By Brielle Braxton-Young, Brooke Retkowski and Dylan Morris, The Whetstone
Junior Justin Cowgill is one of many students who had been worried about fellow student Erick Acevedo-Palencia, 21, who went missing Feb. 12, and whose body was found in nearby Silver Lake on the morning of March 17. The medical examiner said there was no evidence or indication of foul play.
“The last time I spoke to Erick was about two days before he went missing,” he said. “The thought of him being gone is always in my head.”
Erick was last seen Feb. 12 at 5:21 p.m. Security cameras show him leaving Malmberg Hall wearing a gray hoodie, black sweatpants, and white sneakers. His phone, wallet, license, student identification card, room key and credit card were left in the room.
He had left wet clothes – a pair of jeans and a shirt – in the shower.
Some friends said Erick often went to Silver Lake to run – he was on the track team – but the wet clothes weren’t track attire.
He also left a note in his room, which read: “He who has the power of turning negative vibes in his path to positive energy has the true meaning of life.”
Erick’s disappearance and death happened only four months after the week-long disappearance of junior Ahyanna Baker-Griffin, who was found murdered in the Camden home of her boyfriend.
Students mourned both their deaths after they learned of Erick’s body being found, and reflected on their lives.
“This whole situation makes me feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” junior Amber Mcnear said. “I can’t believe that this is actually happening. My relationship with Erick was a super special one. It went beyond just goofing around and beyond late-night conversations. He was family to me.”
Mcnear said she regrets not answering his final texts to her.
“I’ll never forgive myself for it,” she said. “I love you and hope you’re finally at peace.”
Junior Ashli Moore said she wished the school had done more.
“With Erick, I feel as though the student body took the situation into our own hands because the school wasn’t doing anything until the last minute,” she said.
School security sent out an alert two days after Erick was last seen and sent out a “gold alert” the following day. However, no school administrator sent out a message to the campus for two weeks. The school sent nothing out about Ahyanna until she was found dead. Her family reported her missing the weekend after the Thursday she was last seen.
“My friendship with Ahyanna – we always had fun,” Moore said. “No matter what, we would always be laughing and nothing would even be funny. All we did was laugh about stupid stuff. That was my hype girl and I was hers.”
For Tyler Grant, a former Wesley student, Erick was always a friend.
“We vented about our depression damn near every time we were together,” he said. “He listened to me and never judged me about anything.”
Tyler said Erick sometimes acted paranoid.
“He constantly felt like people were always out to get him,” he said. “People laughed at his stutter and everything else that came with him.”
Missing For a Month
Milvia Palencia, Erick’s mother, said she last heard from her son the afternoon of the day he disappeared.
“I know sometimes Erick wouldn’t pay his phone bill, so he would call me on friends’ phones,” she said. “But when I didn’t hear from him later on that night, I felt like something was wrong.”
Palencia said the last conversation she had with Erick was on the morning he disappeared.
“Tuesday morning (Feb. 12, the day he disappeared) I texted him,” she said. “I checked my phone around 11:30 a.m. and I still didn’t get a text from him. Around 2:45 p.m. I received a text from him saying, ‘I love you, have a great day.’”
When her workday was done, she sent Erick a text about 7 p.m. It didn’t go through. She called, and his phone went straight to voicemail.
“The more I hadn’t heard from him the more I started to worry,” she said. “So I called my ex-husband and I asked him to go to Dover to go check on him.”
By 11:30 p.m., Dover Police were knocking on doors on the third floor of Malmberg Hall.
Junior Kierra Whitaker was one of the first approached.
“I live on the same side as Erick, just a few doors down,” she said. “I was in bed and heard a loud bang on the door. I just thought it was people playing on the door but I heard more knocks, and they were loud – not like a normal knock.”
When she opened her door, she saw a police officer standing with a baton in his hand and Erick’s ID in the other.
“The officer asked, ‘Have you seen him?’ I said no, because that day I hadn’t seen him. He then asked, ‘Was I hiding him in my room?’ I responded, ‘No,’ and I continued looking past the door to see what was going on. So many thoughts ran through my head.”
On the morning of the day he disappeared, Erick spent two hours with the chaplain, Pastor Bonnie Karen Mullen, while the two waited for the food pantry truck to come.
“He seemed fine,” Mullen said. “Nothing was out of the ordinary. He was a little fidgety but I just figured it was because we were in a tight space and he was trying to get some homework done.”
Mullen said Erick stopped by her office from time to time.
That morning wasn’t the last time she saw Erick.
“He had come into my office around 4 and dropped his things off because he told me he was going to Bible study,” she said. “After that, he never came back to pick up his things, and I never saw him again.”
The next day security came to pick up his book bag from her office.
Junior Kyra Wesby said she met Erick through a mutual friend.
“He first introduced himself as Chow,” she said. “We were both incoming students that were going to be running track and cross country, after that we created a close friendship.”
Palencia said Erick was given the nickname of Chow when he was a young child.
Erick’s friends said they saw few signs of his coming disappearance.
Although Erick didn’t say anything out of the ordinary, Wesby and other students said they noticed a change in his appearance the day before he disappeared.
“He cut all his hair,” she said. “He also cut his facial hair off, and when I asked about it he just said he was looking to get a fresh start.”
Sophomore D’Shon Sanders, who ran track with him, noticed that Erick changed his appearance.
“He shaved his beard and hair and I thought it was weird and out of character of him to do that,” he said. “I thought he was pledging to a frat or something.”
His mother said she knew about her son’s plans to cut his hair.
“He face-timed me on Monday,” Palencia said. “We were both in the Dollar Store, me, here (Wilmington), and him there (Dover). He told me he was cutting his hair and that he had to tell me something but he said he would tell me on Sunday, which was my birthday. He was coming home to see me.”
The receipt from the Dollar Store was found in Erick’s room and it showed he bought shaving cream and razors.
Palencia came to Dover to look for her son the week of his disappearance.
“I spent over seven hours walking through (Silver Lake Park) and even went into the cemetery,” she said.
Palencia also said she found out that on Feb 11, the day before his disappearance, her son quit his job at Foot Locker in the Dover Mall.
Erick always had a job, she said. He and Palencia, along with Palencia’s ex-husband, had several conversations about Erick taking on too much with work, school and track.
“He had gotten a second job at Dover Downs Casino, and he would always tell me that he was tired,” Palencia said. “It was getting bad to the point where we (her and her ex-husband) had to tell him to quit. Finally, he did.”
Psychology Professor Gwen Pursell said she loved having Erick, a psychology major, in her classes.
“Erick is a really positive, fun student,” she said. “He sits right up front, is always cheerful, and he asks a lot of question. He is also a bit of a class clown, always keeping everyone laughing.”
Pursell saw Erick at the Psychology Club meeting the night before his disappearance.
“We were playing a game and he was volunteering and having a good time,” she said. “He didn’t seem that different other than he wasn’t talking as much as usual at the club meeting.”
Senior Nneka Anderson said she met him her sophomore year.
“He always came up to me asked me how I was doing,” she said. “He would make sure I was smiling and happy. He also always gave a look, which lets students know where and what parties there are going to be off campus for the weekend.”
Professor Alban Urbanas said Erick had attended his Intro to Philosophy course last fall.
“His approach to participation in class, and his attitude toward the course and the work of the course, was very positive,” he said.
Sophomore Di-Avian Blackmon spent a lot of time with Erick.
“We always went to church together and attended IMPACT on Mondays,” she said. “He would even go for runs after church sometimes.”
During the fall semester, Urbanas said he did not see any changes in him.
“I wish I could say I saw a signal here, or a signal that might indicate an issue, but unfortunately I did not see that,” he said. “He seemed to maintain the same basic demeanor.”
Professor Cynthia Newton said Erick attended one of her classes this semester.
“He was a really good student,” she said. “He sat in the front of the class, which I take as a good omen. His work was good, and he participated a lot, and he was really sweet.”
Moore said she saw Erick at a speed dating event Feb. 11.
“He didn’t look like himself (because he had shaved) but he spoke as usual,” she said. “It was a ‘Hey’ more so than a ‘Wassup Ash, how you doing?’ so that was strange to me.”
Wesby and Moore saw him leave the event. A miscommunication between security and students caused security to cancel it at the last minute.
“He told me he was leaving to go shower and do some homework,” Wesby said. “Then the next day I saw him it was just a Hi and Bye. It was just unusual of him, so I figured he was just down because of the weather.”
Wesley Administration Slow In Responding
Some students and faculty said they weren’t happy that Wesley administration did not express concern about Erick’s disappearance soon enough.
Wesley security office sent out a request for assistance two days after he disappeared, and the following day the office released a “gold alert,” which included information about his disappearance.
But no emails were sent from either President Robert Clark or Dean of Students, Wanda Anderson, for two weeks.
Erick’s mother said she expected more.
“I had to reach out to Public Safety, the Dean of Students, and the President with the help of a co-worker,” she said. “I feel because I am not from this country, and I am a woman who can barely speak English, they are not taking me or my missing son seriously.”
Three days before Erick’s body was found, Public Safety Director Walt Beaupre sent a campus-wide email March 14 about the disappearance.
“This morning President Clark and I, along with representatives from Dover Police and Delaware State University Police had a conference call with Senator Carper. The Dover Police, along with the Delaware State Police and Fire Department personal have conducted extensive searches in and around Silver Lake from the ground and the air.”
Erick’s body was found three days later, by a resident who called the police. The body was in the lake near the shoreline of Lake Club Apartments.
Students Use Social Media to Help
Wesley students had used social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat as a way to spread the word of Erick’s disappearance.
Mcnear said she posted on social media about Erick every day.
Mcnear, along with other students, created their own search party to get the word out and get tips about his disappearance. A post on social media was made, telling students to meet in front of Budd Hall on Feb. 17.
“We went to Silver Lake and the surrounding streets of Dover,” she said. “We knocked on doors by the lake to see if anyone saw him, and asked the people on the streets if they saw him but all we got were dead ends.”
Another post that was made on social media reached about 2,000 people in 72 hours.
Senior Gail Trotter said she was also a part of the second search party coordinated by students on Feb. 18.
“When that was posted, we did another search party,” she said. “We went to the Dover Mall, local restaurants and stores, and even on Delaware State University’s campus.”
For the second search party, eight people met in College Center.
“Most of us were females and we were out here in the bad parts of Dover,” Mcnear said, “breaking off branches to put in the water, and we even talked to some of the crackheads in the area.”
Students distributed flyers and the story of Erick reached New Jersey, Philadelphia, Maryland and Washington D.C.
Flyers Taken Down During Open House
Students said they also were upset when they found out Erick’s missing person flyers were taken down during the school’s Open House on Feb 23.
Junior Sydney Brokenborough said she was one of the first to notice.
“I was just looking around at all of the prospective students,” she said. “Then I noticed that a place where Erick’s flyer was the night before was no longer there. I asked some other students and they noticed the same thing.”
Senior Alexis Bynum said she also noticed.
“I looked and I was like, she’s right,” she said. “Then I was trying to figure out why they would take them down. It was kind of disrespectful to me because I get the school wants to portray an image but this is a real life situation. I don’t think the school would like it if their child went missing and we took down flyers of them.”
Students noticed the next day the posters were back up – but crinkled.
“Some of them were ripped and I knew that’s not how we left them,” junior Cortey Holder said. “They were given to us in a nice way so they should’ve been put back up in a nice way. The school shouldn’t have done that, it is so disrespectful on so many levels.”
Students said it will take time for them to feel better.
Sophomore Kaelynn Lang said she knew Erick since she has been at Wesley.
“There was never a day I didn’t see a smile on his face,” she said. “The last time I talked to him he gave me one of the biggest hugs and said this semester was going to be his semester. So, Erick, this semester and every semester after is for you. We will never forget.”
Thinking about both Erick and Ahyanna, junior Kendra Klunk said she would love to tell both of them what’s in her heart.
“I would want to say ‘Thank you’ to the both of them,” she said. “They impacted my life in ways they didn’t even know. There needs to be more of them in this world.”
Former Wesley student Davonne Duncan knew both Erick and Ahyanna, with whom she attended middle school in Camden.
“I want to tell Erick that he is loved, kind, and made a huge impact on Wesley way before his death,” she said. “We care about you, Chow, and we will never forget you. Watch over us.”
Sophomore Louisemene Georges said she has a hard time explaining what she’s been feeling since hearing about Erick’s death.
“I feel empty,” she said. “I feel the pain in my chest. I’m broken.”
But Georges also had something to say to Erick.
“If I could say something to him right now, I’d say ‘Chow, you’re such good person. You don’t understand how much of an impact you have on your peers.
“You’re loved! I love you, bro.’”