Discovery in Ohio renews hope for Valley parents
MERCED COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- The discovery of three women held captive inside an Ohio home, for nearly a decade, is a grim reminder to Valley law enforcement and a source of hope for parents of other long missing children that they too could be found alive.
On May 31st it will be 16 years since Vanessa Smith went missing from her North Valley neighborhood.
Her mother Beverly told Action News, after learning what happened in Cleveland, she refuses to give up her search because law enforcement has ensured her it's still an open case.
"I do I feel she's still out there alive and I feel she's close. How close I don't know. 50-100 miles can be close you know," she said.
Vanessa was just 15 years old when she vanished during a nightly walk near her home in Winton back in 1997.
"We took care of 40 acres of almonds so she took her walk, cut into the Orchard about 200 yards and then would come back," she said. "Two people reported seeing her. I was the last to see her go at 7pm."
Vanessa's walking stick was found nearby, but no other physical evidence was discovered at the scene. Since then, sheriff deputies haven't been able to come up with any leads in her disappearance.
"It's a real open case and they get tips from time to time," said Smith.
Smith is determined not to give up. On Tuesday, she spent her birthday organizing fliers to place throughout Merced County on the anniversary of Vanessa's disappearance. Her goal is to remind the community of what happened to her daughter and of what she looked like in hopes someone might recognize her.
After learning of the three missing women discovered in Cleveland, she said it's renewed her faith her daughter could also be found.
"That just strengthened me because anything is possible," she said.
It's also re-energized the Merced County Sheriff's Department to keep looking for her abductor.
"We never lose hope," said Sheriff Mark Pazin. "We're always tracking down leads and our detectives... we always keep in contact with those persons."
Pazin said detectives keep a teddy bear in a glass case near his office for both Vanessa Smith and Pamela Pedro, another local girl who disappeared in her teens back in 1982 under suspicious circumstances.
He's convinced someone in the community knows something about the two girls and is urging them to come forward with information.
"Just look at what happened in Cleveland," he said. "It was really a pack of heathens that were evidently picking off these young persons and keeping them held against their will through fear, force or some type of psychological fear."
He said, even though a number of years have gone by in both cases, witnesses can still report what they know, because it's the right thing to do and there's not going to be any consequences.
"I hope that one day I can stand before the media just like the Police Chief did there and report they've been found," he said.
In the meantime, Smith said the governor's office is still offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
On May 30th, she's hoping volunteers will help her hang fliers displaying Vanessa's photo. She also has plans to meet with deputies at the TA Travel Center and Truck Plaza in Livingston to post signs to big rig trucks.
Her ultimate goal is to afford a billboard to place near Highway 99. If you'd like to make a donation, call or stop by Travis Credit Union in Atwater. Checks can be made payable to the "Vanessa Smith Trust Fund."
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