BANGOR, Maine — Family members of William Hilderbrand — who police believed jumped from the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge a year ago Friday — searched the cold, dark waters of the Penobscot River for their loved one in the days afterward.
A year of searching the state’s largest river for the missing Passamaquoddy Tribe member has turned up nothing.
Even so, “I don’t think they have given up,” Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah said earlier this week of Hilderbrand’s family.
A “wewitahama” ceremony — a tribal or family gathering set aside as “the time to remember” when a loved one has passed away — has not been scheduled, he said, and that is an indicator that Hilderbrand’s family is not yet ready to let go.
“In our tradition, it’s the family that will make that decision,” said Soctomah, a former tribal representative in the Maine Legislature. “It seems like they haven’t given up.”
Bangor and Brewer police went to the bridge just before midnight Nov. 4, 2010, after passing motorists called to report a woman on the edge of the overpass near the Bangor side.
Brewer officers were the first to arrive and were helpless as they saw someone jump into the fast-moving, dark water and not resurface, Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone recalled Thursday.
“They actually looked over the side of the bridge and saw a person in the water go under and not come back up,” he said. “This time of year the water is cold and swift and it certainly complicates rescue attempts.”
People who fall into the river in November typically have only minutes before the cold begins to have deadly effects, he said.
A full-scale search of the river was conducted. Police and fire crews spent hours searching the river by boat and riverbanks on foot for the jumper on Nov. 4 and returned again on Nov. 5, Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said.
With no body found, the standard protocol in situations such as this is to wait, the sergeant said.
Police believe the person who went into the water was Hilderbrand because they found a purse on the bridge that contained Hilderbrand’s cellphone and identification.
Hilderbrand, 22, who lived his life as a woman, is still officially considered missing.
“He was a very, very sensitive soul,” said Tina St. Lewis, director of Mr. Bernard’s School of Hair Fashion in Bangor where Hilderbrand, who liked to be called “JL,” studied cosmetology in 2008.
The young beautician was well-liked by fellow students and staff, she said.
“We think about what happened to him a lot because it’s so random and weird,” St. Lewis said Thursday.
“I don’t feel like there was ever closure,” said Hannah Gotay of Old Town, who along with her sister Erin Gotay called Hilderbrand a friend.
Hilderbrand, who grew up in Perry, left the Passamaquoddy reservation in Washington County several years ago, his aunt Annette Newell of Pleasant Point said last year while other family and tribal members searched the waters and shores of the Penobscot.
“He had many obstacles to overcome because of who he was as a person,” she said. “That is why he left home. That’s why he moved to Bangor, where [his lifestyle] was more accepted.”
His lifestyle may have been different, but it didn’t change the fact that he was loved, she said.
Hilderbrand’s relatives said last year they were determined to keep up the search until they got some closure. Those same relatives, including his father, George Bassett of Pleasant Point, did not return messages seeking comment this week.
“I want to find my son and go home,” Bassett said as he got into a boat to search for his son last year.
Hilderbrand graduated from Shead High School in 2006 and worked as an escort and exotic dancer for Cinnamon’s Sweets, according to his Facebook page.
No one has heard from Hilderbrand since last Nov. 4, according to police. His last Facebook post was made at 11:31 p.m. that day, just minutes before Brewer police saw the jumper.
Maine Marine Patrol search planes, U.S. Coast Guard crews and the Down East Emergency Medicine Institute and other volunteer search groups assisted more than a dozen family members and friends who searched for Hilderbrand a year ago.
Though no one has heard from the young Passamaquoddy tribal member in a year, there is no way to verify that the person who went into the river a year ago was Hilderbrand until a body is recovered, Edwards said.
“It’s tragic,” Antone said. “We can only imagine what the family is going through. Our condolences are heartfelt.”
An earlier version of this story should have stated that William Hilderbrand grew up in Perry.