Two months on, no sign of US woman missing on Spanish pilgrimage route

Denise Pikka Thiem had been trekking the famous Camino de Santiago in León province A number of others have reported attacks in area when she disappeared, say local media

Denise Pikka Thiem during one of the final legs of her journey along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
Denise Pikka Thiem during one of the final legs of her journey along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

After more than two months of searching, Spanish police have still found no sign of Denise Pikka Thiem, a 41-year-old American woman who went missing while traveling the Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ route in northern Spain.

Little is known about Thiem’s movements before she disappeared: she drew out €50 from a cash machine on April 1, and three days later, sent an email to a friend. On the afternoon of April 4, she checked into a hostel in the cathedral city of Astorga, in León province. The following day, Easter Sunday, she breakfasted in a local café, and spoke with two other women traveling the same route, who say they last saw her in a church in the city.

Some Asian visitors have reportedly “panicked” over the case, says one pilgrim

In her last email, Thiem said she planned to attend Mass on Easter Sunday and then, around midday, make the 14-kilometer trip to El Ganso, a small community that only survives because of its location on the pilgrimage route.

Ramiro Rodríguez, who has been running a local bar there for 25 years, says he cannot remember “a single incident” involving pilgrims along the route.

Missing person notices have been put up all over the area where Thiem – a Chinese American from Phoenix, Arizona – disappeared, and are seen by the hundreds of people who pass along the Camino de Santiago every day. Many of them are unaware of Thiem’s disappearance, while some Asian visitors have reportedly “panicked” over the case, says Justyna, a Polish woman making the pilgrimage. “The Koreans are terrified,” she says. “There is also a rumor, which could be true, that in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port [on the French-Spanish border] a backpack was found that supposedly belongs to a Korean,” she says.

There’s no need to become paranoid, it’s simply a question of being careful” Travel blogger Annie Carvalho

In Sarria, a small community in Lugo province about 150 kilometers from Astorga, and 100 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela, where the Camino ends, the Civil Guard says it is looking for a man known only as Miguel, who is believed to have attacked an American and a Dutch woman on the route. “He drove up, got out to talk to them, and told them his supposed name, then he assaulted one and tried to force her into his car,” says the Civil Guard source. “Both women fought him off with the sticks they were using for walking.”

Local media in Astorga say a number of women have reported “harassment” while walking the Camino. Annie Carvalho, who writes about different pilgrimage routes in Spain online, warned women in a blog posted in May about straying from the route and traveling alone, referring to problems in the area where Thiem has gone missing. “There’s no need to become paranoid, it’s simply a question of being careful,” she warned. “I have always believed the Camino to be safe.”

Fears for the safety of women traveling the Camino de Santiago have been further heightened after a woman from a small village close to Astorga told police that two men in a van “who spoke with Eastern European accents” tried to kidnap her while she was jogging.

Denise Pikka Thiem.
Denise Pikka Thiem.

But for the moment, the police are not making any connection between the incident and Thiem’s disappearance. Some local people have dismissed the alleged kidnapping as an exaggeration. The head of the residents’ association in one village has complained about “media attention” in an area that he says has “always been peaceful,” adding that it was in Astorga where Thiem went missing. “Nothing ever happens around here. Three years ago there was talk about an Italian woman who disappeared. They were searching for her for six weeks, and eventually they found her living in a nearby commune. Who knows what has happened to this foreign woman. So many pass by here every day… what seems clear is that her body hasn’t been dumped anywhere, because they have been using helicopters, dogs, forest rangers, and groups of up to 150 volunteers to look for her.”

The head of one residents’ association has complained about “media attention” in an area that has “always been peaceful”

Thiem’s younger brother, Cedric, who flew to Spain in April to report her missing, says his sister was inspired to walk the Camino de Santiago after seeing The Way, a movie featuring Martin Sheen as a father who travels to the French section of the route to claim the body of his son who was killed in the Pyrenees, and ends up walking the rest of the Camino.

Cedric Thiem has now set up a Facebook page called “Help Us Find Denise,” prompting a number of false sightings. But the Spanish police say that so far they have no evidence at all as to her whereabouts. She has not contacted her family or used her credit card.

Of the 70 or so pilgrims who stay most nights in the hostel where Thiem lodged before going missing, “only three or four are Spanish,” says the owner, Conchi Alonso. “There are a lot of Americans, around 20 a day, as well as Germans, Japanese… Asians like her, hundreds. I didn’t even know she had stayed here until the police came and I saw her name in the guest book. She left around 7am, and after that nobody knows what happened: none of what is being said about this makes sense to me,” she says.

Denise Thiem did not have a cellphone with her. She contacted friends and family via the internet, doing so every four or so days to report on her experiences and upload a photo or sketch.

Three years ago there was talk about an Italian woman who disappeared. They eventually found her living in a nearby commune

The hills around Astorga are known as the Maragatería, and eventually rise to the mountains of León, which even at this time of year have snow on their peaks. The searches that have taken place over the last two months have been hindered by the spring growth, which has caused tracks and trails to become covered by dense undergrowth.

Thiem’s family has contacted their local Congressional and Senatorial representatives in the US, and were hoping that US Secretary of State John Kerry would raise the matter during a planned visit to Spain – though his trip was subsequently canceled.

Her brother Cedric says he will continue the campaign to find his sister: “I want to dedicate my time to worrying about my sister. When I am eating, where could she be eating? When I am sleeping, where could she be sleeping?”

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