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Winton family still looking for daughter 12 years after disappearance

Beverly Smith never dreamed that when her 15-year-old daughter Vanessa went for a walk one warm evening in May 1997, it would be the last time she'd ever see her.

Vanessa had left the house in Winton, at Mercedes Avenue and Winton Way, around 7 p.m. She took her regular path through an almond orchard with walking stick in hand.

The short stroll would usually take Vanessa about five minutes. Beverly and her husband Art noticed that their daughter hadn't returned shortly after 8 p.m.

They knew something was wrong.

Frantically, the couple looked in Vanessa's bedroom, ran through the orchard and asked neighbors if they'd seen their daughter. Despite their best efforts, Vanessa was nowhere to be found. "Fear grasped my heart," Beverly recalled. "It was such a shock -- you just thought you'd go somewhere and see if she was hurt, or if the neighbors and seen her. It just didn't make sense."

After 12 years, Beverly is still searching for her daughter -- and the search is still painful and filled with tears. "If I don't do this, no one else is going to," Beverly insisted. "She's my daughter, who I love very much. People tend to forget until it happens to them."

Sunday will mark the anniversary of Vanessa's disappearance. In hopes of obtaining new clues in the case, detectives of the Merced County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Unit joined Beverly at the Travel Center of America in Livingston Wednesday, distributing posters to truck drivers.

Detectives pasted each poster on the backs of trucks, after obtaining the permission of the driver. Each poster contains Vanessa's photograph, plus details about her disappearance. The posters also display the $50,000 reward available to anyone who provides information that helps detectives crack the case.

While the goal of the posters is to turn over new clues, Sgt. Jason Goins said detectives also want to keep the case in the public eye. "We're hoping that someone recognizes her picture and gives us that one piece of information that we need," Goins said.

Unfortunately for the family, Goins said there have been no new leads in the case. There have also been few clues. Vanessa's walking stick was found along the roadside about 200 yards east of Winton Way. "We are investigating every lead, but at this point, we still have no idea what happened to Vanessa," Goins said.

Detectives handed out about 45 posters to truckers in Livingston on Wednesday, trucks which travel as far as the East Coast.

Julian Alaniz, a 47-year-old trucker from Fresno, allowed the detectives to put a poster on the back of his truck. Alaniz said he sympathizes with Vanessa's parents. "This is real important," Alaniz said, motioning towards the poster on the back of his truck. "I have a grandkid. It's a tragedy for parents."

Despite the passage of time, Beverly said she's still holding onto hope that one day she will see Vanessa again. "She simply took a walk and she vanished," she said. "There's a lot of good people in Merced County who are praying for her safe return."

Vanessa is one of two missing-child cases still open in Merced County. Pamela Ann Pedro disappeared without a trace after being dropped off by her mother at Atwater High School on Sept. 13, 1982.

If you or someone you know has information about the disappearance of Vanessa Smith or Pamela Ann Pedro, please call the Merced County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Unit at (209) 384-7472.

Those interested in contributing to the efforts to find Vanessa can give donations to the Vanessa Smith Trust Fund by visiting Travis Credit Union in Merced or Atwater.

Sheriff's investigators are asking anyone with clues about Vanessa's disappearance to call Detective Corey Gibson at (209) 385-7472, ext. 4994.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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