Tony Franko: A Cold Case That Taught Hard Lessons

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RENO, NV - May 9, 1983, a 10-year-old Lemmon Valley boy left for school and simply disappeared. Thirty-two years later, his mother waits for answers and the Sheriff's Cold Case Unit is taking a new look.

Liza Ackerman-Stewart lives surrounded by the memories of her son.
Pictures, cards, a scrapbook. The kinds of things a mother keeps and treasures. But what you see is a time capsule, ten years of a life that suddenly changed 32 years ago.

May 9, 1983 began as a proud moment in their lives. That weekend, Tony Franko had won ribbons at a 4-H Fair. Liza was taking them to show them off to co-workers.

He was getting dressed as she left for work. Tony always walked himself the short distance to Lemmon Valley Elementary. This morning he left home and simply disappeared.

From his home in Lemmon Valley the most direct route would have been to walk north on Fremont Street, but this particular morning we have reason to believe he walked in the opposite direction.

"It is odd," says Detective Rick Bjelke of the Sheriff's Cold Case Unit. "but it wasn't uncommon for kids to stop off at the 7-11 before going to school."

The 7-11 is a short distance beyond the cul de sac at the south end of Fremont where Tony was last seen.

"A witness reported him leaning over and talking to an unknown subject in a rusted out, possibly a Ford Pinto or even a Camaro car."

That detail has never been widely reported. In fact, investigators didn't have that information until a couple months later when a witness came forward with a memory that hadn't seemed important at the time.

Unfortunately, the description was vague and, like other potential leads, led nowhere.

It was 1983. Missing kids were usually first assumed to be runaways and Tony had briefly run away for a few hours a month earlier after an argument with his mother over his report card. That incident remained part of the narrative of the case for some time and, along with procedures of the time, colored authorities' response.

A week passed before a neighborhood-wide search was organized.

"They didn't really look for him until they told me to take a lie detector test to see if I'd done something to my son," remembers Liza. "And I thought that is so crazy."

Weeks and months went by. Despairing, Liza considered suicide.

"But then I heard a voice, I think it was the Lord, 'what if he comes home and you're not here?' That stopped me from doing that."

Months turned to years and Tony Franko was joined by other missing children. Protocols changed. If he went missing today, there would be an immediate, massive response. Liza says she's glad things have changed, but can't help but wonder what it could have meant to have a more immediate response back then.

Meanwhile the case is getting a fresh look. Bjelke and his partner Dave Jenkins, also a retired veteran Reno police detective, are pouring through the case files.

"We're talking and re-interviewing people who were young at the time and are now older and may have new information and it just might be that one piece of information that helps us solve this case."

And while they work, Liza Ackerman-Stewart does the only thing she can do, posting Tony's picture on the internet with holiday and birthday greetings to a son she lost 32 years ago, clinging to a faint hope and waiting for answers.

"I think of him all the time, I do grieve, but I have to go on with my life and by the grace of God I do now."

There's a chilling follow-up to this story. Four years after Tony Franko disappeared, an 11-year-old girl disappeared in the middle of the day just a short distance from where he was last seen. Jennifer Martin has never been found.

Anyone with any information on this or any other unsolved cold case is asked to call authorities or Secret Witness at 322-4900.