By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"Often there's misunderstanding, out of all the good I try to do.
Go to friends for consolation, I find them complaining, too.
So many nights, I toss in pain, wondering what the day will bring.
But I say to my heart, don't worry,
the Lord will make a way somehow."
Elrinda Jones stayed busy. The 15-year-old picked up litter in Fort Lauderdale's Reverend Samuel Delevoe Park with her Girl Scout troop. She made gift baskets for a shelter for runaway teens. She served meals to the homeless. She visited local nursing homes. She sang the national anthem at a Marlins game with a group. She organized a dance troupe at her church. She also sold more than 150 boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
Elrinda struggled academically early last year, but by the time school let out for the summer, she had improved her math and English grades from D's to B's. She wanted to become a pediatrician, so she had to keep her GPA high. She enrolled in a science workshop at Broward Community College this past July. When that ended, she made daily trips to Broward's main library to practice FCAT exams on the Internet.
And then on August 2, she vanished.
Before Elrinda left that summer morning, Linda Jones bustled around the house, waking her three children, fixing breakfast, and hustling to dress for her job as manager at a state Department of Transportation office in Pompano Beach. When she glanced into her daughter's room, Linda suggested her daughter come with her to work that day. "There was something about the look in her eyes," Linda said. "Mothers have those feelings, you know."
Elrinda protested. She was to start volunteering at the library that day, she said.
She was lying.
She wasn't registered as a volunteer at the Broward County Main Library.
About 8:30 a.m., Elrinda climbed into her father's 1991 white Chevrolet Caprice Classic to catch a ride downtown. As her dad, Prince, drove to the library from the family's three-bedroom home on NW 24th Street and 27th Avenue in Flamingo Village, he talked to his daughter about the importance of bringing up her FCAT scores and improving her reading comprehension. Was it a lecture? Prince shook his head. "Not really a lecture," he said quietly. "It was a father-daughter talk." Prince is a tall and soft-spoken man who considers his words before speaking. He paused and shrugged, sort of half-smiled. "Whether she took it in or not, I don't know."
As Elrinda clambered out of the car, Prince reminded her that the family planned to convene that evening in the gym at Holiday Park for 12-year-old Micah's basketball practice. Prince would pick her up at 5 p.m., he said. Then he drove on to his job as a senior nutritionist with the Broward County Health Department.
Elrinda walked through the library's glass doors wearing a blue-jeans skirt that came to her knees, a gray T-top silk-screened with an image of the American flag, and wedge sandals. On her back, she carried a small, burgundy-and-green, leather knapsack.
The Joneses kept a tight rein on Elrinda. They didn't allow her to ride county buses by herself, for instance. They didn't let her date. They vetted the places and people with whom she spent time. Prince and Linda approved of the library. Surrounded by librarians who knew her, Elrinda was allowed to spend the day there on her own.
When Prince returned to the Andrews Avenue building at 5 p.m., as promised, Elrinda wasn't at her usual post on the bench outside. He circled the block. And then he circled again. And again. When she still didn't appear, he parked the car.
Though the library was closed, a staff member offered to call upstairs to check whether the teen was straggling behind.
The librarian then paged the 15-year-old.
She didn't answer.
Prince remained calm. He figured Elrinda had walked to a nearby store to buy a soda. He and Micah waited for another 20 minutes. When Elrinda still didn't show, Prince decided there must be a rational explanation for his daughter's absence. Maybe she had finished her library activities early. Maybe Linda had agreed she could take the bus home. Maybe Linda had approved a visit to a friend's home. Whatever had happened, Prince was sure Elrinda had called his wife to seek permission. That was one of the Jones family's inviolate rules. Since basketball practice was about to start, he drove Micah to the courts. He thought Elrinda would be at the gym.
Linda and 2-year-old Carina were waiting in the Holiday Park bleachers when Prince arrived. "When he came in, he was by himself," Linda remembered. "And he had this weird look on his face."
Had Elrinda called? Prince asked his wife. She hadn't. "She's not at the library," he said.
Linda told Prince she had left work early that day. Maybe Elrinda had tried to telephone the job. The Joneses watched Micah shoot hoops. When practice ended, they drove home. There were no messages from Elrinda on the answering machine. They waited an hour. When there was still no word from their daughter, they contacted Elrinda's friends. Then they phoned relatives. As they ran out of possibilities, the couple grew increasingly alarmed.