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On Mother's Day, Cleveland case lifts hope missing children are not lost

By Moni Basu and Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Sun May 12, 2013
Thousands of people are reported missing every day in the United States. Phoenix Coldon, 23, of St. Louis was last seen in December 2011 sitting in her parked car. If you have seen Phoenix or any of the faces in this gallery, please contact your local FBI office or call 1-800-THE-LOST. Thousands of people are reported missing every day in the United States. Phoenix Coldon, 23, of St. Louis was last seen in December 2011 sitting in her parked car. If you have seen Phoenix or any of the faces in this gallery, please contact your local FBI office or call 1-800-THE-LOST.
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Still missing: Phoenix Coldon
Still missing: Christina Kleckner
Still missing: Michaela Joy Garecht
Still missing: Ashley Summers
Still missing: Christina Adkins
Still missing: Jessica Heeringa
Still missing: Haleigh Cummings
Still missing: Lauren Spierer
Still missing: Amir Jennings
Still missing: Morgan Nick
Still missing: Kara Kopetsky
Still missing: Kyron Horman
Still missing: Lisa Irwin
Still missing: Isabel Celis
Still missing: Jacob Wetterling
Still missing: Christopher Abeyta
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phoenix Coldon disappeared in St. Louis on December 18, 2011
  • Michaela Joy Garecht was kidnapped 25 years ago in Hayward, California
  • One mother writes letters to her missing daughter
  • The other still has the Christmas tree up, and gifts waiting

(CNN) -- One mother has been waiting 17 months. The other, 25 years.

Sunday, they will mark another Mother's Day without their daughters; this time, with emotions intensified by the discovery a few days earlier of three women who vanished a decade ago in Cleveland.

For Goldia Coldon and Sharon Murch, the case has reignited a thousand fantasies of their own daughters' homecomings and buoyed their hopes.

Coldon's daughter, Phoenix, disappeared on December 18, 2011, in St. Louis. But Goldia Coldon has never stopped believing she will return. Her home became a testament to that optimism: The Christmas tree that Phoenix helped her mom put up is still standing; gifts await her arrival.

Mom: Hope is hard to hold onto

Murch's daughter, Michaela Joy Garecht, was kidnapped on the morning of November 19, 1988, in Hayward, California, a suburb of Oakland. Witnesses, including a friend, saw a man grab her from behind and pull her, screaming, into his car.

"Hope is a very difficult thing," says Murch, her face serene and her words matter of fact, as she recounts an unimaginable horror. "It's a difficult thing to hold on to. But when things happen like these girls being found, it picks you up and carries you along for a while so you can regain your strength."

Murch has had a series of daunting realizations over the years. At first, she was convinced Michaela was alive. Then, that conviction grew wobbly. Now, she thinks of the possibility that Michaela may be a mother herself -- just like Amanda Berry, one of the three women who escaped captivity in Cleveland.

"If Michaela is still alive and out there, I'd be surprised if she wasn't a mother herself," Murch says. "It's quite possible, being a mother might prevent her from breaking free and coming home. It's the one thing I've thought of and can understand."

Berry broke free with her 6-year-old daughter in tow. But if a child had to be left behind or put at risk, Murch says, she wouldn't escape either.

Murch lost her own mother a few years ago. She was 72, and Murch thought she would be able to cope with the loss. But it has been more difficult than she expected. And that makes Mother's Day even more painful: Without a daughter, without a mother.

In St. Louis, Coldon will miss Phoenix's regular Mother's Day card and hearing her say: "Mom, I want to take you out to dinner." Coldon always laughed aloud, knowing her husband, Lawrence, would be paying the bill.

"Mom, I love you," Phoenix told her every day. Without fail.

"I love you more, Phoenix," Coldon always responded.

"Every day is Mother's Day for me," she says.

Coldon and Murch have long-imagined the day they will be reunited with their daughters: Will a stranger call to say he knows where Phoenix is? Will Michaela somehow escape captivity as Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight did in Cleveland?

Coldon watched the news this week with one thought in her mind: I bet Phoenix is right under our nose. After all, the women in Cleveland were held in captivity in a house just blocks from the places where they were last seen.

Murch feels no envy watching the end of another mother's nightmare. She feeds off the hope. "It became obvious that people who've been missing a long time could still be out there. I don't know that she is, but as far as I'm concerned, there's as good a possibility that she's out there as she isn't."

On any given day, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children handles between 3,400 and 4,000 unresolved cases. The center's Robert Lowery said his message to families is this: Never give up hope.

"We have to remain vigilant and very aggressive in our search for our kids," he says.

No one has to say that to Coldon.

"We're going to find her," she says. "It's not going to be 10 years."

Phoenix was 23 when she vanished. Michaela was 9. But the girls' ages do not matter. Their mothers' heartbreak is the same.

Waiting almost 25 years

It was a sunny Saturday morning on November 19, 1988, the first day of Thanksgiving vacation. Michaela wanted to ride her scooter to the corner market with her best friend. Murch resisted the girls' pleas to go without an adult or one of the neighborhood teenagers. But Michaela, Murch's oldest child, begged and begged, and she eventually gave in. After all, the store was just two blocks away.

As Murch watched her daughter head out, Michaela turned around and spoke to her.

"I love you, Mom," she said.

"I love you, too," Murch told Michaela.

Those were their last words. The mother watched until her daughter got to the end of the street and out of sight.

This poster was distributed in 2009 around Hayward, California. Michaela Garecht went missing in 1988.
This poster was distributed in 2009 around Hayward, California. Michaela Garecht went missing in 1988.

At the store, the girls bought sodas, candy and beef jerky. When they came out, one of the scooters had been moved, three parking spaces down from the door, next to a car. Michaela went to get it when a man grabbed her from behind and shoved her, screaming, into his car.

People at the store, including Michaela's friend, witnessed the kidnapping and immediately called 911.

The community response was swift and overwhelming. Fliers with the blond, blue-eyed child's picture plastered the East Bay. Her mother pleaded on national television for the kidnapper to release her. When Jaycee Dugard, a California girl missing for 18 years, was found, Murch went on television again, talking to any reporter who would give her a few seconds of airtime.

But nearly 25 years and 15,000 tips later, Michaela remains missing.

The Hayward Police Department calls Michaela's kidnapping a priority and an active case, far from cold. An entire room is dedicated to the case. Michaela's yellowing flier is still pinned to a wall, facing file cabinets packed with the tips called in by the public. Officers chased leads when possible, but each path ran cold.

Murch has run down tips of her own, following a lead through Russia into the United Arab Emirates. On her blog, www.dearmichaela.com, she's written messages in Arabic and Russian, just in case her child was spirited to either country long ago.

She has good days and bad days. Her daughter's absence never leaves her. "It's always there. It's a big hole in the center of my life. It's impossible to get away from it. If Michaela is out there, if she is alive, she needs me to look for her."

Even though being a mother has caused me the most tremendous sorrow and heartache, even though it has been like a huge vise in my chest squeezing my heart, it has also been the sun that lights my days.
Susan Murch

Murch says that her heart has been shredded so many times in the past 25 years, she doesn't know if her child is alive or not. She doesn't know if Michaela is unwilling to return, long brainwashed by a captor. But it's better for her, she says, to believe that she will hold Michaela again someday.

Murch had taken fertility pills to get pregnant with Michaela. She wondered if God had been trying to tell her something.

"I often wonder if God wasn't saying, 'Wait. Are you sure you want to do this? 'Cause it's gonna hurt like hell.' But I couldn't have not done it.' ''

Last year on Mother's Day, Murch wrote about how becoming a mother is an act of courage, because it's agreeing to subject yourself to heartbreak.

"I confirm life and love and all it entails, from the very sweetest, to the most bitter and sorrowful. And even though being a mother has caused me the most tremendous sorrow and heartache, even though it has been like a huge vise in my chest squeezing my heart, it has also been the sun that lights my days."

17 months, and still hopeful

It was the Sunday before Christmas -- December 18, 2011. Phoenix Coldon attended church as part of a family whose faith is at the forefront of every decision they make. And she shot a few hoops in the yard.

It was unseasonably warm in St. Louis, and as Goldia Coldon watched her daughter play basketball, she thought Phoenix looked like she was still 12.

"Where has the time gone?" Coldon wondered. Phoenix was 23, and earlier in the year had moved back home while she finished college.

Phoenix Coldon\'s car was found stopped, but still running, in December 2011. Her purse was still inside.
Phoenix Coldon's car was found stopped, but still running, in December 2011. Her purse was still inside.

Coldon looked forward to decorating the Christmas tree with Phoenix later in the day. Her daughter was much better at it. It was an artificial tree with lights -- nothing too fancy. Phoenix loved to rip open presents on Christmas morning and chided her mom for buying expensive wrapping paper. So Coldon began using newspaper for some of the gifts. She always took care to hide one small gift among the tree branches so Phoenix would have to search it out.

On that Sunday afternoon, Phoenix climbed into her 1998 Chevy Blazer. The windows were tinted, so her mother could see only a silhouette. She knew her daughter often sat in her truck and talked on her cell phone.

About 3 p.m., Phoenix's father saw her pull out of the driveway. He thought she was going to the convenience store around the corner or maybe to a friend's house.

But Phoenix never returned.

By midnight, the Coldons knew something was wrong. It was not like Phoenix to leave and not say anything to her parents.

The couple spent the next day on the phone with friends, family and hospitals. When no clues surfaced, they called police.

Phoenix's Blazer turned up at a tow yard in East St. Louis, Illinois, on January 2. It had been found stopped on a street, with the motor running. Her purse was still in the car; designer eyeglasses sat on the console.

In the first few days, Lawrence would say: "Well, I think Phoenix left here to meet someone and something happened."

"Are you saying Phoenix is dead?" Goldia would ask.

"No, I'm not saying that."

Goldia used to say things such as: "Phoenix is not gone." Or, "The Lord has not taken her back."

Now, after all this time, she can finally say the word: "dead."

"Phoenix Lucille Coldon is not dead," she says defiantly.

Lucille is Goldia's middle name. It was her mother's, too. Goldia thought it was appropriate that Phoenix started walking on April 26, 1989, the day Lucille Ball died. Later, Phoenix watched "I Love Lucy" and carried a Lucille Ball lunchbox.

Phoenix was home-schooled and learned to play piano. She had started taking violin lessons from a friend who was second seat with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. She owned three guitars.

Phoenix Coldon went missing from her St. Louis home in December 2011.
Phoenix Coldon went missing from her St. Louis home in December 2011.

She fenced -- foil. And had a 3.667 GPA at the end of her first year at Missouri Baptist University.

It was only after Phoenix disappeared that the Coldons discovered she had lived with a man in an apartment for which the Coldons paid. All along, they'd believed Phoenix was living with a girlfriend. They also discovered that she had dropped her classes at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was no longer enrolled there.

These were disturbing facts. The Coldons wondered whether someone had gotten inside their daughter's head.

So far, their search has been in vain.

Officer Randy Vaughn of the St. Louis County Police Department says Phoenix Coldon's missing person case is still under investigation. The news from Cleveland led him to think about the Coldons and all the other families in America who have a loved one missing.

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"They're being rewounded," he says. "It gives you hope in one respect, but it also reopens all the emotions."

On May 23, Goldia and Lawrence will celebrate the 25th birthday of their only child. It will also be the day they will have to say goodbye to the house that she called home.

Goldia and Phoenix had house-hunted together when the family moved from Bakersfield, California, to St. Louis 12 years ago. They'd gotten lost in a subdivision and spotted a ranch with a walkout basement for sale.

"Mom, I like this house," Phoenix said to Goldia. "This is the kind of neighborhood we should live in. Can we afford this?"

Goldia was a retired social worker; Lawrence a computer systems engineer. They restarted life in that house on Countrybrook Drive.

When Phoenix disappeared, Lawrence had been downsized out of his job. The couple spent their mortgage money on a private investigator. The bank foreclosed on their house, though later it agreed to a short sale.

"We owed two and half times what we sold the house for," Goldia says.

We're going to find her. It's not going to be 10 years.
Goldia Coldon

The couple has to move out by May 23. Goldia has started downsizing -- she has sold her bedroom furniture already -- but every time she begins packing, she breaks down. It's hard to put away all the memories. That's all she has of her daughter now.

But then again, she says, "It's just a house. It's not a home anymore because Phoenix is not here."

Last year on Mother's Day -- her first without her daughter -- Goldia just kept praying for Phoenix's return.

"It didn't happen so I said, 'How about the next day, God?' "

DeJesus, one of the freed women in Cleveland, gave her mother, Nancy Ruiz, the best Mother's Day present any mother could hope for, DeJesus' father, Felix Ruiz, told the media.

Goldia Coldon wishes she could be Nancy.

Instead, she has plans Sunday to test her strength and pack up her house. Time is running out. Moving day will be here soon.

The Coldons don't know where they will go.

"We don't want to sign a one-year lease, because I don't think Phoenix would want to stay here," Goldia says.

She could be back any day.

That's why Goldia has a bag of her daughter's clothes, ready for her when she returns. "I keep it in the car so that if my baby comes out of some place, she'll be properly dressed."

Goldia will pack up the artificial Christmas tree still up in the foyer. She kept the lights on night and day; when they burned out, she put on a new set. She hid a present for Phoenix in the tree. She won't say what it is. That would give away the surprise for her daughter.

"It's for her, my baby girl. Even though she is a grown lady now. She's always my baby girl," Goldia says.

Wherever the Coldons end up living, the Christmas tree will go back up, with the lights and the gifts.

No matter what month it is, when Phoenix comes home, when she is reunited with her family like those three women in Cleveland were this week, Goldia and Lawrence Coldon will be ready to celebrate Christmas.

They will have the biggest gift of all.

Follow Moni Basu on Twitter

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