Search for missing Dartmouth graduate student ends tragically

New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officers, from left, Rob McDermott, Matt Holmes, and Lt. James Kneeland scan the bottom of the Connecticut River during a search for missing Dartmouth College graduate student Kexin Cai above the Wilder Dam in West Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, May 20, 2024. Cai, a graduate student in Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, was last seen on Wednesday, May 15, near her Drake Lane residence in West Lebanon and may have been riding a silver and white e-bike. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officers, from left, Rob McDermott, Matt Holmes, and Lt. James Kneeland scan the bottom of the Connecticut River during a search for missing Dartmouth College graduate student Kexin Cai above the Wilder Dam in West Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, May 20, 2024. Cai, a graduate student in Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, was last seen on Wednesday, May 15, near her Drake Lane residence in West Lebanon and may have been riding a silver and white e-bike. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

The Lebanon Police Department is looking for public assistance in locating Kexin Cai, 26, from West Lebanon, N.H. She was last seen in the area of Drake Lane in West Lebanon on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Courtesy Lebanon Police)

The Lebanon Police Department is looking for public assistance in locating Kexin Cai, 26, from West Lebanon, N.H. She was last seen in the area of Drake Lane in West Lebanon on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Courtesy Lebanon Police)

Lebanon Police Officer Eric Hunter returns to his vehicle after assisting a Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopter search from the ground for missing West Lebanon resident Kexin Cai, 26, at the Boston Lot on Monday, May 20, 2024. Fellow members of Cai's graduate program in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College were also searching the conservation area on foot on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lebanon Police Officer Eric Hunter returns to his vehicle after assisting a Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopter search from the ground for missing West Lebanon resident Kexin Cai, 26, at the Boston Lot on Monday, May 20, 2024. Fellow members of Cai's graduate program in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College were also searching the conservation area on foot on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Information about missing West Lebanon resident Kexin Cai, 26, is posted on a kiosk at the entrance to the Boston Lot near Wilder Dam in West Leabnon, N.H., on Monday, May 20, 2024. Cai, a graduate student in Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, was last seen on Wednesday, May 15, near her Drake Lane home and may have been riding a silver and white e-bike. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Information about missing West Lebanon resident Kexin Cai, 26, is posted on a kiosk at the entrance to the Boston Lot near Wilder Dam in West Leabnon, N.H., on Monday, May 20, 2024. Cai, a graduate student in Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, was last seen on Wednesday, May 15, near her Drake Lane home and may have been riding a silver and white e-bike. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-21-2024 7:01 PM

WEST LEBANON — Police on Monday retrieved the body of a missing Dartmouth College graduate student from the Connecticut River in Windsor, nearly 16 miles downriver from where her e-bike was last seen leaning against a picnic table in a parking lot across the road from the Wilder Dam last Thursday.

Authorities found the body of Kexin Cai, 26, of West Lebanon, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, after being alerted by a fisherman, police said late Monday.

The sad discovery ended a multi-day search for Cai by authorities and dozens of volunteers who scoured the conservation area that police believed had been Cai’s last known location.

Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts said police do not have any indication that Cai’s disappearance is the result of foul play and that an autopsy would be conducted by the New Hampshire State Medical Examiner.

A second-year doctoral candidate, Cai had not been seen since last Wednesday, when she was released from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and taken to Dartmouth’s on-campus health facility, Dick’s House. She had received mental health care at both locations last week, according to police and a friend of Cai’s.

Cai was at Dick’s House for a “brief time” before Dartmouth Safety and Security brought her back to her apartment at 3 p.m. on the same day, he said.

Staff at Dick’s House, concerned that Cai was not responding to their attempts to reach her, contacted Lebanon police at 6 p.m. last Friday requesting a wellness check at her apartment in Sachem Village in West Lebanon, according to Roberts.

When Cai could not be located at her apartment at the college-owned housing complex, the search widened over the weekend.

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A key clue emerged when police checked footage from private surveillance cameras that recorded Cai riding her e-bike south along Route 10 toward West Lebanon at around 6 p.m. on May 15, Roberts said.

Police said on Monday they were contacted by a witness who recalled seeing a white e-bike like the one Cai owned on Thursday or Friday in Boston Lot Conservation Area across from the Wilder Dam on Route 10. That dovetailed with the last registered pings from Cai’s phone and led them to focus their search in the area of the Boston Lot.

On Monday evening, Jon Kull, dean of the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, sent out an email alerting the community to Cai’s death. He said that Cai was a Chinese national who was in her second year in a doctoral program and had a special interest in communication challenges presented by autism.

“According to her advisor, Kexin was an exceptionally gifted and humble researcher with a genuinely sweet personality,” Kull wrote. “She loved cats so much she would sneak images of them into every poster or presentation. Kexin loved the Upper Valley. Here, she discovered the joys of hiking, skiing and road trips.”

Kull said a remembrance gathering would be scheduled at a later date.

Roberts said that the search efforts included foot patrols, New Hampshire Fish and Game boats on the Connecticut River above and below the Wilder Dam and airborne surveillance by a DHART helicopter that was pressed into service on Monday.

Police also deployed drones, but until the fisherman had reported a body in the Connecticut River just south of the Windsor golf course, there had been no evidence of Cai’s whereabouts, Roberts said.

Because Cai had already been missing for days before police had been notified by Dick House’s staff, any traceable scent that could have been detected by canines had already dissipated, Roberts said.

A check with Cai’s banking records showed that there had been no financial transactions during the time of her disappearance, he said.

Roberts also noted that it would not be unusual for the strength of the Connecticut River’s current to have borne Cai’s body from West Lebanon to Windsor.

“That’s unfortunately very common in body recoveries.The current in that river is going to take a body south,” he said.

In an interview on Monday evening before police announced the discovery of Cai’s body, her friend and coworker Kristian Droste said that Cai had been experiencing a “mental health crisis” and had sought care earlier last week.

She was admitted to Dick’s House, Dartmouth’s on-campus medical facility, where she spent at least one night before being transferred to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, Droste said.

Roberts said that the police investigation found that Cai had been discharged by DHMC on May 15 and was transported by Dartmouth Safety and Security to Dick’s House.

On Tuesday, Dartmouth College spokesperson Diana Lawrence declined to comment on the college’s role in Cai’s care: “Dartmouth does not disclose student health information publicly.”

Dartmouth Health spokesperson Audra Burns also declined to comment: “For the protection of our patients’ privacy, Dartmouth Health does not comment on the care a patient receives or care protocols.”

The last time Droste saw Cai was when he visited her at Dick’s House on May 13, he said.

“It was clear she was still in a crisis and needed time and space to heal,” he said.

Droste said he later learned that Cai had been transferred to DHMC, but when he went to the medical center on Friday to check on her, he was informed that Cai had been discharged “a couple days earlier.”

Droste said that when he went to Cai’s apartment in West Lebanon later on Friday police were already there.

On Monday, colleagues and friends of Cai’s gathered on campus to organize a search, according to Sixtine Fleury, a graduate student in the Psychology and Brain Science Department who joined the effort.

Fleury said 30 to 40 volunteers divided themselves into four groups with each group entering at one of four “access points” into the 436-acre Boston Lot Conservation Area. Fleury’s group met in the parking area across from the Wilder Dam.

As Fleury spoke, search teams in boats were observed on the river both above and below Wilder Dam, including one of which was equipped with sonar equipment.

Although Fleury said she knew of Cai only through mutual friends, the effort to band together and launch a search was not unusual for the department’s students and colleagues.

“We’re a small, tight-knit community,” Fleury said of the Psychology and Brain Sciences program. “We all empathize with each other and if one of the members of our community are in some danger we are there for them.”

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 988 or 1-800-273-8255. The New Hampshire Rapid Response Access Point, the local mobile crisis response clinician teams for people in sis in the state, can be reached by phone at 833-710-6477 or online at NH988.com. YouthLine can be reached by call ing 877-968-8491 or by texting teen2teen to 839863. A crisis text line can be reached by texting HELLO to 741741.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.