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Missing Petaluma woman's body found in South Lake Tahoe

Mariah Harvey, 17, Jazmine Taylor, 18, Taylor Dardis, 17, and Chanel Kelly, 16, cry together outside the Petaluma home of their friend Alyssa Byrne, 19, whose body was discovered Friday morning in South Lake Tahoe. Byrne was reported missing on New Year's Eve.

(John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 8:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 4:31 p.m.

STATELINE, Nev. — For three increasingly frantic days, family members and friends had searched for Alyssa Byrne, 19, of Petaluma. On Friday morning they began mourning her death, their hopes dashed by the discovery of her body in a snowbank in South Lake Tahoe.

A worker atop an elevated utility truck spotted the body just as search and rescue crews were launching their efforts for the day, and just as Byrne's father, Kevin, was rounding up fliers to distribute in the hope of generating clues to her whereabouts.

"I couldn't stand now if I wanted to," Kevin Byrne said several hours later, seated at a table with his brother and friends at the Horizon Casino Resort in Stateline, where his daughter had stayed while attending a three-day music festival.

Authorities said there were no preliminary signs of traumatic injury or foul play.

Byrne wiped back tears as he described calling his wife, Kimberly Miller-Byrne, in Petaluma with the news.

"My wife couldn't speak," he said. "Thankfully, she was surrounded by family and friends ... when I had to give her the worst news of her life."

Until 9 a.m. Friday, Kevin Byrne had been working with two dozen family members and friends to print new fliers about his daughter and raising reward money in excess of $10,000 — all to ensure his daughter made it back home.

But she lay hidden from view just 10 feet off a busy road and a mile or so from the Lake Tahoe Community College campus where the SnowGlobe Music Festival was held.

Douglas County, Nev., Undersheriff Paul Howell said she was lying uncovered and that the case would remain under investigation.

"Our condolences to Alyssa's family and friends," Howell said in announcing her death at a news conference. "It's an ending we did not want to see. Our hearts go out to the family."

Kevin Byrne described his daughter, the youngest of two children, as a "stud athlete" who played on boys' Little League teams until she was 14.

She was a "little girl who wore a baseball cap everywhere she went." Later, she embraced lacrosse, playing first for the club at Casa Grande High School, where she graduated in 2011, and later for the Petaluma High School club, which she thought was better.

"She has a great energy about her," he said, echoing the comments of numerous friends who described Byrne as a fun-loving, social butterfly who knew practically everyone in town.

She had been attending Santa Rosa Junior College in hope of becoming a paramedic/firefighter and was working as a hostess at Cattlemens restaurant.

He said he was at the Sheriff's Office at 9 a.m. Friday when he was informed that a body believed to be his daughter's had been found. His worst fear was confirmed about 45 minutes later through a unique tattoo on her wrist.

Kevin Byrne said he might have tried to stop his daughter from attending SnowGlobe had he known more about the event. But she was 19 and headstrong, and he conceded she might not have listened.

She left for the event Saturday with three friends who shared a room at the Horizon and attended the festival together, though many other friends from Petaluma were in the crowd.

Jay Donnellan, a Casa Grande classmate and friend who was traveling with her, said he last saw Byrne around 11 p.m. Monday, New Year's Eve, when she left the concert early though it was the festival's final night.

He said she was ahead of her three friends in a crowd when she disappeared without a word, though she called about 30 minutes later and told Donnellan she was taking a shuttle bus back to the Horizon.

Howell said there were "transportation issues" with the shuttle that night, and Byrne may have elected, like many other concert-goers, to walk the four miles or so back to the Stateline casino/hotel district.

Kevin Byrne said he was told authorities' best guess was she had climbed the snow berm to get off the road and either slipped and fell or went to sleep, succumbing to the elements on a night the mercury dipped into single digits.

Several friends have said shuttle traffic was stalled by fireworks and a street celebration in the middle of Highway 50 as the stroke of midnight neared.

Friends also said Byrne had been drinking, although they also called her responsible and smart and able to take care of herself.

"Honestly, everyone was intoxicated," said Chanel Kelly, 16, of Petaluma, who also attended the festival. "But she didn't seem like she was going off the deep end. She was really responsible and kind of maternal, and definitely didn't need anybody taking care of her. But I guess this time was the time we should have been."

Authorities said the last reliable record of use of Byrne's cellphone was at 11:53 p.m. Monday.

It remains unclear how another friend, Petaluma resident Micah Alex, could have seen her back at the Horizon Hotel around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, as he has said.

Alex, who was staying at another hotel, said he and his girlfriend crossed paths with her in a ground-floor passageway near the lobby at that time.

Asked Friday if it was possible he mistook the time, Alex said no but declined additional comment.

Howell, the Douglas County sheriff, said eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, particularly when one does not anticipate it having lasting importance.

He said investigators also would consider whether Byrne might have returned to the casino and gone back out to the concert area for some reason.

In Petaluma on Friday, a crowd of friends and supporters joined reporters and TV satellite trucks outside the Byrnes' Bryce Canyon Court home on the east side of town.

Inside, Kimberly Miller-Byrne, her son, Greg, and other relatives and friends holed up, leaving public comment to her husband.

Kevin Byrne said he had tried to get to his daughter's body in the snow but was prevented from doing so by investigators, who had the area cordoned off. He said he hoped to see her before returning to Petaluma.

In a written statement, he expressed gratitude to those "who came to help search for her" and "spent hours and hours handing out fliers and supporting our family in every way they could. We owe you a debt of thanks."

"I also want to thank the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, the Search and Rescue crew and everyone else who spread the word and tried to bring Alyssa home safely," his statement said.

Byrne's body was found just outside South Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County, which is in California. The El Dorado County Sheriff's Office will now lead the ongoing investigation into her death, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said.

"We don't shut down the investigation," Howell said. "We'll try to get an answer for the family, and for the investigation, on what occurred and what led to this."

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