We gathered early on a Saturday morning in the parking lot of The Bridge Evangelical Church in Fresno, California. I was hoping there’d be more people, but I was grateful for the dozen or so friends who showed up at 6am—ready to canvas the city with “Missing Child” posters.
My 15-year-old drug-addicted daughter had been missing for nearly two weeks.
A stranger had watched me staple one of the posters to a telephone poll outside her front window, and she felt compelled to help. Her name was Sonja, and it turned out she was connected to the Federal Marshall’s office. She, along with her husband, spearheaded and organized the poster party.
A giant map of Fresno was spread open on the trunk of Sonja’s car. Red lines divided the map into a grid. She gave instructions to the sleepy, but supportive group of volunteers.
We broke up into groups of two or three, armed with a map, a staple gun, and a stack of posters. I thanked everyone for sacrificing a few extra hours of sleep, and we piled into our cars and fanned out across the city.
We walked and stapled, and stapled and walked. We showed Gia’s picture to everyone we saw and asked them to please call if they had any information that might bring our little girl home.
A couple of hours later my cell phone rang. One of the volunteers (and a dear friend) said he was standing with an apartment manager who swore Giana had been staying in one of her apartments, and had been seen several times over the past week.
The manager wanted to talk to me. She told me the residents had up and left the apartment the day before. She’d allow me to search the abandoned unit, but I was not to bring the police.
Sonja and her husband had some experience with sifting through evidence, so I asked them to accompany me to the complex. The manager agreed to let all three of us into the filthy apartment located in the old Mayfair District of Fresno.
An older lady with dyed black hair greeted us. She had nicotine stained fingernails, and a deep, throaty voice. She was wearing an ill-fitting pastel dress and house slippers.
She identified a picture of our car as the one the young woman was seen driving. She told us the girl was tall and blond, but was wearing a black wig. The woman knew the girl was young, but had learned to not ask too many questions. Besides, a man was always hovering and rarely left the girl’s side.
She slipped the key in the lock, turned the knob, and opened the weathered door.
As soon as the door swung open a strong stench of filth and rotting food swept over me. A waist-high mountain of discarded furniture, clothing, and trash stretched from one end of the apartment to the other. A narrow path was carved through the garbage and leading straight to the kitchen. A slightly narrower path led to the bathroom.
So this is a crack house.
So many emotions washed over me—fear, sadness, disgust, guilt, and anger. I did a cursory walk-through. I saw discarded boxes of hair dye and half-used bottles of shampoo on the bathroom counter. A urine-stained mattress sat alone in the middle of the bedroom—without a frame or coverings. I looked up to see a hole cut in the ceiling—a crude hiding place for drugs.
The electricity had been cut off to the small unit weeks earlier. Dirty, rotting dishes filled the kitchen sink and stovetop. A lone tub of mold-covered cottage cheese sat in the refrigerator.
I sat on top of the mountain of trash and began sifting through the garbage. I was looking for any evidence that my daughter had been there and where she might be headed next.
I found a small note that said, “There are pictures of her everywhere”. Had someone seen the posters we’d put up all over town? I sifted through drug paraphernalia, discarded personal hygiene products, papers, car parts, broken dishes, and pieces of glass and metal.
I put my face in my hands and cried uncontrollably for several minutes. I was overwhelmed with the realization that someone’s daughter had been living in this hell. Even if it wasn’t Giana, it was somebody’s baby.
“Oh God”, I prayed, “whoever the girl is, please help her and bring her home to her family.”
I never found anything that proved inconclusively that it was Gia who’d been living in the squalor. In fact, when we finally got her home we learned that she’d never been to that complex or that apartment.
I still think about the young girl I never met that day. She was a stranger, but she was a mother’s daughter. I’ve prayed for that drug-addicted stranger many times over the years.