews that need to be followed up on,” Capt. Scott Dunlap, commander of the unit, said in a phone interview.

Although the Medical Examiner’s Office found “no apparent injuries,” such as a gunshot wound, authorities could not conduct a toxicology test on the skeletonized remains, Dunlap said.

He also said that while authorities believe Bushway died behind the large rock where her remains were found, there had been some “animal activity” that scattered some of her bones.

Asked how he thought Bushway died, Dunlap said, “It’s hard to say,” and that nothing had been ruled out.

“If she went up in the woods on her own and died there, we probably won’t know how she died,” he said.

Nickerson said her sister would not have gone by herself that far up the wooded slope, which is near the Little Ascutney Mountain Wildlife Management Area and was home to trash-eating bears that frightened Bushway.

“She did not put herself up there in the woods. She was not in the habit of hiking nor going up there and due to her handicap it would be even more difficult due to the terrain,” she said.

She and Emery also said that the three-month lag in mobilizing a K-9 search added to the family’s anguish.

“There was a three-month window from being reported missing and being located and the fact that this is detrimental to the case cannot be understated. We hope no other family must endure the pain we went through regarding a missing loved one,” Nickerson and Emery wrote.

“We hope to encourage changes and promote equality and set a gold standard in how police and media approach missing persons cases ... all missing persons cases, not just some.”

Asked if in hindsight he would do anything differently regarding Bushway’s case, Daniels said: “We’re going to sit down and do a review of the case with the state police to see what we can do better moving forward.”

Now that Bushway’s remains have been located, her family does have at least something to hold on to.

Late last month, they posted a photo of a wooden urn on the deck of the house in Ascutney where Tonia grew up, overlooking a peaceful yard and woods.

“My sister is home,” Nickerson wrote.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Detective Trooper Zachary Gauthier at the Westminster barracks at 802-722-4600. Tips also may be submitted online anonymously at http://vsp.vermont.gov/tipsubmit.

John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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