As so often happens after a traumatic event, Mary Ramsbottom remembers exactly where she was when she got the devastating call – 20 years ago today – that her sister, Paula, 25, and her 3-year-old nephew, Brandon, were missing in Valdosta, Georgia. She recalls every detail about that frozen moment in time, especially her mother’s reaction when she heard the news.
“I could hear my mom wailing,” said Ramsbottom, who lived near her parent’s home in Orlando, Florida. “I will never forget that sound for as long as I live.”
On Oct. 13, 2002, when Paula didn’t show up at 7 a.m. for her job at Sam’s Club in Valdosta, her colleagues were immediately concerned. It wasn’t like her not to call, and they went to the Common Apartments on North St. Augustine Road that morning – twice – to check on her and the son she adored. It quickly became apparent: They were missing.
Paula loved being Brandon's mom, her sister said.
Valdosta police did not have much to go on then – and still don’t. Paula’s 1998 Chevy Blazer wasn’t missing, but Brandon’s car seat was. Despite an active investigation, which continues two decades later, Sgt. Chris Crews is hoping someone who knows something will finally step forward and give the family the answers they so desperately need.
“They just vanished,” said Crews, who is investigating what has become Valdosta’s oldest missing case. “I would love it if they were alive somewhere. I just don’t see a way in a modern world you can disappear off the grid for this long, but I would be ecstatic if they were alive.”
It’s happened before. Here at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), we’ve seen children and adults recovered years, even decades, after they were reported missing, especially with recent advances in technology and DNA testing. Our forensic artists have created two new age progressions, which we’re releasing today, of what Paula and Brandon might look like 20 years later in the hopes that someone will recognize them.
Wade’s mother, Mary McGrath, said her close-knit family has never given up hope of finding the youngest of her three children and her sweet grandson, known as “Munchkin” because he was so tiny when he was born. More than anything, he loved his “Woody” cowboy from Toy Story and to play ball with his granny.
“My heart just melted,” McGrath, 80, said of seeing the new age progressions for the first time. “I thought they were so perfect. You can see how Brandon has become that young man. Oh my goodness. We won’t ever give up. It’s still a nightmare that ever ends.”
Brandon loved his Woody cowboy from Toy Story.
Two weeks before they vanished, McGrath and her husband, Regis, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, had taken Brandon to Disney World. His mom was getting a transfer from the Valdosta Sam’s Club to one in Kissimmee in the Orlando area so the family, including Paula’s brother, Regis, could be united and the five grandkids could grow up together. Paula’s husband, in the Air Force, would join her later.
On Oct. 12, 2002, the McGraths became concerned when they didn’t get their 6:30 p.m. call from their daughter, which she made every Sunday night from a payphone. The next morning, they learned from Sam’s Club that she and Brandon were missing – a week before their move to Orlando. Paula’s husband, Staff Sgt. Lance Wade, heard the news in Sumter, South Carolina, where he was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base.
As spouses often are in these kinds of cases, Wade said he was questioned by Valdosta detectives, given a polygraph and ruled out as a suspect. Because of his job in the Air Force, he was away from home for long periods of time and missed out on a lot. But when he was there, he said, he would work nights and take care of Brandon during the day when Paula was at Sam’s Club.
Wade, now a correctional officer, is still hopeful that Paula and his “playful, inquisitive” little boy may be found safe one day. After his wife was missing for seven years, and with his life on hold, he was granted a divorce in Georgia and remarried to start a new life.
“There are times I go off in my own little world,” said Wade. In that imaginary world, he said, “there’ll be a knock on the door and someone will say, ‘Hey, I’m your kid.’”
Sisters Mary and Paula (l-r) were extremely close.
After her sister and nephew disappeared, Ramsbottom, 57, an instructional designer for a global corporation, found herself saying the same thing over and over: Someone, somewhere knows something. It’s hard for her to believe that, 20 years later, she’s still saying the same thing – but now saying it with a much larger megaphone through social media.
She says her family has never stopped looking, never stopped handing out fliers and she’s just ordered 200 more to help get her through today to mark 20 years missing. She hopes people will look closely at the new age progressions (https://www.missingkids.org/poster/NCMC/953466/1/screen) and call Sgt. Crews even if they just think they might recognize them or have a piece of information that could help. The goal of age progressions is to create a “spark” of recognition.
“Our faith is what has kept us so strong,” said Ramsbottom, whose dad died in 2011, nine years after they disappeared. “My dad had to pass without having any answers. How sad that all those years, he didn’t know where his child and his grandson were. We have to fight hard for answers. You don’t just vanish into thin air.”
If you have any information, please contact Sgt. Chris Crews at 1-229-293-3091 or NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678.)