GIRL, DISAPPEARED: No headlines screamed when a troubled 17-year-old vanished four years ago. And despite her mother’s tireless efforts, Terry Reyes' fate is still a blank.
By Joline Gutirrez Krueger
Teresa Reyes still looks for her missing daughter in the sad, sunken eyes of the lost girls on Central Avenue, in places crowded with misery and angry dreams, in psychic visions and in police reports and on her own stairway.
An occasional series on unsolved cases
Every aching dawn Reyes still stands at her kitchen window and gazes at those stairs, envisioning her dark-haired daughter climbing up, coming home, at last.
She sees her daughter still 17, still giddy and beautiful and alive as she was when she vanished from her bedroom like the breeze of a summer night four long years ago this month.
Her daughter never comes.
"I cry a lot," she said, the sorrow pressing down on her weary shoulders like tombstones. "I am always driving, always doing something to find her. I feel guilty. I blame myself. Maybe I didn’t do enough. Every day is not easy. I feel like, why am I laughing? I don’t know if she is cold or hungry. I don’t know if she is alive or dead."
Not knowing, Reyes said, is worse than knowing that her daughter is selling her body on the streets, as one detective speculated. Or that her body is strewn somewhere on a barren mesa, as one psychic divined.
Unlike nationally publicized cases of missing daughters such as Washington intern Chandra Levy, San Diego’s Danielle Van Dame or Salt Lake City’s Elizabeth Smart, few have ever heard of Reyes’ daughter - also named Teresa Reyes, or Terry.
That, despite Reyes’ incessant pleas for help to everyone from the FBI to former Mayor Jim Baca.
"No one listens to me," Reyes said in fretted knots of English, a language she has struggled to perfect in classes taken since her daughter’s disappearance. "It made me feel mad, angry, frustrated. I thought maybe they didn’t pay attention because I can’t speak English so good, because I am Hispanic."
Albuquerque Police Department officials say it is not that but an overburdened system that in just the first five months this year logged 682 cases of runaway or missing juveniles.
"The efforts are good," said Christina Gauthier, who until recently staffed the Department’s one-person Missing Persons/Runaway unit. "But we are hampered by sheer volume."
Despite Reyes’ own searches, a private investigator, four psychics and her relentless phone calls and letters, no one knows for sure what happened to her daughter July 1, 1998, or what has happened to her since.
So Reyes waits. And looks to the stairway, empty, again.
The special one
Terry Reyes was the baby of her Las Cruces family, born nearly a decade after a sister and
brother. She was the surprise, the special child, the girl with dark ropes of hair coiling down her back and dimples that bent in gracious half-moons when she smiled. But her smiles were sometimes dimmed by the merciless ridicule of classmates who laughed at her learning disabilities.
"In school they make fun of her, call her retarded," her mother said. "But she can do anything. She is just a slow learner. She needed more time for everything."
By the time she reached middle school, it was clear that Terry needed more than time and special education classes. Her moods began to rock frantically between light and dark, between despair and euphoria.
"She would get violent sometimes," Reyes said. "She would be so depressed, just wanting to sleep. And sometimes she would be so happy. She couldn’t stay still. She would go back and forth, in and out, jumping around. They said she had a chemical imbalance in her brain."
With few mental health providers available in Las Cruces, Teresa and Venancio Reyes moved to Albuquerque to seek better treatment for their then-15-year-old daughter’s whiplashed mind.
"It was the most important thing, to find help for her," said Reyes, who cleans offices in the evenings to supplement her husband’s construction work pay. "We would do anything for her."
Terry went through four psychiatrists before finding one she liked, Reyes said. The diagnosis was bipolar disorder, a condition that forces Terry’s brain to rocket from mania to depression.
Zoloft and Tegretol helped to alleviate her mood swings; Ritalin calmed her Attention Deficit hyperactivity Disorder.
But things would get worse before they got better. On April 16, 1996, Albuquerque police records show officers were called to the family’s apartment in the 8100 block of Marquette Avenue Northeast after Terry armed herself with a kitchen knife and carved two to three gashes in her forearm during an argument with her mother. She was hospitalized at Desert Hills Center for Youth and Families. But beyond the hospital walls, it was left to Reyes to keep Terry under control, safe, medicated.
Terry was now a Sandia High School junior with a rose tattoo on her calf and piercings in her tongue and navel, but in many ways she was still that special baby of the family who needed her mother for every move.
"She was like 12 years old with the body of someone older," Reyes said. "She was so close to me. She couldn’t do anything without me."
But Terry was doing things her mother could scarcely imagine. She had boyfriends, many of them, some who would last for one mandatory visit with the parents, most for just two weeks. There were other nameless males, murky figures who Terry was drawn to, who Terry sometimes disappeared with, sometimes for days. Terry once crawled out a window with another patient at Desert Hills, returning home two weeks later, according to an August 1996 Albuquerque police report. Reyes said her daughter was actually home in three days.
Two more runaway/missing persons reports are on file with police - one in February 1997 and another in April 1998.
"She was impulsive," Reyes said. "She would do things without thinking. She was like, for her there were no bad people. All people were good. She trusted anybody."
But every time she left, she would also call her mother and let her know she was safe and coming home. Eventually.
"She would be gone without telling me, but then she would realize what she had done and she would call me. Always she would call me," Reyes said. "I tell her, ‘Let me know where you are, who you are with so I can come get you.’ She would just say ‘No.’ But she stayed in touch with me."
When Terry was ready she would call again. And Mom would rescue her from the latest peril.
On the morning of July 2, 1998, the phone at the Reyes home never rang.
Gone by dawn
Terry and cousin Tyffani Sedillo had been friends since childhood, and though Sedillo was a year younger it often fell to her to save her older cousin from a bad choice.
On the night of July 1, 1998 - a Friday - the girls headed off to visit friends in the North
Valley, stopping at a pay phone at the John Brooks Supermart at 1130 Candelaria Road
NW. Terry stayed in Sedillo’s father’s silver Ford Taurus while Sedillo made the call. But Terry wasn’t alone for long.
Several young men from a cream-colored van circled her like gnats.
"They were about five guys, Mexican gang types, ages 20 or 21, heads shaved, wearing baggy pants," Sedillo, then 16, described in a June 29, 2000, statement. "One guy was skinny, one guy was fat and two were OK looking."
The skinny one asked the girls to come to a party at a house behind a Phillips 66 gas station at Fourth Street and Montano Road Northwest, Sedillo said. Terry was willing. Sedillo wasn’t.
"I again said we would not party with them," she said. "Terry wanted to go, and said she would go with them later."
Terry wrote their number on a napkin with Sedillo’s lip liner.
"She said she was going to call those guys," she said.
Sedillo took Terry home about 11 p.m. Terry’s parents were waiting up for her as they
always did. She was in good spirits, they said, chatting about her night, fixing herself a plate of fries and grabbing a soda. Terry made no mention of the boys in the van, Reyes said. About 11:30 p.m., Terry kissed her parents goodnight and took her snack into her room. Reyes and her husband also retired to their room just 5 feet from Terry’s.
About 3 a.m., Reyes said she heard her daughter’s door banging open and shut, blown back and forth by a breeze whirling through the small second-story apartment.
Reyes rose to check on Terry. She found her daughter’s bedroom light and television still on and the plate of fries and the soda untouched. Also untouched were Terry’s purse, her makeup, her money, her medicines, her watch, her rings, everything but a scruffy pair of sandals. And Terry.
"I think, maybe she is in the restroom, but she is not," Reyes said. "I notice the front door is unlocked. I know I locked it before I went to bed."
Reyes slipped down the stairway into the parking lot.
I think, ‘What happened now?"’ she said. "There is panic in me. But she has left like this. She will call."
On Sunday, Reyes made her first call to Albuquerque police but was told she had to wait 72 hours to file a missing persons report. On Monday, 72 hours later, she called again and her information was taken over the phone. Like all the other police reports, this one, dated July 20, 1998, listed very little information other than names, birthdates and addresses. Terry was listed as a "runaway (juvenile)." Again.
As days, then months, passed with no word from either Terry or the police, Reyes and her family began a search of their own, patrolling portions of East Central where drug dealers and hookers troll for prey and parking lots sparkle with beer bottle glass.
"I was driving around like crazy on Central," Reyes said. "They say there are a lot of girls up there. I think, maybe my daughter doesn’t know who she is. She needed her medication three times a day."
The family slapped posters bearing Terry’s photo on every post, every window. They added a second phone line to handle tips, though inexplicably they failed to add an answering machine to collect any calls. Daily, Reyes phoned, wrote or showed up somewhere - Albuquerque Police Chief Gerald Galvin, the FBI, State Police, the District Attorney’s Office, Mayor Jim Baca, the Mexican consulate, a couple of TV stations, homeless shelters, the morgue. But no one had seen Terry. And no one seemed willing to help. At least, not enough.
"It’s weird, she just disappeared like that and APD considers it just another runaway," Terry’s older sister, Diane Sedillo, said. "She left with nothing. She was fine one moment and then she was gone with not even a clue. Nothing."
Not until September 1998, - weeks after Terry’s disappearance, - did an Albuquerque police officer knock on Reyes’ door.
Detective Darin Mallon, working a full caseload in the Crimes Against Children Unit, inherited Terry’s case during his rotation into the Missing Persons/Runaway detail. Instead of simply filing and documenting the case as those who work the detail must do, Mallon said he felt compelled to dig a little deeper. A second detective, James Torres of the Homicide Unit, had also begun to dig around, possibly at the request of some official feeling the pressure of Reyes’ letters. Neither knew that the other was working the case, Mallon said.
Both investigated a lone phone call to Reyes’ tip line that came from the Econo Lodge, a frayed motel at Central and San Pedro Drive Northeast that has since been flattened and replaced with a Walgreens. The call was traced to a man named Richard in Room 151 who said he thought he might have seen the girl portrayed on the fliers in the room of a Cuban guy who sold him drugs.
A prostitute named Monica was also in the room. The man supplied Mallon with Monica’s pager number. Monica later told Mallon she was "100 percent sure" the photo he had of Terry Reyes was the girl with the Cuban drug dealer. Her name, Monica said, was Terry.
Terry was hooked up with Oscar, the Cuban, who drove a white Maxima and wasn’t easy to find, unless he wanted you to find him, Monica told him. Terry was fine, she said, maybe even "dating for" Oscar, street talk for prostituting.
Terry was an adult now, and because it now appeared she had run away on her own there was little left for Mallon to do but call Reyes and tell her what he had found.
Mallon transferred out of the Crimes Against Children Unit shortly afterward, and his three-page report became misplaced, misfiled, missing like the napkin with the phone number written in lip liner. A slightly less detailed copy of the report was re-created just last week after a reporter inquired about the case. No similar report from Torres, the homicide detective, could be located. Torres has since retired.
On May 23, 2000, she contacted Pat Caristo, a private investigator whose agency provides pro bono work for families of victims of unsolved homicides, the elderly and missing children.
The NIA/NM agency (a private investigator organization) gave Reyes much needed support and prepared a report on her daughter’s case for police along with several pieces of evidence: a statement from Sedillo, the license plate number of a cream-colored van, a map of where the party might have been that night.
But the investigation went nowhere except to a file.
On July 11, 2000, two years after Terry’s disappearance, Reyes found a major clue she and Caristo believed would help find Terry. Reyes’ granddaughter had been playing with one of Terry’s favorite teddy bears when she noticed a rip at the toy’s neck. Nestled within the stuffing was the crumpled napkin with the phone number written in lip liner.
"So we were thinking, this is great. We called police and told them we had the napkin with this number," Caristo said. "They told us to keep it safe. They never came to get it."
Three months after finding the napkin, one of Reyes’ letters found its way to the desk of newly elected District Attorney Kari Brandenburg. The letter had been addressed to her predecessor, but instead of tossing it out, Brandenburg wrote Reyes back and asked Rudolph Checkley, an investigator with the gang prosecution unit, to see what he might be able to uncover.
His investigation quickly crumpled.
"There were just no other leads," said Checkley, now a ranger with the city’s Open Space Division. "I worked on it on and off for two months and never developed anything further."
Because Mallon’s report had been lost, Checkley said he was never aware of Oscar or Monica or Terry’s purported street life.
Checkley collected the napkin from Reyes. But the phone number - 837-8208 - was that of a disconnected cell phone. Because a subpoena is required to access cell phone records and because Checkley said he determined he did not have enough evidence to warrant that subpoena, the phone number was never traced.
Reyes was back to zero.
This time she sought help from a more supernatural realm.
Reyes contacted four psychics - one in El Paso, one in Mexico and two in Albuquerque, including Cynthia Hess, regularly featured on radio programs and a newspaper horoscope column. Hess and the others told Reyes that Terry was dead. Hess said she could have lived for awhile after her disappearance but then was killed, possibly accidentally, possibly by drugs, and her body buried in a rural spot in New Mexico that Hess cannot identify. But once again it is just another lead that Reyes cannot confirm.
"I think these psychics, they can be wrong," she said. "Sometimes I think it’s true that she is dead. Sometimes, no."
Four years later, Reyes is still at zero. And her daughter is still out there, dead or alive.
Hundreds of other parents have experienced the helplessness of being hamstrung by a system that can do little to bring their loved ones home safely and soon.
"We can’t arrest runaways because it’s not a crime to run away," Gauthier said. "In many ways, all we can do is keep filing the reports."
Those reports are entered into the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, so that law enforcement agencies throughout the country are alerted to a juvenile’s runaway status. If the juvenile is not located after 30 days, copies of the reports are sent to the state Vital Statistics Bureau where the juvenile’s birth records are flagged in case the juvenile requests access to them.
Cases are checked periodically and purged when it can be determined that the runaway returned home. Most - four out of five - do return, some just hours after they are reported missing, according to 2002 Albuquerque police records.
"That’s why we all know about the Teresa Reyes case," Gauthier said. "Because she never returned."
Mallon, now back in the Crimes Against Children Unit, said Terry’s precarious mental health labeled her as an endangered runaway but it did not change significantly the way her case was handled.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re healthy or not healthy in the end," he said. "Sooner or later someone on the streets is going to take advantage of you. So for us to look at one case differently than another would just be based on speculation."
Investigations such as those conducted in Terry’s case by Mallon and Checkley are done more as courtesy than protocol.
"There’s a lot of missing people in this country, and they don’t always get investigated as homicide," Mallon said. "Terry Reyes probably was killed, but that’s my opinion. And my opinion doesn’t matter. What we need is some type of evidence, some indicator that foul play was involved, and we don’t have that in this case. That she’s never called isn’t enough."
But Checkley said he thinks Terry’s failure to reach out to her mother after four years is an indication that something went horribly, possibly criminally, awry.
"Idon’t care how mad you are at your parents. Four years without any word is a long time," he said. "Our system makes the assumption that girls like her are runaways, and that’s a very dangerous assumption to make."
But the debate does little to assuage the Reyes family, who have neither a funeral nor a homecoming to plan after four years.
"What angers me the most is how some cases get all the priority and in curs nothing happens," Diane Sedillo said. "Sure, she got in trouble, she had problems, but just because of who she was and our race, that should have nothing to do with it. Look at that (Elizabeth) Smart girl in Utah. What about us? What about our family?"
End of days
Five weeks of aching dawns from now, Teresa Reyes will stop looking out at her empty stairway. She and her husband are moving next month to a house, bigger, different than this small apartment where Terry’s bedroom remains almost as it did the night she seemed to have been plucked by the heavens. Or by hell.
Stuffed animals perch here and there around this tiny, shuttered room. Wilted Valentine roses and deflated red Mylar heart balloons from 1998 stick to the walls like shadows. A votive candle flickers tirelessly near a portrait of a happy Terry at 5 when no one laughed at her, no one hurt her.
Terry would be 21 now.
There are packing boxes now in this room. They are empty, still. It is too hard yet for Reyes to fill them with her daughter’s things. It feels too much yet like resignation, like giving up.
"It’s hard to do. Something is holding me here. What if she does come back and I am not here?" Reyes said. "But everyone says to me: You have to move on. You have to move forward."
Holidays and birthdays are still the worst days. Stormy days, too.
"She was so afraid of thunder," Reyes said. "I think, where is she? Is she scared? Does she need me?"
Maybe someday she will know.
Can you solve this case? Essential facts in the Teresa Reyes case:
Teresa, or Terry, was last seen the night of July 1, 1998, at her home in the 8100 block of Marquette Avenue Northeast. She was 17 and would now be 21.
She might have contacted several shaved-headed males driving a cream-colored van in good condition with no lettering. One or more of them might have lived behind a Phillips 66 gas station on Fourth Street and Montano Road Northwest.
A police investigation indicates that she might also have been in the company of a Cuban male named Oscar and a woman named Monica, last located at a motel at Central Avenue and San Pedro Drive Northeast.
Terry has brown hair and brown eyes. She has a pierced tongue, navel and ears and has a tattoo of a rose and the name "Teresa" written in cursive on her right calf.
Terry was under medication for bipolar disorder and might not know her identity.
If you have information of Terry’s whereabouts or what might have happened to her, you are asked to call the Albuquerque Police Department’s Missing Persons/Runaway unit at 761-4060, the Reyes family at 265-6451, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. A $1,000 reward is offered.