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Celina's 40th Birthday: Still Missing


“I pulled the covers back and all I saw were pillows.”

Nori Mays was just 4 years old when her 12-year-old stepsister, Celina, vanished in the middle of the night from their family home in Willingboro, New Jersey. It was Dec. 16, 1996.

As a toddler, Nori, now 32, remembers being shielded from the chaos surrounding her sister’s mysterious disappearance. Now, she’s on a mission. May 21 marks Celina’s 40th birthday, and Nori wants to seize this milestone as an opportunity to bring new attention to her sister’s unsolved case.

Nori Mays and police are hopeful that Celina and her child are still alive.

“I know crime shows and crime junkies want to know everything about my sister’s case, but you have to realize there is a broken family behind those stories,” explained Nori. “It's not just Celina Mays went missing in 1996. Did her family have something to do with it? I'm asking for a bit of grace here, because it’s not every day your kid goes missing.”

At 12 years old, Celina was nine months pregnant when she disappeared, just a week before Christmas. Nori remembers her mom cooking breakfast and asking her to go wake up her sister. “I went into her room and all I saw was pillows covered with a sheet,” said Nori. “Little did I know from that moment on my family’s life journey would be altered forever.”  

two photos: (l) celina at 12; (r) the house where she lived: one level with white extention on left side and brick on right

Celina Mays' missing photo (left) Photo Credit: NCMEC; Former residence of Mays family (right) Photo Credit: Burlington County Times/Joe Lambert/USA TODAY NETWORK

According to police reports, the night Celina disappeared, she went to church with her family and then went to bed at 11 p.m. Celina’s father, “C.J.” Mays, reported her missing and she was never seen again.

When Celina disappeared, the family’s church became a big focus in the investigation, and many wondered what role, if any, it played in her disappearance and pregnancy. Hoping to clear up rumors and misconceptions about her family, Nori talked with NCMEC.

In the early ‘90s, the Mays family ran a church called the Gospel of Christ Ministries in Mount Holly, NJ. Nori said it looked like a typical church at first glance, but there was a dark side. According to Nori, her father’s sister, Cerita Smith, was the pastor. Nori said that her aunt ran the church much like a cult and her parents and siblings were stuck. “My aunt dictated my parents’ marriage and everyone else’s and their kids.” said Nori. “I do not judge my dad or my mom for their inability to act out against the church. They were afraid, but they did everything they could to help Celina.”

church: red brick two-story building

Gospel of Christ Ministries. Photo Credit: Burlington County Times/Joe Lambert/USA TODAY NETWORK

Nori believes her father, who has since died, wasn’t treated fairly at the time, which made it very difficult for him to speak out. “These are things that not everyone knows. And I wish more people would ask questions as opposed to just putting out speculative comments on Facebook.” Nori acknowledges the strained relationship that existed between her family and the police when Celina first went missing, but she is determined not to let the past interfere with the current efforts in Celina’s case. Furthermore, the church has been removed as a member of the Christ Gospel Ministries, Inc., and Nori hopes the public and investigators can get back on track to find Celina.

Detective Monica Pogorzelski with the Willingboro Police Department has taken over the case. “We remain hopeful that Celina and her child may be alive,” said Detective Pogorzelski. “After 27 years, the case is still an open investigation. We will not give up in our search and we hope to one day give Celina's family the answers they deserve.”

celina as a small child. she's wearing a red sweater and a birthday hat, hugging a present and smiling

Celina Mays' age progression. Photo Credit: NCMEC

What we know about the disappearance of Celina Mays:

  • Police have not been able to identify the father of Celina’s child. According to family members, Celina told people the father was a 16-year-old, but never gave a name.
  • Nori said people have come up to her over the years with many theories. One she deems credible and hopes to be true: Celina’s birth mother, Lynn, persuaded a woman to help Celina escape from the church, moving her to a place where no one would find her.
  • Celina’s family has ties to New Jersey, Michigan and Florida.
  • According to police, the Gospel of Christ Ministries is now an abandoned building. Investigators are seeking any information the public may have about the church when it was in operation.
  • Pastor Cerita Smith has since passed away.
  • Police are still looking for community members and people who worked at the church who haven’t shared their stories.
  • Celina would be 40 years old today and her child would be 27.

A forensic artist at NCMEC created an age progression of what Celina Mays could look like today. If you have any information about Celina’s disappearance, please call NCMEC at 1-800-843-5678.

View Celina's missing poster here: