For parents of missing children, years pass but hope persists

07/06/2014 7:01 PM

07/06/2014 10:50 PM

It’s no longer Tammy Mack’s daily routine to spend her first waking hours online and on the phone trying to find her missing daughter.

She did that for several years. But it has been a decade now since Ashley Renee Martinez disappeared at age 15 from a public pool in St. Joseph. Searching the Web and calling police to see whether any new leads have surfaced is something Mack now does only once in a while.

Still, she hasn’t given up hope that someday she will find out what happened to Ashley.

For parents like Mack, the waiting, worrying and never knowing can take an immense emotional and physical toll. Often they channel their hope into planning events to keep their child’s name in front of the public.

“It’s also a family’s way of saying to the child, ‘I love you,’” said Kelly Murphy, director and founder of Project Jason, which helps families of missing children learn to cope. “Their way of saying, ‘I will never stop looking for you.’”

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the last time Mack saw her daughter, heading through the gated entrance to Krug Pool with her younger brother for a summer afternoon of swimming.

“When I came to pick them up later, her brother was there but she was gone,” Mack said.

She gathered with family and friends Sunday night for a candlelight vigil in the pool parking lot. Maybe, she said, shining a light on the case, even all these years later, will shake loose new leads that “finally bring us the closure we seek.”

Last week, she planted a sugar maple tree for Ashley across the street from the pool.

“I chose the sugar maple because in the autumn its leaves turn red, and red is her favorite color,” Mack said. “When I drive by I’ll see it.”

Donald Ross of Belton knows exactly what Mack is going through. His son Jesse “Opie” Ross disappeared in 2006 while on a college trip to Chicago.

“We keep pushing Jesse’s case, keep putting it out there,” said Ross, who has billboards with his son’s face staring out at motorists along Chicago highways and who still circulates fliers through the city’s downtown, where his son was last seen.

Ross’ Facebook page is covered with pictures and discussions about his continued search for answers to what happened to his son. He wrote a book, “Where’s Opie? Vanished in Chicago,” partly for “personal therapy” but also to help other parents of missing children.

“It’s frustrating,” Ross said. Police get new cases, and investigations into cold cases ease, he said.

“But you as a parent, every morning when you get up you see your child’s face just as it was when you last saw them. You realize it’s probably changed. You’ve missed years. But that feeling never goes away.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists 16 missing children in Kansas and 51 in Missouri, including Elizabeth Ann Gill, who disappeared in the summer of 1965 when she was 2 years old. She would be 51 today. Her family thinks she is still alive. For years they have held vigils, balloon launches and other events in her name.

Elizabeth Ann, the youngest of 10 children, was last seen playing in the front yard of her family’s Cape Girardeau home. Some thought she had wandered off and fallen into the Mississippi River. Her parents thought she had been kidnapped.

Four years ago, friends and family persuaded law enforcement officials to interview members of a transient group who had been in the area at the time the toddler disappeared. The FBI reclassified her case as a kidnapping and opened an investigation.

FBI spokeswoman Rebecca Wu said Thursday that all leads had been pursued, without resolution.

But the case remains open with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We never close a case until the answers are uncovered or the child is found,” said Lanae Holmes, senior family advocacy specialist for the center.

“We know that continued awareness brought to a case does bring children home. Children are found 10, 12, 20 years later,” Holmes said. “It some cases one tip can be the lead that brings a child home.”

That’s how Shawn Hornbeck was found, four years after he was kidnapped in 2002 when he was 11. The tip came from a teen who saw a pickup near a school bus stop where another boy was grabbed in January 2007. The description led police to a home in suburban St. Louis four days later. There they found the latest kidnapped child and Shawn.

For some families, the vigils, balloon launches, posters and billboards are about hoping that one tip will come. But often it’s also about “feeling in control of a control-less situation,” Murphy said.

She started the nonprofit Project Jason after her son Jason Jolkowski disappeared in Omaha, Neb., in 2001.

When a child disappears, she said, “it’s trauma that does not end. It’s like you have this gaping wound that never heals.”

“Trauma affects the brain and the body,” Murphy said. People can become physically ill. Consumed, even.

Some parents withdraw from the rest of their family or become so obsessed with searching for their lost child that they miss their other children growing up.

It’s common, too, Murphy said, for family members to have different views about what happened to their child. One parent may think the child is dead while the other is sure the child is alive and will come home.

Murphy recalled a family who moved from the only home their missing child had ever lived in with them. The couple got permission from the new homeowners to tack a plastic-sealed note to the door, so that if their child ever returned, he’d know where to find them.

“We never forget. And can’t, won’t, give up,” said Murphy, who has found herself staring into crowds or circling a block thinking that this time the familiar face she has seen is going to be her missing son. “There is always that glimmer of hope.”

Kara Kopetsky, another missing Kansas City area teen, disappeared in 2007. Last month her family held its seventh annual walk in her honor. At 17, Kara was last seen on a surveillance video leaving Belton High School; the last person she’d talked to was a boyfriend.

Mack thinks her daughter left the St. Joseph pool with a then-33-year-old convicted felon the teen had met in the neighborhood where they both lived.

Mack doesn’t know, but she thinks the man promised to take her daughter, who was on medication for bipolar disorder, away. “To her it was an adventure. I’m sure the picture was painted pretty,” she said.

Days after the girl disappeared, the man was arrested in a purse-snatching investigation in Olympia, Mo., but used a phony name and was released. Nearly two months later, after he failed to show up in court, he was arrested on a warrant.

Ashley wasn’t with him either time. He wouldn’t talk about the girl, but he remains a person of interest, said Sgt. Jennifer Protzman, the St. Joseph detective on the case. No arrest has ever been made in connection with the girl’s disappearance.

“Periodically I will get an email on a tip from another jurisdiction” that found a body matching Ashley’s age and gender, but then dental and DNA tests rule them out, Protzman said.

But police haven’t gotten any substantive information since Ashley disappeared, she said.

Tabitha Blohm Kretzer, who was Ashley’s best friend, was at the pool the day Ashley vanished.

“I thought she had gone to the convenience store, but she never came back,” Kretzer said. “I still think about her all the time.”

Mack said she knows her daughter didn’t stay away willingly. “One thing I know about Ashley, she wouldn’t just walk away from 15 years of life, never calling her family, her friends.”

“There’s always that thought,” she said, “that she is out there somewhere. Maybe like those girls who were kidnapped and found 10 years later in Cleveland. I’ve spent years getting her face out there. Maybe someone will come forward. I have her on every missing child website list.

“I want her to know, Ashley, you are not forgotten. I just want to bring her home, alive or dead. We’ve got to bring her home.”

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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