Guilt haunts families of missing persons

“I didn’t have time for her,” Lloyd said. “We did tease her a lot.”

His sister, Lori Jean Lloyd, vanished February 10, 1976, as she walked from her family’s home at 3303 Annabelle Drive toward a 7-Eleven on Wilmington Pike to purchase cigarettes. Police don’t believe she ever made it to the store, and the girl, then 14, has not been seen since. Her siblings, including Jim Lloyd, who was 18 when his sister disappeared, and their mother have all struggled with feelings of guilt ever since. This is not uncommon, according to experts.

The Dayton Daily News and News Center 7 spent two months examining cold case homicides and missing persons reports. The family members interviewed described the agony of not knowing what happened to their loved ones, or who was responsible. They discussed going through scenarios repeatedly, trying to get answers for what has been so far unanswerable. They also described examining their own behavior in looking for those answers.

“The idea that’s often discussed is that folks focus on closure,” said Art Jipson, a sociologist and director of criminal justice studies at the University of Dayton. “Mysteries tend to interrupt the usual flow of relationships.”

“I COULDN’T SAVE HER”

Cold cases bring frustration. Some murders go unsolved and killers slip through the cracks. Time passes and the families of the victims lose hope. They also feel guilty because they were not there to help and because there has been no justice for their loved one.

Carla Davis was six months pregnant when she was murdered 13 years ago. What her killer did to her, investigators said, was one of the most gruesome crimes they had ever seen. Carla’s murder also haunts her mother, Rosetta Byrd of Dayton.

“This time I couldn’t save her. I was not there to say goodbye,” said Byrd. “The only thing I can say is Carla, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help you. Sorry I wasn’t there when you took your last breath. I’m sorry I was not there to hold you in my arms. Sorry that I let you down.”

In the early morning hours of Aug. 11, 1991, somebody attacked and beat the 21-year-old woman and then set her body on fire.

Rosetta Byrd says she is still struggling because the killer is still free. She says she can’t move on because there has been no justice for Carla.

The Davis case was recently reopened by Detective Patricia Tackett of the Dayton Police Cold Case Unit.

“It breaks my heart when I see this. That’s why I do what I do,” Tackett said.

STRIVING FOR AN UNOBTAINABLE ANSWER

The Lloyds did not speak of Lori’s disappearance for years. In 1999, they began speaking about it after they held a memorial service. That opened up communication, and family members compared notes on what they were thinking and feeling and when.

“I thought she was too trusting,” Jim Lloyd said. “She didn’t think anybody, besides her sisters and brothers, was mean.”

Joni Spencer, the eldest sister, who described herself as a second mother to Lori remembers that “I blew it off” when Lori first went missing, thinking that she had run away again. Their mother, Anita Smith, who developed an alcohol addiction after her daughter’s disappearance, said she even felt guilt about moving from the house on Annabelle, thinking that, if Lori were to return, that’s where she would go.

“I stayed in my house for years, even after I wanted to move,” Smith said.

Anita Ping, whose son Donald has been missing since 2002, said she believes her son is dead. She wakes up thinking about him most mornings, and thinks about him when she lays down to sleep, replaying scenarios in her head about what might have happened.

“This way, you don’t really know who to be mad at,” Ping said. “You pray for that all the time: just let me know.”

Jipson said that family members of cold case victims feel an overwhelming loss of control, leading them to speculate and blame themselves, questioning what they could have done to prevent what happened.

“We strive to find that logical explanation,” Jipson said. “These people have to manage ambiguity and to manage uncertainty in a way that most of us may not ever have to do.”

This is particularly pertinent in disappearance cases, because “you have no evidence to go on. So you have to manufacture evidence,” Jipson said.

People do that by speculating on the ambiguities that existed in the relationships they had with the victim, or to micro-examine the specifics of their own behavior. But in most cases, Jipson said, the answers aren’t there. The survivors likely had nothing to do with the creation of that mystery.

“You can’t possibly plan for every contingency,” Jipson said. “Of course, you’re going to let your child out in the world. You have to.”

Anita Smith, who was having dinner with a friend the night Lori vanished, said she’s gone through all of that. Though she still sometimes expects a knock at the door, she said she knows it’s not likely. The computer-generated pictures of Lori, showing what she would look like at age 50, show a stranger to her, and she wonders if, should Lori ever return to their lives, they could really begin again as family.

But she also wonders if the mystery is really a blessing, she said.

“I don’t know if we could handle what happened to Lori,” Smith said. “Maybe not knowing is not as bad as knowing.”

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