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.
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.
Most runaways don't stay away long. Veltri explained that she closes most missing juvenile cases in the first week. By the time she calls the parent or caregiver, usually a few days after the initial report, most missing juveniles have returned. According to the October U.S. DOJ report, 77 percent of runaway teens return home in less than a week and 93 percent return within a month. But just because a child has returned doesn't mean family problems end. Veltri said many runaways soon run again. "It's a revolving door," she said.
As soon as she talked to a few of Elrinda's friends, Veltri began to doubt foul play in the teen's disappearance. Several said Elrinda talked frequently of conflicts at home, mostly over boys. The 15-year-old also told friends she pondered running. And if Elrinda ran, the girls said, it was probably to be with a boy. Veltri also heard that someone at the library had seen Elrinda leaving with a guy.
Then on August 26, when Nova High School students returned for the fall term, Nova administrators told Linda and Prince that the 15-year-old appeared briefly on campus. She spoke to a favorite teacher, the couple was told. Although Nyaisha didn't see her that day, she said she heard from other teens that Elrinda got into a car driven by a man when she left.
"There's not much of a story there," Veltri said dismissively during the October interview.
At that point, it had been almost three months since Elrinda left home. Linda said several times she thought the case should be reclassified as a kidnapping. Her daughter left home with $20 in her wallet and the clothes on her back. Because Elrinda was too young to work legally, Linda and Prince didn't see how she could survive. Also, they just didn't believe that their daughter would go for three months without contacting them, unless someone prevented her from doing so.
Veltri, however, viewed Elrinda's case with a more jaundiced eye. Although the case was still open, Veltri considered it essentially solved. "She's with her boyfriend, and she doesn't want to go home," Veltri said. "She's not being held against her will. She's on the loose and doing her thing. We have hundreds of girls like this at any one time."
When Fort Lauderdale police reclassified Elrinda as a runaway, their efforts to find the girl virtually ceased. If the cops located Elrinda, Prince and Linda were told, she would not be taken into custody. It's not a crime in Florida to run away from home.
Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Rich Herbert said that the department takes into custody a child who is in danger but that most runaways older than 12 aren't regarded that way. The policy is to allow runaways older than 12 to decide whether to return home or go to a shelter. They don't use force to bring teens into custody or place them in locked facilities, unless ordered by a judge. "Most parents want their kid to return home," Herbert explained, "but they don't want them to come home with a broken collarbone."
Moreover, back in 1974, the legislature passed a law that ended the practice of housing runaway teens in juvenile detention facilities. Child-welfare workers had complained that runaways shouldn't be kept with criminals.
These intricacies meant nothing to Linda. "If that's the state law," she said in early October, "I think state law needs to be changed." At 15, Elrinda was not of an age to make a decision to live on her own, her parents said. Besides, Elrinda didn't have a boyfriend, Linda added. The teen's male friends at school didn't know where she was and hadn't heard from her. Linda questioned them.
Prince speculated that someone older must be providing for Elrinda and preventing her from telephoning. "I'm trying to stay open about this," he said. "You just don't know what a person is thinking. I'm not going to say she is being held against her will, but I believe she is being coerced."
The attitude of Veltri and the Fort Lauderdale cops toward Elrinda's disappearance angered Linda. She believed race factored into it. "They don't care," she said. "Had it been a rich white girl who had run, they would be out there looking for her... Because it's not, they have no feelings toward her... She's just another nigger to them."
As the weeks and then months piled up, the Joneses felt helpless.
Linda paced the house. She prayed. She burned the family's dinners. She neglected the housework. Laundered clothes heaped up on one of the sofas. She couldn't sleep. When sleep finally overcame her, she often just crashed onto the second sofa in the living room. Two-year-old Carina had trouble falling asleep too. She was used to her older sister singing to her at night, Linda said.
As Linda spoke to New Times and sifted through her oldest daughter's school papers, Carina interrupted, "When 'Rinda coming home?" It was a question the child asked often.
"She'll be back soon," Linda said, trying to comfort the child.
"You said that yesterday," observed the precocious toddler.
Linda turned to New Times. "I can't believe she would hurt her brother and sister like this," she said.
Elrinda hadrun before. A telephone call from a boy this past April 18 sparked a family combustion. On school nights, Elrinda wasn't allowed to receive social calls. And she was permitted to talk only to boys whose parents the Joneses had met. After Linda had told the boy not to call the house anymore, Elrinda exploded and stormed out. Linda and Prince figured she would walk around the block. But Elrinda didn't come home. The following day, she didn't attend school.
On April 19, just after the family telephoned police around 8 p.m., the Joneses received a call. "Mommy, I'm hungry, and I want to come home," Linda recalled her daughter wailing. Elrinda was at the downtown county bus terminal.
But that time, Elrinda had left angry when she didn't get her way. "She's a very stubborn child," Linda said. And like most runaways, she didn't stay away long.
The Joneses said they became even more alarmed for Elrinda's safety when they examined a bill for Prince's county-issued cell phone. In July, Elrinda had racked up more than $200 in phone calls. When asked about it, she had lied to her parents. To frighten Elrinda, Prince and Linda took her on an hourlong tour of a boot camp for delinquents.
After Elrinda's August disappearance. Prince and Linda combed through the bill. They discovered that she had been using the cell phone to telephone people she met in Internet chatrooms, which she probably accessed on library computers. (She was not allowed to use the Internet at home.) Prince telephoned the numbers on the bill to ask about his daughter. No one he spoke to had any information about her whereabouts.
Elrinda left behind a lifetime when she ran. As a child, her nickname was "Pooh Bear," Linda said in mid-October. Pooh Bear stickers covered the door of her tiny bedroom. On the wall hung a plaque from Mrs. Hamilton's kindergarten class at Nova. "#1 Line Leader," it read. On another wall, her school pictures from kindergarten through ninth grade circled an oval where her high school graduation picture was to be placed. Report cards from first through ninth grade filled a desk drawer. A plastic bag over the door held two novels Elrinda was supposed to read over the summer to prepare for tenth grade: A Separate Peace by John Knowles and The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck.
From a bookshelf, Linda pulled out two books she had given Elrinda to help her cope with the pressures of her teen years, both leavened with religious advice: Life Skills for Girls and God's Words of Life for Teens.
The Joneses steel their family with the teachings of their church, the Refuge Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith in Miami. They carefully monitor the television programs and movies their children are allowed to watch and the activities they are allowed to participate in. "The black community always carries a strain on it when it comes to raising children," Pastor Johnny Davis said. "It is sort of a protection type of thing." That protectiveness defines Elrinda's parents, he said. "Linda and Prince have those old-fashioned values about life, about girls and boys, and just about people in general," Davis said. "Linda's father is a bishop in the church, and her husband is a deacon. They have been in the church for most all of their lives."
Next to the closet where Elrinda's much-decorated Girl Scout vest hung, the "Jones Family Rules" were typed on a white sheet of paper and posted on the wall. Among the edicts: no phone calls after 9 p.m. Calls about homework on school nights: 15 minutes, longer with parental permission. Calls on weekends other than homework: 30 minutes. Two outings a month with friends. Curfew: 9 p.m. on weeknights, 10 p.m. on weekends. Chores: clean bedroom, make bed, wash own laundry, sweep kitchen floor, wash dishes.
Allowance: $3.50 a week.
"'I can't survive on that,'" Linda said, imitating Elrinda's complaint.
"Get a job, then," Linda said she told her daughter. "That's all your father and I can afford."
As she hit the middle of her teenage years, Elrinda bucked for more freedom, Linda said. The mother responded by telling her daughter to show respect for the rules. Instead of complying, Elrinda defied her parents and suffered further restrictions.
One day when Linda picked Elrinda up from school, she found her daughter behind one of the portable classrooms at Nova High talking to a boy. Linda said she sprang up onto the steps. "What are you two doing back here isolated from everyone else?"
A couple of days later, Prince found her in the same area. When Elrinda responded in a way he felt was disrespectful, Prince became so angry, he slapped her, knocking off her glasses. He recalled that Elrinda spotted a campus police officer nearby and shouted, "Just try that again in front of the police."
Around the same time last year, Linda wandered out into the family living room one morning around 2 a.m. and found Elrinda talking on the telephone. "Who are you talking to at this hour?" Linda shouted. Elrinda threw down the phone and grinned. "I'm not talking on the phone," she said.
"She was in a hurry to be 18, 19, 20," Linda said, "and she was only 15."
When Elrinda first left home, friends like the Jacksons called daily to find out if there was any word. After awhile, Nyaisha's mother, Lisa, says she felt uncomfortable. She didn't know whether her telephone calls brought comfort to the family or caused pain. In early October, Lisa said she'd stopped calling Linda.
As the three-month anniversary of Elrinda's disappearance came and went, the Jacksons; Elrinda's scout leader, Audrey Campbell; and pastor Davis, all said they shared Prince and Linda's alarm.
Elrinda is not someone you would say has "street smarts," said Lisa's husband, Freddie. He didn't see how the 15-year-old could survive on her own, despite her nine years in the Girl Scouts. "Looks can be deceiving, obviously," he speculated. "Either she is pretty street-smart and nobody knew it or somebody is assisting her. But turning her back on her church, on the family support she obviously had? You would think she would be missing her room, missing her favorite doll, missing her brother and sister. Seems like she would want to come home by now. It just doesn't make sense when you think about it."
Freddie worried the teen had been forced into a child prostitution ring.
Elrinda's silence didn't make sense to Scout leader Campbell either. She said Elrinda appeared extremely devoted to her family. When the troop traveled to Orlando in February for a sports clinic, Elrinda called home as soon as she hit town to let her parents know she had arrived safely. Later that evening, after dinner, Elrinda again called home to complain she was hungry and had no snacks. If the youngster hasn't telephoned her parents, Campbell said, someone must be preventing her from doing so.
Davis worried Elrinda might be in the thrall of an older man. "Somebody got to her and manipulated her and turned her against the values of her church and her family," he said. "I hate to say it, but it could be sexual, because that is what the devil uses to get people to get these young girls. They are usually trying to get them out on the street because they know there are evil people out there who want to use these young girls in an evil way."
By late October, the buses downtown no longer carried Elrinda's picture. A flier on the door of a convenience store near the bus terminal had been taken down. At the county bus terminal, one fellow runaway said he heard the case had been solved. "I heard they found her living with a guy in Miami," the boy said. As sightings continued to trickle in, the Joneses turned to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Broward County Sheriff's Office for help. A Broward deputy checked out a house where a man said he had dropped Elrinda and an 18-year-old girl the man knew. The house was vacant.
On October 15, Elrinda turned 16. The Joneses hoped she would call. They waited for the phone to ring. It never did.
The day Linda searched Elrinda's room for clues, she also read her daughter's diary, hoping to understand why Elrinda left home. What Linda found disturbed her deeply. In eighth grade, Elrinda had written that she wanted to kill herself. In ninth grade, she complained that she felt misunderstood by her family. She believed that Prince and Linda didn't love her as much as they said. She felt like the black sheep of the Jones household.
Last year, Linda recalled, Elrinda came home from school and said some other teens had said she was adopted. Her skin was so much darker than her brother's and sister's, Elrinda was convinced it was true. Linda said she even pulled out her daughter's birth certificate to prove she was the girl's biological mother.
Looking back, Linda said in late October, she remembered that Elrinda agonized over her looks. Linda tried to help her make the transition from kid to teen by buying her beauty magazines, braiding her hair, and making an appointment so Elrinda could wear contact lenses. She didn't realize until she read the diary how profound Elrinda's feelings of inadequacy were. "I feel my daughter was depressed," Linda said. "When she comes back, I want to get help for her. I think she was going through some things that she didn't feel she could talk about and that she didn't know how to handle."
Adults often forget how traumatic adolescence can be, said Jill Selbach, director of clinical services for the Catholic-run Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale, a shelter for runaway teens. "I remember thinking I was going to die if I didn't get a dance," she added.
Selbach cautioned that blaming Linda and Prince's strict child-rearing techniques for Elrinda's flight may be misguided. Although many teens run from abuse or severe family conflict, some leave home simply because they don't know how to cope with adolescence. "Parents aren't always the problem," she said. "The first time you have an adolescent in the house can be a disturbing and frustrating experience. Parents and teens need support and tools to deal with all the changes."
October 25 was a typical Friday for the Joneses. Around noon, Linda went out to lunch with some coworkers. Prince was presenting a program on good nutrition for the Broward Outreach Center.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Elrinda was desperate. She went to the home of a girl she befriended and asked to use the telephone. She tried calling Linda collect at work. There was no answer. Next she called Linda's sister, Miriam Crutcher, who paged Prince. "She said she heard from Elrinda," Prince said. "She's in Montgomery. She's all right and she's ready to come home. I said, 'What?'"
When Prince dialed the telephone number Crutcher gave him, Elrinda answered. "You sure this Elrinda?" Prince said. Just to make sure it was really her, Prince asked the names of her brother and sister. "Micah and Carina," Elrinda answered.
"There was no emotion," Prince said. "She was calm. She was just ready to come home. I asked her if she had been hurt. She said no. She was safe. She said she wanted to talk to her mom."
When Prince reached Linda, she was stunned. "Alabama?" she remembers saying. "How did she get up there?"
That evening, when the couple called their daughter after they returned home from work, they pieced together the story. Elrinda had been talking to a man on the Internet. She complained about her parents, and he said she was right. They were too strict, and she should leave home and come to live with him in Montgomery. The man, whom Linda declined to name but says is 20 years old, took a Greyhound bus to Fort Lauderdale and a taxi to the library and picked up Elrinda. She had told him what she would be wearing. The pair took the bus back to Montgomery. When Prince called the phone numbers on his cell phone bill, he reached the man, who allegedly said he knew nothing about Elrinda.
Linda and Prince drove to Alabama that weekend to retrieve their daughter. As they returned to Florida, Elrinda explained what had happened. She had been angry when she left, Elrinda told her parents. But by the time she arrived in Alabama, the anger was gone.
Elrinda lived in a public housing project with the man and his two young children, Linda says. (By press time, Elrinda wasn't ready to speak with New Times.) She cooked and did housework. Elrinda told her mother that she wanted to call but that the man said he would get into trouble if she did. "She used to take out her pictures of her family at night and cry," Linda said. Elrinda finally called home, Linda said, because the man kicked her out of the house and she didn't have anywhere to go.
When Elrinda walked in the door of the family's home, Carina ran up to her and hugged her older sister. "Why did it take you so long to come home?" she asked. Elrinda went to her bedroom and rolled around on her purple bedspread, hugging her stuffed Pooh Bear dolls. "Home is heaven," she told her mom. She even agreed with Micah that she would do three months worth of dishes to make up for the time she was gone.
This week, she planned to re-enroll at Nova. The family is relieved that Elrinda made it home safely and is considering whether to press charges against the Alabama man. She appears to be OK, Prince says. "I told her how blessed she is," he says. "She could have ended up chopped up in a garbage bag."