Volume 11, Issue 52
Published April 21st, 2004
Missing Children : Lost : Northeast Ohio's Missing Children
Two West Side girls just the most recent to vanish
By Amy Starnes
One year ago today , Amanda Berry walked out of a Burger King and disappeared into a bustling West Side Cleveland street. The last her family heard from her was a short cell phone call to say she had a ride and she'd call back. She never did.
Tomorrow she turns 18 years old.
Faded posters showing the petite sandy-blond are still nailed to light poles up and down Lorain Avenue near the Burger King where she worked at West 110th. Now, they are accompanied by new yellow ribbons and the smiling face of another girl Georgina DeJesus, a 14-year-old who vanished earlier this month while walking home from school. She was last seen just five blocks from where Amanda disappeared.
Hundreds of police officers, sheriff's deputies, FBI investigators and volunteers have been combing the area looking for Georgina and any clues that might provide a fresh lead on Amanda. Searches and vigils have been carried on the nightly news. And America's Most Wanted featured their stories.
But Gina and Mandy, as family and friends refer to them, are only two of Northeast Ohio's lost children.
THE NATIONAL CENTER for Missing and Exploited Children has logged 18 open missing children's cases from this area. Some have been gone just a few weeks, others for decades.
The cases range from endangered runaways like now-16-year-old Jennifer Bender of Lorain, who left a note for her parents nearly two years ago saying she was leaving to be with friends she had met in an Internet chat room, to family abductions like Nadia Dabbagh, who was taken by her non-custodial father in 1992 when she was just 2 years old, to non-family abductions like Tiffany Papesh of Maple Heights, who vanished in 1980 when she was 8 years old. A man was later convicted of Tiffany's murder, but her body has never been found.
Some people view runaways and family abductions as not as serious as a supposed stranger kidnapping the snatching of a youngster off the street. But that's where they make the mistake, according to officials.
“It's really not fair to the child to take a laissez faire attitude to say, Oh, it's just the parent.' Parents don't usually kill their children, but they have, says Joann Donnellan, media relations manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“We see runaways and we have people say, Well, she took off on her own.' Well, if she's 12, there's a problem. Obviously, a 12-year-old should not be out on the street.
“The majority of runaways do come home, but they can fall prey to child exploitation, she adds. “Kids are vulnerable. They get lured into situations that they may not understand until it's too late.
Between Jan. 1, 1990 and Sept. 30, 2003 the national center opened 70,049 cases, according to its quarterly report completed in October. While the number of cases the center has is not the total number of missing children in America, it provides a snapshot of the numbers and the reasons a child may be lost.
The vast majority of the cases 48,595 were endangered runaways, 17,744 were family abductions, 1,243 were non-family abductions, 2,078 were lost, injured or somehow couldn't make it home and 389 were false reports.
Of those cases, 66,019 children were recovered, including 724 who were dead when found. More than 5,273 cases remain open.
ELYRIA RESIDENT Lisa Sexton is one who simply never came home.
Lisa ran away just nine days before her 15th birthday in 1981 with an adult man who later returned without her. She was last known to be in Tampa, Fla., and called her mother three years after her disappearance.
Elyria police have kept her file open ever since. In the 22 years since her disappearance, police have recorded sightings as far away as Mexico. At other times, they have investigated the possibility that her body had been found.
“We've had several over the years. As they come in, we work with whatever agency that may be handling an unidentified person and we investigate it until that lead comes to a close,‚¬ says Lt. Andy Eichenlaub, who oversees Elyria's detective bureau. “As long as she's listed as missing, we would not disregard any possibility. Obviously, we would hope she's alive and well and just choosing not to return.
The most recent lead on Lisa was in September 2003 when the body of an unidentified murder victim resembling her description was exhumed by Louisiana police in order to complete dental and DNA tests in hopes of identifying the body.
The auburn-haired woman had been buried in a field since 1986, two weeks after she had been found in Lake Pontchartrain with a 22-pound weight tied to her neck. Dental records conclusively showed the body was not Lisa's. She will turn 38 next month.
It's unclear whether the news comforted or increased the pain of Lisa's mother, Barbara Terrell. She declined to talk about her daughter.
“I think she, like everybody else, still has hope, and I believe she understands that we are doing all we can, Eichenlaub said.
UNSOLVED MISSING CHILDREN'S cases like Lisa's can be devastating for families and frustrating for law enforcement.
When Frank Papesh died in 1993, his obituary noted his tireless efforts to find his daughter, Tiffany, who was 8 years old in 1980 when she disappeared on a trip to a Maple Heights convenience store within sight of the family's home.
Papesh mobilized hundreds of volunteers to look for her and campaigned to restore the death penalty to abductors who harm or kill children. Ohio did not have capital punishment at that time.
Even though her supposed killer is behind bars, Tiffany is still missing.
“The frustration comes from wanting to bring closure to the family, says Elyria's Eichenlaub.
Frustration for Lt. Wayne Drummond, spokesman for the Cleveland Police Department, comes with cases like Gina's or Mandy's, where the young person seemingly steps into a black hole. No one heard Gina scream. There are no dropped articles or signs of a struggle for either girl. A bloodhound lost Gina's scent a block from where she was last seen at a pay phone at W. 105th and Lorain Ave.
According to press reports, Mandy left $100 in her bedroom that she was saving to do her nails and buy a new outfit for her birthday the next day. And eerily, someone called her mother just days after she went missing to say he had Amanda, she was fine and she would return home soon. Her mother thought it might have been a prank until FBI agents confirmed the call came from her daughter's phone.
Drummond notes police have not said there is any connection between the two cases, “but we would be remiss in our duties not to look at it.
Bob O'Brien, project manager for the national center's Team Adam, a group of retired investigators who volunteer their time to work on missing children's cases, says he can't recall another instance of two high-profile missing children's cases in one neighborhood. Since January 2003, Team Adam has searched for 95 children in 33 states. All but eight have been found.
“I can say for sure in the group we've looked at under this past year in Team Adam, which is a small sampling in the country, there's not been another case like that, he said. “I think the fact that it was the same neighborhood, a lot of attention will be devoted to that and law enforcement will be able to solve that.
IN THE MEANTIME, so no one forgets, yellow ribbons flutter down Gina's street and the street where she disappeared.
So no one forgets, her picture is tacked on almost every light post and even taped to neighbors' car windows.
So no one forgets, a shrine thick with fluffy stuffed animals and prayer candles lines the fence of her family's home. It's covered with plastic on rainy days but still awaits her return.
“There is a terrible sadness here,Ă˘â‚¬Âť says neighbor Donald Cunningham. “I've got two boys and I know if one of them was missing, I'd go nuts. I would never sleep.
So no one forgets.
“When I'm driving if I see a girl with black hair, I always look to see if that could be her.
A complete list of Ohio's missing children can be found at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's web site: www.missingkids.com. To report a sighting or information on a missing child, call 1-800-The-Lost.