Nightmares have visited Donna Myers mercilessly during the 13 years since the 4-year-old nephew she reared vanished from her living room.
In those first months after Buddy’s disappearance, she imagined him trapped – hungry and cold – in a hole somewhere in the stretches of woods that enveloped her rural Sampson County home. As years passed with no word, images of a depraved kidnapper hurting Buddy plagued Myers. Then, the nightmares softened slightly, and she pictured him with another family who convinced him they were his parents.
Since three young women missing for a decade were rescued in Cleveland earlier this month, Myers has been lured into sweeter dreams: Her nephew, Tristen “Buddy” Myers, is alive and eager to come home.
“I can see it,” Donna Myers, 62, said recently at her home. “The police walking him back to me. He’s still that beautiful boy.”
For every child found, many remain lost. Their disappearances haunt the police who search and devastate the families who wait. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children counts 33 children missing in North Carolina, some of them for gone for nearly 50 years.
Officers think some of these children ran away; others are presumed kidnapped and taken out of the country by a parent. But many simply vanished, with no warning and few clues.
The recovery of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight brought a wave of hope to some of the families of children missing in North Carolina. For officers who’ve worked on these cases, it brought a reminder that a happy ending is still possible.
“Cleveland reinforced for us that you can never give up on these cases,” said Greensboro Police Detective Michael Matthews, who is investigating the 1990 disappearance of Amy Gibson, then 15. “Sometimes these cases do go cold. You think there’s nowhere to go, then suddenly you get some lead.”
Officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say the Cleveland rescue may bring a resurgence of energy to old missing children’s cases.
“We hope this is a reminder that kids are still out there,” said Lanae Holmes, a family advocacy specialist at the center. “It reinforces the need for vigilance. If you see something funny or suspicious, reach out. It could mean everything.”
Mostly, the Ohio rescue brought the assurance mothers such as Iquilla Degree of Shelby needed to push aside the speculation naysayers have held for years: Her daughter must be dead. Asha Degree was 9 when she packed her backpack and took off in the dark of night down a highway in the town west of Charlotte. Someone found her bag 18 months later at a construction site 25 miles away.
“God won’t let me believe she’s dead,” Degree said. “I believe he’d give me a sign, prepare me, if she were dead.”
Trusting no one
The disappearance of children such as Buddy Myers and Asha Degree are often considered lost causes. After 72 hours, the odds of finding the child alive are low.
Still, for the relatives who pine for them, the children are alive, frozen in time and just out of their reach. They look at everyone they meet suspiciously and stop to examine the faces of children who don’t seem to resemble the parents they accompany at the grocery store.
“I can’t trust anyone,” said Iquilla Degree, Asha’s mother. “My biggest fear is that the person who took her is someone we know. That the same people who tried to help us at the beginning were the ones who took her.”
Donna Myers has the same nagging fear. Over and over, she replays the day Buddy disappeared. Did someone see them out that day and follow them home? Or worse, had a neighbor been watching Buddy that summer, waiting for him to wander out of Donna’s sight?
Their Roseboro home in the southeastern part of the state is so remote, visitors must navigate a rough gravel road off a main highway to reach it; stands of dense trees border their land. The October day that Buddy vanished, he had fallen asleep in the living room after a doctor’s appointment. Donna Myers took the chance to rest her eyes too. When a ringing phone woke her, Buddy was gone, and so were their two dogs.
Search crews and police looked for days, then weeks and finally months. Five days after Buddy disappeared, one of the Myers’ dogs returned – happy and healthy. Five days after that, the second dog came home. He, too, had no fleas or scratches and seemed to have been fed.
Now, every time a car rumbles down the Myers’ gravel road, Donna finds herself staring at the driver and memorizing the make or model of the car.
“I know in my heart someone took him,” Myers said. “Maybe I’ll see it in their eyes.”
‘It still hurts’
Time doesn’t wash away the ache of a vanished child.
It has been nearly 43 years since Ernestine Chambers’ 14-year-old sister, Sherri Truesdale, got on a bus in Winston-Salem to buy school supplies at a downtown department store. She never returned.
Chambers remembers her mother staring at the bus stop near their home every day after Sherri disappeared, hopeful that her daughter would get off the bus.
“It still hurts,” said Chambers, now 65. “We loved her so much. I don’t want to die not knowing what happened.”
For some officers, that same need for an answer plagues them day after day.
Scotland County Sheriff’s Capt. David Newton thinks constantly about what became of Kimberly Thrower, a 16-year-old who vanished while waiting for the school bus in 2004. Every few years, he borrows dogs from a nearby police department to search the woods around the bus stop. And when younger detectives join his unit, he hands them Kimberly’s case file and asks them to start fresh.
“I tell them to start from scratch. Fresh eyes help,” Newton said. “I haven’t and won’t forget about her.”
Dreams of Buddy
Iquilla Degree almost never watches television news. The stories of abused children and slain women haunt her in a way they never did before her daughter disappeared. Instead, she watches fictionalized crime shows that allow her to pretend the violence isn’t real.
On May 6, Degree watched a rerun of a “Hawaii Five-0” episode about a kidnapping. A television newscaster interrupted the show to say police in Cleveland were investigating a real-life rescue of several kidnapped women.
Degree was transfixed. She said a prayer for the young women, and as broadcasters filled in the details of their disappearance, Degree felt so relieved.
About 220 miles away, Donna Myers also couldn’t look away from the television. Joy washed over her. She imagined how their family members must feel, and she prayed for any healing they would need.
That night, Myers dreamed of Buddy. A happy, busy 4-year-old playing with his toys at her feet, just as he had the day he vanished.
News researcher Brooke Cain and database manager David Raynor contributed.