Mystery surrounds two near-identical bottled messages found in Russian River

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If there’s an afterlife, Brian Bricker figures his old friend Michele Coutin is there now having a hearty laugh, watching folks on Earth struggle to unravel the curious mystery she left behind.

It’s probably futile, since she’s not here to ask about what are now two nearly identical bottled-up messages recovered several years apart in different parts of the Russian River, directing whoever might find them to contact the three Bricker children of Norman, Oklahoma.

Those three siblings, now pretty much grown-up after spending most of their lives in Santa Rosa but for 3½ years in the Sooner State, might have been amused as youngsters by a stranger’s letter from far away in answer to a message in a bottle.

That, apparently, was what drove Coutin during years of wanderings late in life to launch an unknown number of missives leading back to the Brickers, their parents say.

What can’t be determined now is just how far Coutin, who died in 2012 in her 80s, was willing to go to ensure the dream she carried for her three young friends became a reality.

Is it just a coincidence that two letters, both marked January/February 2006 — one “from Maui” and one “from California” — were found in the same river, albeit one in Jenner and the other near Geyserville? Or was Coutin so eager to see her dream fulfilled that she planted a passel of them in the Russian River hoping at least one would make its way into human hands?

“Ultimately,” Brian Bricker said, “I just don’t know.”

It seems questionable at this point, however, that a worn plastic bottle ostensibly cast into the Pacific Ocean during a visit Coutin made to Hawaii years ago traveled all the way from there to the Russian River estuary, where Cloverdale resident Eric McDermott found it on the river bank last April during an Earth Day cleanup event. McDermott shared his discovery with The Press Democrat in a story published earlier this month.

The account led to the recent disclosure by a Geyserville man, Dave Kelly, that he’d found a similar note in a bottle five or six years earlier in a debris pile at the edge of the river while fly-fishing near his home. Kelly has been trying intermittently ever since to locate the family he thought must be awaiting word.

“I pictured in my heart and mind, a family staying up at a river beach, and the mom writing this,” said Kelly, 60, who kept the letter thumbtacked to his garage wall for years. “I was not obsessed with it, but just kind of felt like it was my duty, like these kids were playing on the beach up river from me — Cloverdale or whatever.”

Like McDermott, Kelly first tried to find the Brickers in Norman, only to learn they had sold their home there. Then, armed only with the names of the children — Allyson, now 23, Dylan, 20, and Alexis, 17 — he tried periodically running their names in Facebook and Google, without success. To make matters worse, the name of the oldest, Allyson, was misspelled in both letters, one of which appears to be a slightly modified photocopy of the other.

Kelly, who moved from a rental home to a fixer-upper earlier this year, even moved the letter he had kept from one abode to the other, after first putting it on a pile of stuff headed for the trash. “I remember throwing it in the garbage two or three weeks ago, and then I pulled it back out,” he said.

He eventually stuffed it into a plastic tote filled with tool manuals from which he retrieved it a few days ago after reading of McDermott’s recovery of a similar message and his discovery that the Brickers lived right in his backyard, in Santa Rosa.

McDermott, 30, had been trying to find the Bricker kids in Oklahoma when he found another Bricker, their mother, Alicia, online with ties to both Norman and Santa Rosa, tracked down a phone number and got in touch.

McDermott, a fisheries biologist for Sonoma Water, said marine debris is often found several miles upstream from the Russian River’s mouth in Jenner. But having a bottle with note meant to lead to a Sonoma County family wind up on the Sonoma Coast from Maui would be an astounding coincidence.

“I’m trying to still think that it’s real,” McDermott said, “but it does bring up a lot of mystery when the second note pops up.”

He said it still seems plausible the message he found came from Hawaii.

Brian Bricker said Coutin often traveled internationally and frequently remarked about inserting notes into bottles she would then cast away — into what he always assumed were oceans — so whoever found them might contact his children.

“I was friends with Michele long before the birth of my first kid, so I know it went on for at least 10 years after my first daughter was born,” said Bricker. He knew Coutin because she worked at a Santa Rosa convalescent home, where she had befriended Bricker’s mother. “There were definitely many times over the years that she mentioned she was doing it.”

But after learning last week about the discovery Kelly made five or six years ago and just how closely the letters resembled one another, Bricker said he suspects Coutin dropped both bottles, and perhaps others, in the river locally.

“All I know is I never had a reason to doubt what she said, and it was also never that big a deal,” he said.

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