A crowd of craned necks and reporter's notebooks was gathering Aug. 30 at the corner of Vega Avenue and the brick-lined alley of West 26th Place after FBI sources announced a search for human remains was under way. This sort of congregation had become routine during the summer of 2013, the questions always teetering on the brink of tragic discovery. Habitual and rote by now, but never any less chilling.
Investigators were trekking through a house with a cadaver dog in tow following a "credible" lead and looking for answers in the case of Christina Adkins. Her story had been shelved for nearly two decades, ranking her among the coldest missing persons cases in the Northeast Ohio region.
Vicki Anderson, a special agent with the Cleveland division of the FBI, was on site to answer questions and fend off the local news media. She couldn't say much as the investigation toiled under the late summer sun. As it turns out, there wasn't much to say at all. Sources explain that a long-ago acquaintance of Christina had pointed the FBI to this home, though neither its owner nor the immediate neighborhood had anything to do with her story. Some close to the family tell Scene it may have been an intentional distraction from Christina's actual fate. But for what purpose?
Questions were flung toward Anderson all day. In the end nothing turned up in the house and further details remained scant, as they always have in the Adkins case. The last certainty in Christina's story is that she was seen walking along the concrete crags of Kinkel Avenue, just four blocks south of Cleveland's infamous Seymour Avenue, in the wee hours of a January morning in 1995.
"This is the house right here, where she lived at the time," says Heather White, casting an index finger toward a two-story beige affair midway down Kinkel. White is a missing persons advocate who has been traveling from Ontario to Cleveland to assist the Adkins family in their latest push for answers from law enforcement. She was in close contact with the family of kidnapping victim Gina DeJesus in recent years, which led her to the Adkins family several years ago. On the ground in Cleveland, she'll retrace Christina's last known footsteps through the neighborhood alongside anyone willing to take a walk.
Abruptly—always abruptly and with a hitch in her voice that approaches frustration—she stops outside the house that Christina shared with her boyfriend. She was heading there on foot at the time of her disappearance. "And that's it," White says with an air of finality, coming to the last spot Christina was seen so many years ago. "But there's no way she just vanished into thin air here. There have been many different stories given."***
Christina Adkins was having a bad day. The 17-year-old petite blonde had left her Kinkel Avenue home for Lincoln-West High School on Jan. 10, 1995, after another early-morning argument with her boyfriend, Jose Rivera. She was thinking about breaking up with him, though the five months of pregnancy she was sporting tangled the knots in her heart even further. At school, a friend consoled her.
The day waxed onward and she arrived at her parents' Prame Avenue home in the early evening, the winter sun already trudging toward the Clark-Fulton horizon. Her otherwise cheery demeanor was downcast. Something wasn't right, but such is the daily backdrop of life as a high school senior. Nothing really seemed out of sorts to her family. Before heading to her own home just across the brickwork alley for the night, she told her parents that she was going to visit a nearby friend.
Christina walked through the kitchen of her parents' house, tossing open the rickety side door and stepping down several wooden stairs to the ground below. She walked north just beyond the property line to her friend's place over on Kinkel. It was about 7 p.m.
She stayed with her friend for a few hours. The details grow hazy as the narrative reaches the endpoint, though Christina likely left her friend's place shortly after midnight. She walked about 90 feet to the east, back to the house at 2317 Kinkel Avenue she shared with Rivera.
And that's it.
That's the story of the last known whereabouts of Christina Adkins. That's the well-worn route that her stepmother, Mary, and her sister, Tonia, have walked since her disappearance. When her father, Roger, was still alive, he joined the efforts with unparalleled zeal. He died in 2010, still clutching a vague sense of hope.
Mary and Tonia say that people have never been quick to offer information to police. But they've spun stories among one another about what happened to Christina. All sorts of tales.
Some talk about California, where for a while people were hounding a woman named Christina Adkins on Facebook. No relation. There's West Virginia, where the roots of Christina's biological mother reside. There's still no proof that she ever fled there. Her boyfriend once said she phoned in from Florida, but he could never expound on that claim. Attempts by Scene to contact Rivera were unsuccessful.
Like many long-running missing persons cases, her status has quietly and unofficially passed into the "runaway" category. Others around town more grimly assert that she's dead. But conjecture holds no interest for Mary and Tonia.
Inside the Adkins' home on Prame Avenue, a seafoam-green anchor on the western terminus of the street, photos of Christina and Tonia are displayed alongside each other on the wall. Christina is frozen in time. Her smile is warm. Tonia, the younger of the two by five years, grew up an only child.
"She would have never just up and walked away from her family. She could walk away from anybody, but she could not walk away from me," Tonia says. "She always looked out for me. And we were very close. She would not have walked away from this house that night knowing that she was going to leave and not tell me."
Mary completes Tonia's sentences as the younger woman continues sharing details of her sister's life. They both call her "Christy." They've told these stories over and over again, repeating the facts and sifting through memories for any clues that may surface. This is what their lives have become—an endless cycle of yearning. Tonia compares the great mystery to a massive puzzle with pieces that have just never jibed. "It's like everything is there, but we just can't twist it to make it fit," she says.
The family doesn't even have Christina's physical possessions to analyze. Everything she owned was thrown out onto the street by her boyfriend a few weeks after she disappeared, the family explains. The police department's second district barred them from retrieving any items, citing possible "harassment" against Rivera.
"Could you imagine? There could be some clues in all that stuff that went to the dump," White says. "So basically, the family has nothing left of Christy except for some pictures."
Nevermind the grassroots, day-in and day-out efforts of the Adkins family over the years; there's really been little in the way of outside help. Until recently, progress on the case was nonexistent. Resentment lurks behind the family's every word.
"Nobody would listen to us. Nobody wanted to do anything," Tonia says. The years dragged on slowly and quite little changed. The family grew up, losing a father to sickness and watching Tonia's son enter this world and flourish. Christina Adkins remained a petite, 17-year-old blonde, forever emblazoned in a handful of family photos. Her name receded to the farthest reaches of Cleveland's subconscious.
And then the summer of 2013 began.***
It was a beautiful, if overwhelmingly normal, day on Seymour Avenue. It was May 6, 2013, and the tenor of the day would change dramatically when a young woman named Amanda Berry pounded her fists against the storm door of Ariel Castro's two-story torture chamber, waking the neighborhood to terrors unimaginable and simultaneously ceaseless tides of hope.
Many things happened in Cleveland once Berry and her fellow captives—Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and her own 6-year-old daughter—escaped. In the immediate sense, the Adkins family raced to MetroHealth Medical Center to find out if the third woman—Knight, then unidentified publicly—was Christina. Resounding joy soon crystallized into conflicting emotions.
"We were crushed," Tonia says, her words damp with a tear. "There was that one chance that it could be Christina."
Mary chimes in, describing how Christina's case and those of other missing women gained a bit of visibility in the wake of the rescue: "When they found the girls down there, we went and brought fliers." The family appeared on CNN and in the pages of the New York Daily News. Christina's name—along with Ashley Summers, notably—became a brief fixture in the aftermath reportage. "It took the ladies being found on Seymour Avenue for us to get any media attention," White adds.
Across Cleveland and more broadly speaking, the May 6 rescue triggered drawn-out introspection.
To be sure, the news of the summer of 2013 was focused more intensely on cases of violence against women—kidnappings, rapes, murders—than in any recent year. By the numbers, 2013 has been fairly typical; there has been so far no noted increase in violent crimes this year. But the news vans and the reporters and the cameras all descended with pronounced zeal into neighborhoods like East Cleveland's Shaw Avenue, the near-westside's Clark-Fulton district, the notably poorer corners of downtown. There was blood.
With due care, the cameras humanized what might have otherwise passed for bleak data points in other years. Names were published and life stories were shared across the region. Public officials took note, for better or worse: East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton was everywhere; Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed worked to stave off his own bleak image to focus the news on victims in his ward; Mayor Frank Jackson released a series of statements. But violent crimes persisted.
Despite the talk—and the talk following 2009's Imperial Avenue serial killings—not much has changed with regard to how the region tackles missing person cases. Hope seemed bountiful and calls to action resounded throughout the summer. Former classmate Paul Calderon says that the police line was never very firm, prompting hand-wringing and the very grassroots mentality that's kept everyone close to Christina going. Hope remained the only vestige. "All we want to do is get closure, whether she comes out alive or not," he says.
The Adkins family, however, soon fell back into a cycle of despair. Had their interactions with the police been effective?
"There weren't any," Mary says. Tonia adds quickly: "The report was made [at the time] and they came out to the house once. That was the last we saw or heard from them." The family alleges that Rivera first filed the missing persons report, though he mischaracterized Christina's appearance entirely. The current report was corrected once family members pushed law enforcement on the matter.
Christina's 37th birthday passed by 10 days after the Seymour rescue. She's been gone longer than she was with us. White leans in close and gets to the point: 18 years is a long time to wait for an answer.***
The Adkins family and their friends are walking along a stretch of West 25th Street south of Clark and posting fliers against the telephone poles on a warm Saturday evening. Below the bold letters of the word "MISSING," three photos of Christina line up for the world. She's pictured at ages 15 and 16, but the third photo—a product of digital-aging software—depicts her at 30.
It's a nod to the longshot hope the family is hanging onto; really, there's no telling what Christina would look like today. In fact, victims of kidnapping and captivity often look years younger than they truly are when they're released.
"Yeah, I got one of these the last time I saw you," a passing stranger tells Mary, referencing the flier she's handing him. Still, he looks at the images and hitches the paper under his arm as he walks off.
Before the group begins the evening's work, they nonchalantly say that the fliers will surely be torn down by the morning. Maybe even within an hour or so. Sure enough, a group of people hit the area around Kinkel and Scranton several hours after the Adkins have headed inside and rip the fliers down, leaving nary a few left papering Prame Avenue.
Kinkel Avenue is a short street that connects West 25th and Scranton. Ariel Castro's brothers, Pedro and Onil, lived there with their mother, Lillian Rodriguez, for years. The home where Christina lived with her boyfriend, on the western half of the avenue, is the epicenter of this problem with the fliers. The Adkins family continues posting their information, though; sometimes they add a purple ribbon to the flier right outside the house. The ribbon never lasts long, either.
"The fliers came down as fast as they went up. And you do wonder, 'Why take the posters down if we're looking for a missing person?' It broke my heart to see how some of these posters were torn down," White says the following day. This is the general tone of the family's awareness efforts, especially in the past year.
With White's budding relationship with the family came a renewed push for action. She's spoken with investigators at length, insisting on getting the people who knew Christina back in 1995 to talk and to share what they know. In turn, the shadowy opposition became more robust, as well. White says, however, that former acquaintances of Christina's are slowly warming to the idea of talking with police. She's helping the family assemble some sort of reward nest egg, a cash incentive to get the right people to cough up information. For nearly two decades, very few people have passed along worthy information to the investigation.
When the FBI rolled onto Vega Avenue and began searching through a house that bore seemingly no connection to the Adkins case, Heather White got on the first bus out of Ontario.
"We appear to be getting somewhere now," she says, looking over at her own daughter, Angel, who survived a brutal kidnapping. "When you look at your own child, there's hope right there." Hope for the Adkins family, somehow, and hope for everyone caught in the great big void.
Activist and author Yvonne Pointer knows that yearning feeling all too well. Her daughter, Gloria, was raped and murdered 29 years ago. Only in May of this year did the police identify a suspect. "Who would have thought that eventually we would see some type of closure?" she asks. "Never, ever, give up hope."
Through those years and up to the present, Pointer has advocated for the missing and maintained a spotlight on the many names and faces. She explains that that's really all she can do. The struggle is her life.
"I kept waiting for the cavalry to show up, only to find out that I was the cavalry. Sometimes we may be the only help we have," she says.
Still, the litany of unanswered questions can pile high when left untended for 18 years. For almost all of that time, Mary says, the family has been left fumbling about in the dark for their own answers. They've worked the pavement of Cleveland - in recent years with White by their side - to determine who knew what and to get an inkling of Christina's fate.
"If things had been handled properly 18 years ago, we wouldn't be out here today," White says as she hoists aloft fliers bedecked with images of Christina. West 25th is coming to life as the sunlight dims. Another car speeds past.***
On May 10, days after the Seymour Avenue rescue, the FBI released a request for tips in connection with both Christina's case and Ashley Summers' case. Though their disappearances were separated by more than a decade, the profiles of the two young women fit startlingly well with the scene brewing on Seymour Avenue. Initially, authorities and the general public were concerned that the two cases could be connected to Ariel Castro. The FBI insists that is not so.
Even a quick scan of the missing persons database reveals more than 100 people across the region at any one time. Christina's face shows up at the end of the list, but dozens of men and women of all ages dot the data entries before her.
Often enough, the first dozen or so entries are riddled with AMBER Alerts that are called off within a day or two. Men and women who thought running away was a good idea sometimes return home. The list sorts itself out, but life has alternate plans for too many of the remaining names.
The years, the names, the faces: Each person on the list has their own story. And each experience is unique, of course. The common denominator is the simple fact that at some point, each person vanished into thin air.
In East Cleveland, the kidnapping and murder of Shetisha Sheeley, Angela Deskins and Shirellda Terry shook the community. Records show police checking in with all related parties following the missing persons reports of each woman, but nothing turned up until their bodies were discovered wrapped in plastic bags. An employee of a local cable company stumbled on Deskins' body initially.
Art McKoy, an activist working with Black on Black Crime Inc., led a grassroots search through abandoned homes and the wooded areas lining Shaw Avenue. He and the group of men were looking for more bodies, hoping to assuage concerns ebbing through the community. Women became afraid. Families huddled behind closed doors as the summer wore on.
As he watched a duo of young men crawl through the first-floor window of a ramshackle home on Strathmore Avenue, he said that the lack of resources for police is a significant problem. He also estimates the true number of missing persons to be closer to 500 across Northeast Ohio. Whether it's the east side or the west side, the matter of discerning the truth too often falls to the community.
For the friends and family of a missing person, there's little hope beyond their own grassroots search effort. Often, with no overt crime to investigate, police departments are left with no clear workload. "What I try to do is maintain a positive working relationship, so that they're not reluctant to answer my calls," Pointer says, describing the running narrative of her past three decades. "So many people are too critical of police, but we need them."
She continues: "My message is always: Never give up hope. Listen, somebody knows something. Then you can really try to get in the hearts and minds of those individuals."
As Heather White accompanies the Adkins family on a walk down West 25th Street, she talks about how the story of Christina has been approached among the neighborhood.
"Before Roger died, he and Mary and Tonia, the past 18 years, have been out here themselves," White says.***
The plight of the missing has become a prevailing theme during the summer of 2013, and the meeting of neighbors and journalists on Vega Avenue at the height of the season is a stark reminder that, even still, little has changed. Those same conversations happen in coffeeshops and around dinner tables as Clevelanders wrestle with the headlines.
When Christina disappeared in 1995, she didn't have a cell phone. Cameras weren't peering down every avenue in town. Communication was different. But Christina disappeared in 1995, and that's one of the few indisputable facts her family has been able to hold onto for all these years.
But the scale is thrown off balance by the lack of answers. Most cases get resolved quickly, FBI officials say, the Seymour case being an anomaly.
Christina Adkins' case is an anomaly, too. There are very few stories like hers in Cleveland. Even fewer answers.
"We need to know. We need to be able to put her to rest properly—to give her a final farewell," Tonia says. "If that's what's needed."
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