Crime

8 years later, case of missing Sofia remains cold

KENNEWICK — Four-year-old girls don't walk away and never come back.

That's why Kennewick police Detective Sgt. Randy Maynard believes someone knows what happened eight years ago today when Sofia Juarez vanished the day before her fifth birthday.

Sofia, who would be 13 Saturday, left the safety of her Kennewick bedroom, got a dollar from her mother and set off to follow an adult in the house who was going to a nearby store.

Her mother put Sofia's white Converse shoes on over her violet socks, heard the door shut and never saw her young daughter again. Sofia's mother, Maria, died two years ago in Sacramento from medical complications.

Police were called after the family realized she was missing, and a massive search was launched for the little girl with the big smile who was last seen wearing blue overalls and a red, long-sleeved shirt.

Since Feb. 4, 2003, Sofia's story and her picture have been almost everywhere -- featured on TV on America's Most Wanted, on the side of a NASCAR race car, in Times Square and on four semi-trucks traveling across the country.

Police have spent thousands of investigative hours combing through reports, tracking down leads and searching for something to bring a close to the case.

"My gut is that she's alive," said Maynard, who was the patrol sergeant on duty the night Sofia went missing. "If she's deceased, we'd have found her remains. Maybe that's hanging onto hope, I don't know."

In the first 45 days, the entire police force was working on the case, and help also came from other law enforcement agencies, volunteers and other resources from the Tri-Cities and across the nation.

Sofia was the subject of the state's first Amber Alert, and she still is one of 70 children from Washington who are listed with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

During the past eight years, there have been at least four detectives assigned as lead detective on the case.

The latest is Detective Wes Gardner, who has been poring through "thousands and thousands and thousands" of report pages for the past 18 months.

Gardner hopes that looking at the case with a fresh set of eyes will help him see something that will lead to an answer.

"Every spare moment you get you try to read," Gardner said. "You look at everything that's been done or needs to be done different.

"So far I haven't found anything glaring that needs to be done different or wasn't done," he added.

Sofia is listed as a missing and endangered child, and by technical terms, it's not considered an active case anymore, Maynard said.

"But we consider it an active case because we hold it so close to us," Maynard added. "We almost have a personal interest in it."

Through the years, tips have poured in around the country and Mexico. Many have been rumors or "urban legends," as Maynard calls them, about what happened to Sofia.

Investigators have chased leads that said Sofia was abducted by someone she knows and is living in Mexico, or that she was taken by a stranger and killed or is being held against her will, and that she was accidentally hit by a van and then buried south of Kennewick near Hover Park or Jump-off Joe.

Gardner said he has seen nothing in the reports that indicates one way or another whether Sofia most likely is dead or alive and well.

Tips still come in -- though not as frequently -- and they sometimes come in waves with news reports that come around the anniversary of her disappearance or when inmates in jail think they know something and try to make a deal.

Most of the tips are some variation of ones that detectives already have chased, but they still "run it to the ground just like any tip we get," Maynard said.

Advancement of technology and social media networks also might help investigators find some new clue.

For instance, Gardner said he recently received a tip from someone who found a Sofia Juarez on Facebook who is living in Long Beach, Calif., and who would be about the right age.

He's waiting for the Long Beach Police Department's missing person unit to help check out that tip.

Working a cold case that has had no developments is challenging, and Gardner still has an active case load that gets added to every day.

"It's frustrating," Gardner admits, "because I want to solve it."

Asked if there ever will be a time when investigators stop working on Sofia's case, Maynard's answer is simple and final:

"When we find her."

Anonymous tips can be made to Tri-Cities Crime Stoppers at 586-8477 or visit www.tricitiescrimestoppers.org.

Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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