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Local News






Posted on Mon, Jul. 28, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Vanished without a trace
FAMILIES OF BAY AREA MISSING PERSONS GRIEVE AS YEARS GO BY

Mercury News

Another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, another birthday. Six such occasions have passed without celebration for the family of Jeanine Sanchez Harms, the outgoing 42-year-old Los Gatos woman who disappeared without a trace two years ago.

More than two years have passed since 33-year-old Laurie O'Connor said goodbye to her husband and walked out of the couple's Milpitas home in May 2001 to meet a friend in San Francisco. She was never seen again.

And more than six years have come and gone since 18-year-old University of California-Berkeley student Kristen Modafferi left her summer job at a San Francisco coffee shop one afternoon in 1997 and vanished.

For the families of these three women, there is an anguish deepened by not knowing -- at least for certain -- whether they will ever see their loved ones again. Or if justice will ever be served. Holidays are more endured than celebrated; anniversaries mark dark moments.

``I hate this time of year. I just feel ill, and drained,'' said Harms' mother, Georgette Sanchez, as she stapled fliers about her daughter that will be circulated at a march in Los Gatos today -- marking the second anniversary of Harms' disappearance.

``I really did not want to do this because it takes so much out of me. But I figure if it jogs somebody's memory, if it makes somebody pick up the phone and call the police with a tip, it's worth it.''

The thought of what happened to her daughter torments Sanchez, who believes the attractive brunette who enjoyed dating met with foul play after she brought home a man she'd met at a bar on the night of July 27, 2001. She was never seen again. A rug, slipcover and cushions from her sofa were missing, which has led police to call her disappearance a homicide.

``I used to say my prayers would be answered if we found her,'' said Sanchez, who lives in Campbell. ``But now I'm almost afraid of finding her. What shape is she going to be in? Look at how they found Laci Peterson.''

Los Gatos police have largely focused their investigation on the two men Harms last shared company with at a Campbell bar, but they've been unable to directly link the men to a crime. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is investigating the case. Los Gatos police are expected to make an announcement about the case today at a news conference, but will not discuss the nature of the announcement.

Sanchez says she does not know what information police plan to reveal.

Like Harms, O'Connor disappeared after leaving her home one evening, all dressed up, to meet a friend.

``She liked to socialize, to go out, and unfortunately, she had poor judgment about the people she met,'' said her mother, Peggy Getman, who lives in Arkansas and is raising O'Connor's daughter, Courtney, soon to be 16. ``My theory is, she met up with the wrong person at the wrong time. But we may never know. There are so few clues to follow.''

Courtney, who has lived with her grandmother since she was 8 because of drug problems O'Connor had, only recently told her grandmother she believes her mother is no longer alive. The teenager has written poems to her mother, keeps numerous photos of her mom in her bedroom and often likes wearing pieces of her jewelry. Anything to keep a connection.

The anniversary of O'Connor's disappearance -- May 18, 2001 -- always brings sadness and a feeling that ``there's a hole inside me, in my life,'' said Getman. ``My greatest sadness in all of this is that Laurie never saw what a beautiful young woman Courtney has become. I just hate for this child to grow up with a question mark in her life.''

That question mark -- the glimmer of hope -- has compelled Modafferi's parents to spend thousands of dollars hiring private investigators and psychics. They've also flown from their home in North Carolina to California each year for the last six years to meet in person with Oakland detectives on their daughter's case.

But as time passes, the leads and tips have dwindled to practically nothing.

TV broadcasts and newspaper stories periodically spark calls -- including a tip from a man who was certain he saw Modafferi in Nicaragua, prompting the couple to plan a trip there. But before they left, they ultimately determined it wasn't her.

``We try hard to stay away from speculation about what happened to Kristen, what she endured,'' said Deborah Modafferi, Kristen's mother. ``We can't fall apart. It'll just kill you if you dwell on it.''

Activities involving her missing daughter are painful to attend, especially a yearly dinner hosted by the foundation started in Modafferi's name that brings other families together with tragic stories.

Still, the dinner and other foundation fundraisers, as well as media interviews, working with producers of TV's ``America's Most Wanted'' and other shows about unsolved cases and a cookbook she created as a fundraiser keep her busy and moving forward.

``Our emotions are filled with ups and downs,'' Deborah Modafferi said. ``We are always going through grieving. There is no closure because we haven't found her.

``When would you ever give up? It's your child.''


Contact Connie Skipitares at cskipitares@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5647.
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