Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The little girl with a gap-toothed smile and wavy, brown hair vanished more than 13 years ago from her Las Vegas neighborhood — leaving behind a frantic family and questions haunting detectives to this day.
Her name is Karla Rodriguez. She was 7 years old.
Today, a black binder and six boxes full of photographs and case transcripts sit in a Metro Police building. They represent years of work and anguish that won’t subside until Rodriguez is located.
“We truly have no idea where Karla is,” said Detective Dan Holley, who works in Metro’s missing persons detail.
Karla’s disappearance is one of about 200 cold cases that detectives in the missing persons detail continue to probe, hoping for the lead that could break the case. A 12-drawer filing cabinet contains folders organizing most of the cases, some of which date to the 1970s.
“They are in different phases of being brought into the 21st century,” Holley said as he recently perused the drawers. “We have organized them in a fashion that we can quickly grab them.”
The statement points toward an undeniable truth in the business of finding missing people: The break in the case could come at any time, in any form. An event in Cleveland proved that last week, when three women escaped their abductor after a decade of being held captive.
The story generated worldwide interest as people celebrated the discovery of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight and tried to grasp how they went undetected for so long in a Cleveland house. The women were 16, 14 and 20, respectively, when they disappeared between 2002 and 2004.
“If someone is missing, we should never give up hope,” said Lt. Rob Lundquist of Metro’s family crimes section. “That’s important to know.”
Metro detectives receive about 6,000 to 7,000 new missing person cases each year, Lundquist said. Reports run the gamut, both in terms of gender and age, he said.
Some are cases of gross miscommunication among family and friends. Others involve adults who, for one reason or another, intended to disappear and start over somewhere new. The juvenile cases can include runaways or children kidnapped by a parent during a custody battle.
They can include cases reported by out-of-state parents who speculate their child may have run away to Las Vegas.
And then there are the select few that constitute a puzzling mystery.
“Most of our cases get resolved right away,” Lundquist said. “We have very few that go for extended periods of time. But if they do go unresolved, they’re continued to be worked by detectives.”
Detectives consider the Rodriguez case among the latter. Karla’s mother last saw her walking to school Oct. 20, 1999, but she never made it there.
Her father noticed Karla wasn’t home from school that afternoon, but he thought she might be playing with neighborhood friends, Holley said. The family lived near the 700 block of East St. Louis Avenue, a residential area south of downtown.
Her father saw Karla’s bicycle home at 3 p.m., but the bike was gone two hours later, Holley said. Her father knocked on neighbors’ doors at 10 p.m. when she still had not returned home, Holley said.
One neighbor told the father the girl had stopped by at about 7 p.m. to see if the neighbor’s son could play, Holley said. When the neighbor said no, Karla lingered in their front yard for about 15 minutes before leaving, Holley said.
The girl’s father assumed she was spending the night at a friend’s house, Holley said. But when Karla’s mother couldn’t find her the next morning at John S. Park Elementary School, the principal reported her missing to police, triggering a massive hunt, Holley said.
A multijurisdictional task force assembled to help search for Karla, and detectives over a two-month period interviewed dozens of people who could have had contact with her, Holley said.
Their efforts yielded little information. No one failed a polygraph test, including Karla’s parents.
That led detectives to suspect a stranger abduction, a rare event in missing persons’ cases. Holley said detectives stand by that theory and have received hundreds of leads since Karla’s disappearance. All leads have been investigated to the “nth degree,” Holley said.
“There’s no issue we ignore at all because we all have been shocked and surprised by an outcome,” he said. “We have great woe over the Karla Rodriguez case. It’s like a scar on your heart.”
In September, Metro collected DNA from Rodriguez’s parents again to be entered into a national database that could confirm the worst-case scenario: her death if human remains located indicate a likely forensic match.
Family members, meanwhile, cling to hope that maybe they — like the families of the missing women in Cleveland — will receive long-awaited good news.
“We believe that she’s alive,” said her older sister, Rosy Rodriguez, now 28. “Our hope and our faith is what’s keeping us walking.”
Karla Rodriguez would have turned 20 in late September. An age-progressed photo released by authorities that’s supposed to mimic what Rodriguez might look like now shows a young adult with long, brown hair and fuller eyebrows but distinctly similar other facial features.
Detectives ask anyone with information about the case to contact them, even if the tip might seem insignificant. Every possibility remains on the table, Holley said.
“It was a big deal,” he said of Karla’s disappearance, which garnered media attention at the time. “There’s a time coming when it’s going to be a big deal again. We pray for that time to come.”
As for Karla’s family members, they just want to welcome their daughter and sister back home.
“Your family is waiting for you, Karla,” Rosy Rodriguez said.
To contact detectives in Metro’s missing persons detail, call 702-828-2907.