Throwback Thursday: Young Victims, Hard Lessons

RENO, NV - Even today it's hard to look at their young faces and wonder about the lives they might have had.

Harder still to remember the panic and grief on their parents faces or listen to the Jaycee Dugard's mother, Terri Probyn, in the early days of her long struggle to attempt to reach the abductors who had snatched her daughter from a South Tahoe street.

For almost a decade and a half, we found ourselves witnessing our worst fears played out as another family's tragedy and, with each incident reminding us the world held real threats, watching our own children a little closer, trusting those around us even less.
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It began on Labor Day weekend 1977 in Idlewild Park with the disappearance of six year old Lisa Bonham. The evidence that would identify her killer, her clothing, was actually found just hours later, but the answer would have to wait decades for advances in forensic science and the botched investigation of the murder of another young girl, Monica DaSilva.

She was taken in 1990 from her bedroom window in an apartment across the street from Idlewild Park.

Her scattered remains were found in Lagomarsino Canyon east of town three weeks later, but would sit unidentified in an evidence locker for 10 months.

Discovery of the mistake would lead to the establishment of a task force and a reexamination of other cases including Lisa Bonham's.

The emerging science of DNA eventually identified Bonham's killer, a local casino worker and convicted molester, Stephen Robert Smith.

Monica DaSilva's murder remains unsolved as does the disappearance of 10 year old Tony Franko in 1983 and 11 year old Jennifer Martin four years later, both vanishing in broad daylight on the streets of Lemmon Valley.

Also unsolved are the murdes of Charles and Jennifer Chia. They got off a school bus in south Reno one day and in sight of their home disappeared.

With each new case the response to these disappearances evolved.

When Tony Franko failed to show up at Lemmon Valley Elementary that morning, school officials never called. Today they would.

Precious hours were lost in the assumption that he had run away from home or had gone to a friend's home and failed to tell anyone.

That was standard procedure then, but each case that followed brought tough lessons, a new protocol gradually emerged.

What we learned was to use everybody we can," says retired Reno Police detective Ron Dreher, the lead investigator in the Chia case. "Use fire, use the media, use the community to solve these things."

The community changed as well. While Tony Franko and Jennifer Martin's disappearances frightened us, for the most part their families faced the aftermath with the support only of friends, perhaps a church group and law enforcement.

All this was changing with the kidnap and murders of Charles and Jennifer Chia.

There were massive searches that followed their disappearance and more community involvement. Posters and phone banks helped keep the cases before the public.

Frustration and concern over Lisa Bonham's murder a decade before had prompted local businessman Don Richter to found Secret Witness and with the Chia case the calls to the non-profit organization soared. Information gathered by the organization would not solve either case, but would result in the solution of scores of others.

All of this reached a peak with the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard.

Terri Probyn made herself available at every turn to talk with the media, There were candlelight vigils, community meetings, even a song composed and recorded locally, receiving air play.

All of it helped keep Probyn's daughters disappearance in local hearts and minds for years.

Incredibly, of course, Jaycee Dugard would be found alive 18 years later, a grown woman and mother with an inspiring story of survival.

It was a rare happy ending. Other victims remain undiscovered, their fates unknown or their families still waiting for justice.

All of these cases are still assigned and worked. Secret Witness has standing reward offers on each and, from time to time, there are occasional leads, but no breakthroughs.

From time to time we continue to revisit these stories and when another child is reported missing response is immediate, assuming the worst, hoping for the best.


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