A glass cabinet outside of Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin's office holds several awards, commendations and photographs, but it also houses a teddy bear that can stir up several emotions.
Pinned on the bear's shirt are the pictures of two local girls who disappeared in their teens. Vanessa Smith, who went missing in 1997 at 15 years old, and Pamela Pedro, who vanished in 1982 at 17 years old, are the most notable missing person cases in Merced County.
Though the cases have been cold for a long time, the hope that they'll be found someday was renewed this week. Three missing persons rescued in Ohio are providing that spark of optimism for local law enforcement.
The three women rescued in Cleveland disappeared a decade ago, but were found at a house Monday when one of them, 27-year-old Amanda Berry, broke free, ran to a neighbor and called 911. The act led to the rescue of the two other women, 23-year-old Gina DeJesus and 32-year-old Michele Knight.
In Merced County, local leaders can only hope for similar occurrences with Smith and Pedro.
Pazin said it's common for criminals to work in groups when they kidnap someone. He's convinced that somebody knows something about Smith or Pedro, and he hopes that person makes the right move by approaching law enforcement with what they know.
"Just look what happened in Cleveland, Ohio," Pazin said. "It was really a pack of heathens that evidently were picking off these young persons and keeping them held against their will through fear, force or some type of psychological fear."
Until Merced County's missing person cases are solved, Pazin said they'll continue to be a top priority law enforcement. "It does wear on you because you know deep down in your heart — somebody knows something and for whatever reason, they're not coming forward," Pazin said.
Still, he said his office is doing all it can to find the women. There was recently a service for Pedro at Atwater High School calling for her return. And it won't be long before the anniversary of Smith's disappearance comes around again.
"We ensure as we go through transitions of detectives and investigators that they know this case is still on the front burner and if any leads come through, they need to pursue that immediately," Pazin said.
And the teddy bear inside that cabinet outside of Pazin's office is far from a memento. He hopes to give that bear to those two missing girls when they return, regardless of what ages they are.
"We hope that they come back," Pazin said.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.