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
At 9 p.m., they called the Fort Lauderdale police.
A short time later, police broadcast an alert to patrol officers to be on the lookout for the missing teen. The Jones family piled into separate cars and drove back downtown. They rode around the library, looked for Elrinda at the city bus terminal, then cruised past the boutiques and restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard and searched other downtown streets. They didn't find her.
Told by Linda that Elrinda was missing, Lisa Jackson and her daughter Nyaisha also searched for the teen. Nyaisha and Elrinda have been close friends since third grade. The pair spoke a few days before Elrinda left home. They made plans. "The last time I talked to her, she was happy," Nyaisha said. "She was laughing with me and her mother. She asked me to go with her to the skating rink." Lisa and Nyaisha drove downtown streets until midnight hunting for the teen. "I didn't know what would happen to her," Nyaisha said. "I was scared."
Two days after Elrinda's disappearance, Fort Lauderdale cops issued a press bulletin describing her: Born: October 15, 1986. Height: Five feet, two inches. Weight: 110 pounds. Last seen at the Broward County Main Library. Police feared the teen might have been abducted. There was scant coverage, though. Brief reports ran on local television news programs seeking information. Elgin Jones, columnist for the black-owned Broward Times, wrote a story.
Linda made fliers featuring her daughter's ninth-grade photo. Prince, Linda, and several relatives canvassed the area around the library. They gave fliers to friends and posted them at their jobs, in stores, at the library, and at the county bus terminal. They contacted Broward County Transit, and bus drivers received copies of the fliers at a morning meeting to post in their vehicles.
In the weeks after her disappearance, Elrinda's school picture was everywhere downtown. In it, her hair is braided, her head is tilted to the side, shy-like; she is smiling, and she has a sweet, open look in her eyes. She is wearing huge eyeglasses that seem to cover most of her face and give her a studious air.
Some leads came from the family's efforts. A convenience-store owner downtown said Elrinda had been in his place the day she disappeared. Several bus drivers reported she rode their lines. One said she got off a bus in Pompano Beach. Another said she rode to Miami. A woman called to say Elrinda had sat next to her at the library on the day the teen disappeared; the caller said Elrinda described her life as boring and then tried to follow her home. Some of Elrinda's schoolmates reportedly spotted the teen at a thrift store on Oakland Park Boulevard. A student saw her shopping at Sawgrass Mills. A convenience-store owner in Pompano Beach told Linda that the teen came into his store daily with a group of girls. But when Prince spoke to the man, he said he could not positively say it was Elrinda. None of the tips led anywhere.
Several days after the teenager's disappearance, Linda searched Elrinda's bedroom for clues. At first, nothing seemed unusual. Then she saw something jutting from behind the bedroom door. Pulling the door aside, Linda found Elrinda's pink-and-green suitcase, her Winnie the Pooh duffle bag, and a plastic shopping bag. All of the school clothes Elrinda had picked out for fall were neatly pressed and packed inside. "I was shocked," Linda said. "She'd been planning to leave, and maybe she'd been planning it for awhile." Added Prince: "She was going to swing back by the house and pick up her stuff."
The family was devastated.
Bonnie Veltri has worked as an investigator in the missing persons unit of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department for ten years. At first, Veltri said during an October 11 interview, she left the office to check out leads. But because the volume of cases has increased exponentially over the past ten years, she no longer has the time. Now, she refers that information to officers, and she fills out paperwork -- opening and closing cases -- eight hours a day, five days a week.
Veltri sounded jaded and a tad overwhelmed as she described the mechanics of tracking the typical missing juvenile. The Fort Lauderdale police receive more than 200 reports a month of people who have vanished, Veltri said. More than half of those cases involve juveniles, like Elrinda. Of those, almost all are runaway teens.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) study released in October, 1,682,900 children ran away from home in 1999. Florida is second in the nation (after California) in runaways. It's a mecca for kids from other locales. And the mild weather makes running an easy, year-round option. About 44,000 juveniles a year leave Florida homes or shelters annually, says Dee Richter, executive director of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. The nonprofit group oversees the state's 32 runaway shelters and administers state funding for the programs.
Despite those troubling numbers, Florida legislators cut $4.3 million from a $37 million program for runaway and troubled youth funded through the state Department of Juvenile Justice in 2001.