The family of an Oakland man who went missing with his girlfriend during a South American bicycling trip last month said Monday they have been buoyed by support from family and friends.
Garrett Hand, 25, of Oakland and his girlfriend, Jamie Neal, haven't been seen or heard from since Jan. 25, when they set out from Cusco, Peru, to the nation's capital in Lima.
"I really want to make this perfectly clear," Francine Fitzgerald, Hand's mother, said Monday at the family's home in Concord. "The generosity, love and caring showed by so many people -- family, friends, people in Chile and Peru -- it makes you hopeful. When I first realized they were missing, it was horrific, but that generosity, love, kindness, it has lifted our hope."
Hand, an Antioch High School graduate, and Neal, 25, a native of Sacramento, are both avid cyclists and familiar with the outdoors, friends and family said. Max Hunter, a friend of Neal's who worked with her at a bike shop in El Sobrante, called her "a great athlete with incredible savvy, so if anyone can get out of whatever kind of situation they might be in, it would be her."
The couple departed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November to begin a "dream trip" bike tour that was expected to take them through South America, Fitzgerald said. The couple bicycled through Argentina into Chile and then Peru, charting their progress daily on Facebook. On Jan. 25, while in Cusco, the couple posted that they were headed for Lima.
A Peruvian television station aired surveillance photos showing the couple on a bus from Cusco to Lima, but the couple has not contacted family or friends since.
Leslie Goodman, the information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, said officers from the embassy are in contact with the families and are providing assistance. She said Peruvian police are working with the embassy as the search continues.
Fitzgerald said authorities in Peru tracked the couple to Pucallpa, Peru, a city about 1,500 miles from Cusco, but the family has received no other information since then.
The family also has been tracking Hand's bank account, from which he was pulling out money weekly to sustain the trip, Fitzgerald said. The family said $400 was transferred from an account into the one Fitzgerald was using on the day he disappeared but that the $400 was never withdrawn. About the same time, Fitzgerald said, the family started seeing messages from friends the couple made in South America on Hand's Facebook account, inquiring about their whereabouts.
The U.S. Embassy in Peru has warned Americans to beware of kidnapping threats in the Cusco area. Cusco is near Machu Picchu, a popular destination spot for tourists.
"We just feel like we have to get them home," said Larkin McGowan, Hand's sister. "We can't allow ourselves to go into that dark place. We are driven to get them both home safely."
Rick Hurd covers breaking news. Contact him at 925-945-4780 and follow him at Twitter.com/3rdERH.