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Column: The disappeared

Posted: May 31, 2018 1:04 p.m.
Updated: June 1, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Monday, Lifetime retold the story of Elizabeth Shoaf. For those who don’t know the story, in September 2006, a horrid, Gollum-like man named Vinson Filyaw kidnapped then 14-year-old Elizabeth and held her captive in an underground bunker he’d built for 10 days and sexually assaulted her.

Elizabeth’s story had a happy ending. For all intents and purposes, she rescued herself by managing to get a text message out of the bunker, leading authorities to her. Although he got away at first, deputies arrested Filyaw about 14 hours after Elizabeth’s rescue. A judge sentenced him to 421 years in prison.

But not everyone gets justice; not everyone goes home.

Last Friday, May 25, marked the seventh anniversary since two young girls on Saipan, the western Pacific island I called home for three years, disappeared from their bus stop in the village of As Teo.

Faloma and Maleina Luhk were 10 and 9 years old, respectively, when they went missing. They are still missing. When I first read the news, I was stupefied. Saipan is only 44.55 square miles in size. Kershaw County is about 16 times larger. Where could anyone have taken them?

Then again, Saipan is completely surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. There is an airport. There are marinas.  There are grottos. It is, being only about 15 degrees north of the equator, all but covered in jungle. It is a (volcanic) mountain island, with lots of nooks and crannies.

Still, one would think the massive search effort in the days following the Luhk sisters’ disappearance would have turned up something.

Nothing has, although there have been leads and the FBI claims it is still a very much active case.

The Saipan Tribune recently reported that the girls’ grandfather said the family is ready to accept any outcome. They just want to know. Their parents, already separated at the time, live in very different places now. The Tribune said their mother is now up in Virginia, while their father lives on Chuuk, an island state that is part of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Back in February, the Tribune reported that FBI agents and others searched a home and its grounds in the village of Koblerville. The house belonged to the late mother of a convicted murderer. Authorities somehow got the idea the convicted man might be connected to Faloma and Maleina’s disappearance, but found no remains.

To this day, no one knows if the sisters are alive -- perhaps in the Southeast Asian sex trade -- or dead and, if so, where their remains might be found.

But not all the disappeared are teens or pre-teens.

There’s an unsolved missing person case right here in Kershaw County.

Her name is Adriana Laster. She was 27 years old the last time anyone had heard from or seen her. She lived in Elgin with a man named Freddie Grant who -- after anyone last saw her -- was arrested and later pleaded guilty to kidnapping and killing 15-year-old Gabriella “Gabbiee” Swainson and burying her 6 feet deep in the woods next to Elgin’s Thermoid plant.

But there was no trace of Adriana, and Grant, 52 at the time -- who led authorities to Gabbiee’s grave -- no longer had any incentive to cooperate since his plea deal put him in jail for 30 years. He’ll be 83 when he completes his sentence.
Come this September, Adriana will have also been missing for seven years.

No one, except (most likely) Grant, knows where she is. Is there any chance she’s alive? If so, why hasn’t she surfaced after so many years, especially since Grant is safely behind bars?

If she’s dead, where could her body be? In the same woods as where Gabbiee’s body was found? Adriana was, officially, from Florida. Her aunt and legal guardian lived in Alabama back in 2012. Her family told me back then that Adriana was 15 when she started dating and ended up having a baby girl about a year and a half later. Although she did not have custody of her daughter, Adriana was active in the girl’s life.

Adriana’s family claimed Grant beat her and stole money they had sent her to return to Florida. They knew something was wrong when all contact ceased in September 2011.

The paternal grandmother of Adriana’s daughter contacted me again earlier this year. She said she and Adriana’s aunt are wondering if authorities are still looking for her.

In 2016, the National Crime Information Center listed nearly 650,000 people missing in the U.S. The vast majority -- nearly 500,000 -- were under the age of 21. Most of those under 21 were female (262,707), while most over 21 were male (92,686).

That is an incredibly huge number of people who have vanished. Faloma, Maleina and Adriana are just three of them.

Sometimes, we need to combat a huge problem by solving one case at a time. I urge all the authorities on Saipan and here in Kershaw County to bring them home.


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