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Searching for answers: Disappearances heart-wrenching for families, police

Searching for answers: Disappearances heart-wrenching for families, police

Erica Jayne Franolich’s relationship with her husband was on the rocks when she traveled to Schenect

Erica Jayne Franolich’s relationship with her husband was on the rocks when she traveled to Schenectady County during the summer of 1986. They had had a rough-and-tumble relationship prior to that, involving drugs and constant traveling with a cable installation company.

Tensions came to a head when Richard Franolich left his wife with her family in Michigan and stole away with their infant son to the Duanesburg area. She followed him in the hopes of retrieving the boy.

The 26-year-old mother planned to go to Duanesburg, take the boy and head back to Michigan. But they reconciled. However, within months of her arrival in New York she had another falling-out with her husband and later called her brother in Michigan to tell him she feared for her life, authorities said.

“She was supposed to contact [her brother] again the next day to get out of there, but she never did,” said William John, an investigator with the New York State Police.

Instead, she vanished without a trace. Shortly after her disappearance, her husband took their son and went to Vermont, where he remains.

Nearly 24 years later, Erica’s family and investigators have not pieced together what happened to the petite, brown-haired, brown-eyed woman, who was last seen in the Schoharie County village of Middleburgh. She is among the roughly 1,500 people to have been reported missing by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services through July. Solving her case has become a personal mission for John.

“It’s persistence,” said John, who has been tracking the case since transferring to the Princetown barracks in 2005. “You stay on it and you work it.”

Holding onto hope

Missing person cases live on in the laments of loved ones and with a handful of police investigators plugging away at cases. Years can pass without a break, which can lead to frustration and despair.

But with a single phone call from the right person — one tip to generate a new lead — a cold case can heat up again. And it’s this hope that keeps some family members and detectives motivated.

“You never know what you’re going to find 24 years later,” said Saratoga Springs Police Sgt. John Catone, an investigator who is revisiting the Tammie Anne McCormick case.

Two boxes of files generated from the 13-year-old girl’s disappearance in 1986 are stacked on Catone’s bookcase by his desk. He keeps a picture of Tammie in his office, a constant reminder of the unsolved case.

Tammie was a seventh-grader at Saratoga Springs Junior High School when she vanished in April 1986. Family members last saw her in the morning at their home in Geyser Crest, heading out for the school bus.

But Tammie never boarded the bus and never made it to her classes, according to those interviewed by police. She didn’t arrive home that night or the following day, prompting her family to file a missing juvenile report.

In the years that followed, Saratoga Springs investigators tracked down hundreds of leads in four different states. They learned that on the morning of her disappearance, she told her sister that she wasn’t going to make the bus and would likely hitchhike to school.

Other friends told investigators they saw her leaving the school for a friend’s house on Saratoga Lake. They also said she intended to run away to Florida with a friend.

Tammie left the house with no spare clothes and hardly any money. The 5-foot-5, 108-pound girl with hazel eyes and shoulder-length blond hair was dressed in a pair of shabby black corduroys and high-heeled boots — attire her mother insisted she wouldn’t wear if she were planning to run away.

Dogged determination

For Catone, Tammie’s disappearance has become a mystery that he feels personally compelled to solve. He and his fellow detectives are now taking the volumes of handwritten reports and transcribing them into the department’s computer system in the hope of generating new leads.

The task is arduous and must be done when there’s free time — something there is little of in a short-staffed department. Catone often finds himself bringing files home to input into his laptop.

“It’s going to be like redoing an entire case,” he said.

John can relate with his work in the Franolich case. Erica’s family reported her missing to the Michigan authorities about four months after she disappeared. But Michigan police did little investigating because the disappearance occurred in New York.

The New York State Police launched a new investigation in 2002. In 2008, John reached out to local media and began re-posting missing person signs throughout western Schenectady County.

The effort paid off with a deluge of calls to investigators. Interviews helped narrow the scope of the investigation and generate the prime person of interest in the case: Richard Franolich.

“With time, people will talk,” he said. “And it’s interesting because a lot of people remember her being here and felt it was odd that she left without her son.”

Now investigators are beginning to close in on a pair of people who they believe can crack the case wide open. John said there are family members who he’s sure could end the investigation today if they came forward with information.

“Through all these interviews, we’re close,” he said.

Hope and fear

Prolonged missing person cases wear down family members, who often swing between hope and fear as they await a resolution.

Veronica Frear of Scotia wants her son Craig’s disappearance solved but fears the answers that could close the case.

“As a much as I want those answers, I’m so afraid to find the truth,” she confessed.

The 17-year-old senior and co-captain of Scotia-Glenville High School’s varsity soccer team went missing while walking home from the Cambridge Manor complex in June 2004. A girl who he had visited that afternoon believed Craig was headed home along a footpath that winds along the train tracks and through a wooded area to the Frears’ home in Yorkshire Court, about 2 miles away.

The Frears immediately reported their son missing. But local authorities suspected he had fled home and delayed alerting the media under the belief that such coverage would drive him even farther away.

Yet the 5-foot-11, 190-pound teen left behind his wallet, cellphone and $40. Also, he called his mother from Cambridge Manor and told her he was on his way home.

Some reports suggested that he was depressed over a breakup with a longtime girlfriend or upset about losing his job at an area Price Chopper. Still, those who saw him in the weeks leading up to his disappearance didn’t consider him despondent or suicidal.

About six months into the investigation, a search party of hundreds combed the area along the tracks and divers probed the Mohawk River — to no avail. The Frears offered a $10,000 reward for information about their son.

Frear doesn’t feel any closer to finding out what really happened to her son now than when he disappeared more than six years ago. Recently, she arranged to have large posters of Craig posted prominently at the concourse in Albany International Airport, hoping to reach people who might generate new leads.

“There are people out there who know what happened to my son,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be volumes of people, it only has to be that one person that knows something.”

Across the Mohawk in Schenectady, Ethel Zasa has a similar hope. She last heard from her daughter, Lutrica Steele, on an early afternoon in May 2008.

Steele, the 27-year-old mother of two, left the Mont Pleasant home she shared with her mother to run some errands. She told her mother that she planned to return to pick up her children for an outing.

“She was coming back to get her babies to go to a barbecue, and she just never made it back,” her mother recalled.

Zasa never saw her youngest daughter again. Steele was reported missing quickly and the disappearance was well publicized, but authorities are still no closer to finding her.

Steele, who is described as 5-foot-6, 125 pounds with light brown hair and blue eyes, was on disability for a back injury when she vanished. Zasa said her disability checks continued to come in the mail after her disappearance and no calls have been made on her cellphone.

Steele’s family has tried to reach out to the friends they can identify, but none of them seem to have any idea where she went. They’ve also had to find someone to care for her two young children.

“It’s hard,” said Zasa, who is herself in poor health. “I just don’t understand where she would have went.”

Moved to action

One local family, Doug and Mary Lyall of Milton, have transformed the 12-year-long search for their daughter Suzanne into a crusade to solve missing person cases across the state.

The 19-year-old computer science major at the University at Albany was last seen leaving her job at Crossgates Mall on March 2, 1998. The day after she was last seen, a man was videotaped using her ATM card at a Stewart’s shop on Central Avenue.

Since their daughter’s disappearance, the Lyalls founded the Center for HOPE, an organization that helps families of missing people, and were the main proponents behind Suzanne’s Law, a bill passed in 2003 that increased penalties for certain crimes committed on school grounds. They successfully lobbied for the creation of a state-recognized missing persons’ day, which falls on their daughter’s birthday in April.

The Lyalls were also instrumental in pushing the state Division of Criminal Justice Service to create a DNA databank for relatives of missing persons in 2009. Samples are searched against a national database of unidentified remains and then stored for future comparison.

“If authorities know the identity of a deceased individual, they have a much better chance of putting together pieces of the puzzle and solving a missing person case,” Mary Lyall said when the databank was implemented. “Equally important, the link brings a measure of closure to families who do not know if their one loved is living or deceased.”

Some investigators are hoping to do more. In Saratoga Springs, Catone is already collaborating with a state police investigator on several long-standing cases and would like to expand involvement from other surrounding agencies.

Catone said establishing a task force to review long-standing unsolved cases would allow various department to lend their expertise to a case, even if it doesn’t fall in their jurisdiction. But also, he said bringing in fresh investigators on a case that has grown cold can help lend a different perspective to cases.

“We can take a look at these cases collectively as a group,” he said.

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