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Authorities investigate exchange student's disappearance

Harman Singh

Authorities are investigating whether a teenage exchange student from India who vanished from southeastern North Dakota might have traveled to Canada, or whether a cell phone message saying he was headed north was just a ruse to send searchers in the wrong direction.

Officials do not suspect a crime, and they do not believe 16-year-old Harman Singh would hurt anyone. But wherever he is and whatever the outcome, his disappearance has puzzled and frustrated the farm family with whom he lived and the small community he came to know as home.

Collette Mathern, whose family near Edgeley has been the host family for Singh since September, said she received the cell phone message from him Sunday afternoon, less than a day after he disappeared.

Mathern said Singh told her in his cell phone message that he loved her and asked for forgiveness. He said he was in Seattle and in a couple of hours planned to head to Canada.

"We have no answers, and I'm so frustrated," she said Wednesday. "Anything is possible. He could still be around here."

The teenager was last seen walking away from the Edgeley school Saturday after returning on a school bus from a track meet in Jamestown.

Mathern said Singh had spent a lot of time on the computer, monitoring his Facebook account and reading newspapers from India. She said Wednesday that state crime bureau agents were analyzing the family's computer.

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation would not confirm whether the agency is investigating.

Singh came to the U.S. through Connecticut-based Academic Year in America, a program of the American Institute For Foreign Study. A spokeswoman did not immediately return a telephone call Wednesday seeking comment.

Mathern said Singh has no driver's license and has limited driving skills. But she said he received money from his parents in India - enough to buy a plane ticket if he wanted to.

"We just don't have any answers," she said. "I don't know if he's safe, I don't know if he really had this planned. Did he get involved with something bad in Canada that lured him? I find it so hard to believe that he would not at least call me and let me know he's safe. He loved me, and I loved him."

LaMoure County Sheriff Bob Fernandes said authorities checked with area airports and found no indication Singh got on a plane.

School Superintendent Rick Diegel said Singh put goodbye notes in four student lockers before leaving for the track meet Saturday morning that indicated he planned to leave Edgeley, a town of about 630 people.

"We don't have any suspicion of foul play," the sheriff said. "I believe this is what he wanted to do."

Singh arrived last fall to stay with the Mathern family - Collette, her husband, Jason, and their four children. Collette Mathern said that aside from a few clashes with the two oldest boys, who were younger than Singh, there were no problems.

"He wanted to do and experience everything he could while he was here," she said. "We gave him every opportunity. We took him to the Mall of America, took him to an indoor water park ... we had plans to go to Medora.

"He was very appreciative of his stay here," Mathern said. "He was just like our own child. He loved us - so we thought. He just totally blindsided us."

Diegel said the goodbye notes left in school had language that could be interpreted "in an extreme view" as threatening, and authorities took such precautions as searching lockers and classrooms Sunday night for anything suspicious. They opened only one school entrance Monday morning and had Fernandes and a deputy stationed at that door.

The sheriff said he does not believe Singh intends to harm anyone.

"That was just something we had to look at and take all precautions," he said.

Mathern said Singh took very little with him and left behind some expensive items, including designer clothing and cologne.

He had helped with farm chores, seemed to have a good relationship with his parents in India, and was close to her, she said. Now, calls to his cell phone go directly to voice mail, and she is perplexed about why he has left such a mystery behind.

"I just don't think he would let me sit here and worry to death on purpose," Mathern said. "But then again, I don't know. He's obviously not the person we thought he was."