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Sylvania firm aids search for woman missing in Aruba

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Matt Aston, president of Sylvania s Ground Penetrating Radar Systems, says radar like this is being used in the search for Natalee Holloway, who has been missing in Aruba since May.

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The search for Natalee Holloway - the Alabama high school graduate whose disappearance in Aruba last year drew national attention - has turned to the underground radar expertise of a fledgling Sylvania firm.

Ground Penetrating Radar Systems, located at 8534 West Central Ave., sent a representative this weekend from its Tampa office to conduct a search last night of a beach area on Aruba equal to about two football fields, The Blade has learned.

Police in Aruba received a tip that Ms. Holloway's body was buried in that area on the island and needed his company's assistance, confirmed Matt Aston, the 28-year-old owner. He said the search was being conducted last night primarily because wind conditions were expected to be light and the specialized radar equipment his firm uses operates better in those circumstances.

The search for a possible human grave is a departure from the company's normal, more mundane jobs. While Mr. Aston said the firm has found some unmarked graves in the past, most of his firm's work involves using radar signals sent into the ground to locate utility lines and pipelines on construction sites.

Ms. Holloway disappeared May 30 while on a post-graduation trip to Aruba. She last was seen with several local teenagers, including the son of a judge.

"I kind of struggled with going down there [to Aruba] or not. We don't really want to find anything, but at this point they probably are looking for a body," Mr. Aston said. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think from the standpoint of the family, they are probably looking for closure."

A representative of the Aruba police department, contacted yesterday by The Blade, would say only that the case was still active and the search for the missing woman was ongoing. He referred all other inquiries to a lieutenant who was unavailable for comment.

Authorities there have been criticized for the slow progress of the investigation into Miss Holloway's disappearance and allegations that local suspects involved might have been protected. The latter prompted Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and others to call for a travel boycott of the Dutch island, located in the southern Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela.

Mr. Aston was contacted by Don Wood, president of Child Watch, about donating the company's services in the search for Miss Holloway. The nonprofit agency helps search for missing children and hopes to find them alive.

But Mr. Wood said in an interview yesterday that his group also has secured the grim resource of cadaver dogs to search for bodies when necessary.

"There was specific need for something like this [ground radar system]," Mr. Wood said. "If we had to go and hire someone, it would likely cost $4,000 to $5,000. They are donating it, which is terrific," he said of the Sylvania firm, adding that he found the company using an Internet search.

"There's always tips coming in, but there was a particular one [to police]," he said.

Mr. Wood said that the usual technique is to stick probes, something like metal wands, into the ground and then to have a cadaver dog sniff it. But with ground-penetrating radar, blips on a screen can tell a technician if something other than dirt or rock is beneath. The blips or readings are like the blips on a heart monitor. Different objects tend to have different types of blips, he said.

Mr. Aston's company has searched for unmarked graves for historical purposes, but most jobs involve finding underground pipes and other buried hardware so construction companies know where they can drill or dig safely. His 4-year-old company, with four employees including himself, booked $480,000 in revenues last year.

"If a coffin had a steel liner or a steel vault, it would give a similar reaction if a small auto was buried there," he said. "Basically, [the radar unit] is a chassis for a baby stroller, and it's been altered so we can mount a laptop on it. It just plugs into a radar control unit and there's an antenna that sends out and receives the radar signals."

The company once helped an academic researcher locate what might be an underground tunnel in eastern Pennsylvania that the researcher theorized helped a group of British soldiers desert during the Revolutionary War.

"We found something. I'm not sure exactly what it was. A researcher [said she] broke a code, and she was confident enough to give us $2,000 [to search]. There was something there, but they were going to wait until spring or this summer" to investigate further, he said.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.

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