Beverly Smith knows in her heart that her daughter is still living, 12 years after she vanished from her rural Winton home.
And the recent reappearance of Jaycee Lee Dugard 18 years after her abduction gives Smith renewed hope she will be reunited with her long-lost daughter.
Vanessa Dawn Smith, then 15, went out for a short walk from her Mercedes Avenue home in Winton and never returned. Nothing has led to any major developments in her disappearance.
"I've always felt she's still alive," Smith said. "I don't think otherwise. I do know she's going to come home someday; I just don't know when."
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Smith didn't find out about Dugard being found until a day after it was reported last summer. She's happy for the Dugard family that they've finally gotten closure, or whatever solace they can manage.
"It gives new hope, even though she had two daughters by that evil man (suspected abductor Phillip Garrido). People should give them (Dugard family) privacy."
Sgt. Jason Goins, supervisor of the Merced County Sheriff's Department Major Crimes Unit, said there are no new developments in the May 31, 1997, disappearance of Smith. There have been hundreds of tips from time to time, but he has no idea what happened to Vanessa.
"We look through all of them," Goins said. "When the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children circulates fliers, that will trigger calls. We want to bring closure to the family and we are going to keep working on it. These things do get solved."
Smith believes her daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Television personality Oprah Winfrey just hosted an hourlong program on missing-abducted children. Vanessa's picture, not age-enhanced, was included in the running list of missing youngsters. The posters now circulating on Smith's disappearance show how she might look today.
"I want her home more than anybody. Twelve years is a long time, yet it is so short," Smith said.
Jerry Nance is a case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. His unit only handles long-term cases, and he inherited the Smith case last month.
"It's a promise: We will never stop looking," Nance said. "There are 800 cases similar to Vanessa's. Hopefully, she's out there."
Nance said 800,000 people are reported missing every year in the U.S., about 720,000 of them children. Some 96 percent of all children will be found safe or come home on their own. About 2 percent are found after they've been sexually assaulted or physically injured.
About 1 percent are found dead.
Another 1 percent just disappear.
"We've found about a dozen kids alive over the years," Nance said. "Police are as frustrated as the families."
Nance said information about Smith's and others' disappearance are put in a number of databases. If a missing person's identity is used, that will trigger an alert, and his group will be notified. When prisoners' statements are taken about these cases, that information is referred to local law enforcement agencies to investigate.
"We look for patterns of other similar cases," Nance said. "Attacks on kids are rarely a one-time event."
Beverly Smith's friend Debby Koehn of Winton said she was excited when she heard the news about Dugard's reappearance and said that case gives renewed hope here.
"It's always best to have hope. I definitely don't want to think she's not alive," Koehn said.
Smith can't imagine the struggle her daughter might have endured when she was abducted. If she screamed, no one heard her. She concedes there is a possibility Vanessa may have been drugged, raped or molested.
"Vanessa and I were real close, like two peas in a pod," Smith recalled. "We had so many plans for the summer. She and a friend were going to take a sewing class, and Vanessa was going to Colorado for two weeks in August to visit a friend. I was the last to see her go on her walk and remember thinking to myself she was growing up so fast."
Vanessa had graduated from the eighth grade at Grace Mennonite School only the day before. The day she disappeared the school had a picnic which ended about 5 p.m. Her walks customarily were not so long, only lasting about five minutes.
Melissa Jantz of Winton has known Beverly all her life and has worked closely with her for the last five years in putting up fliers around the community and laminated posters on the rear of truck trailers.
Jantz said Smith needs her help and support and she's happy to provide that. She hasn't formed many opinions about Vanessa's disappearance, but said there has never been evidence that harm was done to her. Dugard's discovery gives her courage to keep going and believe there's still a chance Vanessa will be located.
Smith said she has to keep an open mind and pure heart about her circumstances.
"All her chums have married and have babies," Smith said. "Life goes on and doesn't stand still. We go on with our lives; I try not to get bitter or critical. I believe the Lord strengthens us through all of this. I thought she would come home in a couple of months, and there certainly is wear and tear on your mind and body from this."
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said deputies always keep their fingers crossed for a happy ending where the missing person is found alive.
"The bottom line is we will keep grinding it out," Pazin said. "She (Vanessa) left under mysterious circumstances. We run down every lead, and her mom stays in the forefront and we appreciate that."
Pazin said criminal sexual predators generally have help in their abductions. He's hoping somebody who knows something in this case will finally develop a conscience and come forward.
"These things are not done in a vacuum," Pazin said. "If enough publicity is generated, somebody will come forward and let us know what happened. We need the public's assistance. There are a number of anonymous tip lines people can take advantage of -- and we wish they would."
Smith believes parents should be more aware of where their children are at all times and take responsibility for knowing their whereabouts. She wonders what goes through the mind of a child abductor.
"Kidnappings and abductions are like a disease. It's more than sick," she said. Cindy Rudometkin, response department director for the Polly Klaas Foundation in Northern California, said she speaks to Beverly on a regular basis and supplies her with posters. She said the disappearance of a child has to be the most heartbreaking emotion a parent can endure.
"Our main focus is to be there for Beverly and leave the investigation to law enforcement," Rudometkin said. "I want to remind people to take a good look at missing persons' fliers and keep your eyes open."
One factor that deeply troubles Smith is not having enough money to keep laminating posters that are placed on the back of big rigs. She said it shouldn't take money to find a child -- but that's the case these days. A trust fund in Smith's name has been established at Merced and Atwater branches of Travis Credit Union.
Smith said members of the sheriff's department Major Crimes Unit are awesome. Because there have been no major developments in Vanessa's case, she doubts she will ever be interviewed for a major television news program like the Oprah Winfrey show.
Smith said she and her husband, Art, think about their missing daughter every day. It's tough to describe the feelings about the disappearance.
"The more you put her out there, the more chance someone will come forth," Smith said.
She knows it in her heart.
Doane Yawger is a former associate editor of the Sun-Star.