Whisper N Thunder Magazine, April 2012
Missing Amanda & Gina: My Journey
byTara Pretends Eagle Weber
Social Justice Publicist for Amanda & Gina
I remember watching the “Montel Williams Show.“ I couldn’t hear the words but I knew the woman on TV was Native American with a round face with the almond eyes. I could see the hurt and anger in her eyes. So, I turned up the volume and she was asking a psychic about her missing daughter, Amanda Berry, who was Cherokee. It quickly clicked in my head, that Amanda was one of the teens that had gone missing in Cleveland, Ohio where I was living at the time. As a matter of fact, I lived less than 25 blocks from where she had gone missing and ironically was becoming more angered because I was seeing flyers for missing girls everywhere I went. And they were not being found!! I was wondering what the heck was going on in my community. Amanda worked at Burger King on Lorain Ave. at W. 110th Street in Cleveland. She lived a short walking distance away. On April 21, 2003, she was leaving her job & called her mom & sister to let them know she got a ride home. She never came home.
My mind was whirling with thoughts, as my toddler son wrapped his arms around my legs, as I sat staring at the TV. I could not imagine what this mother was enduring. The unthinkable and the most painful thing you could go through. Then this anger came over me and a deep sense of empathy to the point my heart was pounding. This horrific sense of reality for a beautiful Native American teenager and her family horrified me. My mind went to a place it had never been before. I did not understand what I was feeling. But I knew I was going to go meet Amanda’s mother!
After the show ended it went to the local news, where they announced there would be a vigil for missing Amanda in three days. That was my chance to meet Amanda’s mother. I knew then for sure it was going to happen. As it did. I went to the vigil, where I met several people. I recognized Amanda’s mother, Louwana Miller and I quickly heard her rage. She did not hide it, she never did. I always felt, why should she? Who is anyone to judge how a mother with a missing child would react?
The woman named Terry who was coordinating the vigil introduced me to Louwana. She was so angry she could not really talk much. But I later had coffee with Terry and she told me about the things the family had been experiencing from the public and law enforcement…I was again, horrified to find out how law enforcement didn’t look for Amanda for three weeks. The people that were supposed to help find her, failed initially.
I was shocked to learn how other human beings treated a family whose child was missing. I thought day and night about the evilness this family was faced with… the additional pain caused by the human reaction to this beautiful young woman who vanished in their own streets, was horrifying. Terry brought Louwana to my house to meet me. I listened to both of them talk about a lot of what had occurred in the several years since she went missing. I was horrified at the lack of law enforcement response and how they felt she had run away so they did not do anything for three weeks. I could not believe how they treated Louwana either. Yes, she was enraged and showed it. I saw it as psychological torture.
When I met Louwana I had been an advocate for victims of crime for years. I had dedicated my life to this cause because I had seen the impact it has on people. I wanted to help make change. I quickly also saw that victims of kidnapping and their families do not fall under ‘victims of crime,’ under the law. Meaning the families are not entitled to an advocate, emotional support, direction and compensation from for victims’ compensation fund. In my meetings with Amanda’s family & friends and attending vigils, I met Nancy Ruiz, another mother with a beautiful missing daughter, Gina DeJesus. Gina went missing a year after Amanda did while walking home from school on Lorain Avenue, just blocks from where Amanda did. Gina, of Puerto Rican descent, was only 14 years old when she was abducted on April 3, 2004. She had a figure of an eighteen year old and the mind of an eight year old. I never knew that Gina was in Special Education until her mother told me. I was shocked that in all the media coverage, no one had ever said that before. I also learned that law enforcement would not take a report or look for her for over two days. It was assumed that she ran away, even after the police got involved.
Again, I was horrified that this was happening to another family and they were treated in some instances in shocking ways by the community and law enforcement. I saw that these beautiful, minority girls were not a priority. This enraged me. I was so mad that I became definitely obsessed at making a difference in these families’ lives. Despite, what they already had suffered. However, my years of advocacy for victims of crime and dealings with law enforcement did not prepare me for supporting these families. Nothing did, nor could have. I had law enforcement come to my home and pound on my door. They were yelling things I could not understand. I was there with my two year old child. Since I did not answer the door, they came to the side door & got in through the back. They were again pounding. My son was crying because of all the pounding, yelling and probably sensed my own fear. I opened the door and was met with yelling and screaming. They said they were looking for a man that attended the vigil with me. When I told them he was not there, he pushed me back in my own kitchen. I pushed him out and slammed the door. I ran to get my tape recorder and opened the door. I had told him, if he was so comfortable about what he was doing he could say it while I recorded him. He got so enraged and was yelling at me. The officer next to him, never said a word. Until I asked him for his business card and who his supervisor was. He was a local police officer and the other was an FBI agent.
I later found out, they went to Louwana’s friend, Terry’s house too, after they were at mine. After this all happened, I was scared. I could not figure out why people were so angry. I got scared for our safety. I was torn. I chose to back off from Louwana for a while because I got another call from law enforcement, yelling at me & asking why I was at her home on Christmas Eve. My response was to bring her Christmas cookies I made for her and hung up.
I did not see Louwana again, until Terry called me repeatedly to help her at the hospital. So I went. Louwana was sick and was not getting the proper medical treatment. As a social worker I knew she could sign out against medical advice. The way the medical staff treated her was horrifying. The doctor was screaming at us. But I told Louwana to leave anyway. When we were leaving on the elevator, a woman told us to hurry because her doctor had called the police on Terry and I. We got surrounded by three officers, including one who drew his gun. After I got lectured for laughing inappropriately, I explained the law and that I knew what I was doing as a social worker. So they let us go. We got Louwana into another hospital.
It was there in the ER, Louwana talked to me privately. She asked me to make sure I did something to make a difference for missing children. She made me promise and I did. Several weeks, later Louwana died at 42 years old. Even the news stated she had died of a broken heart. I was asked to speak at her funeral. I wore my jingle dress and talked about my friendship with Louwana. I did mention in my own way that she was treated so poorly and some day accountability would happen in various ways. That same night, I prayed, burned sage and sat on my roof top, to seek guidance. Something about Louwana’s death put my fear on the back burner. I had a new sense of determination to make a difference for the two teenagers that were missing and most likely taken because of their ethnic beauty.
I spent a lot time researching the types of other crimes that were occurring in this area. Because at the vigils, I repeatedly met several young women who were brutally sexually assaulted on Lorain Avenue. I had mapped out where Amanda and Gina had gone missing and the other crimes that occurred such as rape, murder & abduction. There were red dots all over this area. It was a cesspool for crazies to victimize, rape, stalk, kidnap and murder young, mostly minority women. It took my breath away when I would stare at it. As a result of my research, I began to study the law. I decided to write one of my own. I consulted with the National Center for Missing Children. Through my research I learned that a federal law mandates law enforcement to take a report on a missing child. It does not give a police officer the authority to refuse a report and/or tell a parent their child ran away. Thus, I wrote the ‘Bill for AMINA’s’ Law. AMINA is a combination of Amanda & Gina. The basis of the Bill is that it would make families of the missing, victims of violent crime. Giving them rights and protection through their state constitution. Former Senator Fingerhut met with Terry and I about AMINA. I also showed him the map of the crimes. He was astonished. He did not know that so many women had been murdered, raped and kidnapped within his own jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, there were uninvited guests in attendance there at our meeting at McDonald’s. So, the Senator did not stay long. However, his office did work with us to get AMINA going. By the Senator being a lame duck, we contacted the two candidates to see if they would support AMINA. One was my old boss and the other worked for a local politician. They both said ‘YES.’ But when elected, the new Senator backed off and eventually blew us off. This was a big disappointment. He looked at Gina’s mother’s face, right in front of me, stating that he would do something to help her if he was elected. Then hugged Nancy. Broken promises were too common. It is a horrible reality: missing children & adults is political game. It is a hard concept to accept. I spent a lot of time with Nancy, Gina’s mother. I decided to take her to a victim’s rights conference at the state capitol. When law enforcement got wind of this, they went to both families to speak about me. For some reason, it irritated law enforcement that we were going to the conference. Whatever was said to the families created severed ties with Amanda’s family and I.
Yet, Gina’s family made me their Family Spokesperson after this. I was also called by the same man who came to my pounded on my door. He wanted me to meet him in a parking lot to talk. I refused and eventually reported him to his boss. Because I felt there was no reason to make me go any were. I was not a suspect. I was advocating for Gina. Assuming my new role as Gina‘s Family Spokesperson, I had lots of contact with the Cleveland media. They adored Amanda & Gina! They have covered a lot of events over the years. So much so the cameramen would recognize me and say “Hi!” I spent a lot of time trying to think how I could create more attention to the faces of my missing minority girls but now on a national level. So, when the Cleveland Cavaliers, the professional basketball team, made it to the National Basketball (NBA) League Championship Finals in 2007, I asked the NBA if they would post the girls’ pictures during one of the Championship games in Cleveland. The Cavaliers said yes but it went on to become the NBA’s decision. I was told by the NBA that I needed to show a public interest in this.
At the time, MySpace was the social network that was big. So, I posted all over that and other places for people to email the NBA stating they wanted to see Amanda & Gina’s pictures posted during the game. It worked! I was told by the NBA they had received several thousand emails from the public! They were impressed by the number. So, the Commissioner, David Stern said OK! It was truly amazing! The NBA Finals were seen in eighty-three countries broadcasted by ABC/ESPN. Amanda & Gina’s pictures were broadcast as two minority missing teens that went missing several miles from where the game was being played. It was a huge victory for missing minority women…to gain such international exposure! It was an amazing accomplishment. Louwana, Amanda’s mother would have loved it!
Then in the Fall of 2009, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” called me! I will never forget the surge of emotion that came over me for the next several weeks, knowing that Oprah wanted to find Gina’s mother to do a story on Gina. I told the producer about Amanda too. I had been writing to Oprah for years about the missing teens. I never truly thought that this would ever happen. It was one of the most validating experiences of my life. For years, I had felt alone advocating and supporting these families. All while experiencing abuse & harassment as a result of my commitment to the families & their missing daughters. I spoke with Oprah’s producer several times. I gave her a lot of information on the years of work I had done to help. At the end of our last conversation, the producer said, “We look forward to seeing where you have done such hard work! Thank you!” A “Thank you” from Oprah’s producer was something I will never forget. It was amazing moment for me in many ways.
The FBI narrated the stories for the Oprah segment. They also included another missing teen, Ashley who went missing just a ¼ mile from where Amanda & Gina did. It was incredible to see. For me it was like a dream. Gina’s picture was also featured on the home page at: www.oprah.com for an entire week! Another incredible blessing. There is nothing like the ‘Oprah Effect.’ There was a shift in things that needed to be shifted. There was validation. It forever validated my journey to try to do whatever I could to make a difference in the lives of the families with hopes of finding their loved one, alive. I feel so blessed to have Oprah, unknowingly come to my rescue in all of this. It was invigorating and meant so much to me. It restored part of the faith in humanity I had lost! There is nothing like having Oprah support something that is so important to you!
Despite the great efforts to find Amanda & Gina, they have yet to be found. Next month, Amanda will be missing nine years and Gina will be missing eight years. I recently talked to Gina’s mother Nancy. I asked her about how things are with her and the family. She explained, “You would think the pain would be less, but it is not. It’s so horrible...the pain.”
Nancy was recently diagnosed with “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and is considering anti-depressants. Not knowing what happened has taken a serious toll on Gina’s family which includes nieces and cousins. They are suffering horribly. It is destroying some of their lives! They have serious health problems such as: severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks, heart attack, isolation and difficulties in school etc. They are all sick in different ways. Speaking to the public is something Nancy does that helps her healing and she has gotten very good at it over the years. She also has become quite the advocate for Gina, for others missing and prevent this from happening again in her community.
Recently, Nancy spoke to a group of young people at a local college. She spoke about ways to prevent being in a situation that could be dangerous and that running away in not the answer. It does not solve anything. It causes so much pain for the parents. They need to think about the consequences of running away and how it will hurt their loved ones. She told them, “I missed out on Gina’s ‘Sweet 16’ birthday. I missed out on her prom, high school graduation…watching her walk down the isle at her wedding. Seeing Gina at her first day of college. All of that was taken from me…” Nancy believes that Gina was taken for human trafficking, where teenagers are targeted for their beauty. Gina’s case has gone cold but is still open. I am not sure about Amanda’s.
I never met Amanda or Gina. I prayed that the day would come that I would get to meet them. I would tell them how hard everyone was looking for them and how much their mothers & family were desperate to see them come home safe. But it hasn’t happened. I write this to honor Amanda & Gina and their mothers. They are all Warrior Women and have faced the unthinkable. I will continue to support Nancy in her journey. I kept my promise to Amanda’s mother, Louwana…That I would make a difference for missing children. I just wish it helped bring them home.
See the segment on missing Amanda Berry & Gina DeJesus & Ashley Summers:
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