Kianna Jackson disappeared first.
The 20-year-old called her mother on Oct. 2 and told her she was taking the bus to Santa Ana from her home in Las Vegas for a court date. The next day she stopped answering her phone.
Twenty days later, Monique Vargas, a 34-year-old mother of three, left her sister's birthday party, telling family she was walking to the market to buy groceries. They haven't seen her since.
Another 20 days later, Martha Anaya, 28, asked her boyfriend to pick up their young daughter because she had to work. The next morning, Jesse Fisher called Anaya — again and again. As the hours wore on, he began frantically messaging her.
"Fool where r u"
"Isnt [our daughter] going to school"
Days later, he sent a final message:
"Please if u find this phone call the police this is a missing persons phone."
In the span of two months, three women who frequented tough Santa Ana neighborhoods known for drug dealing and prostitution disappeared. Police say they are unsure if the cases are linked. The women's families, desperate to find them, have grown frustrated by the slow progress of the search.
"They don't seem to care about them, you know? It's just another Santa Ana woman," Fisher said. "But not to me. She's somebody."
Even in a city where 1,200 people were reported missing last year, the disappearances stand out. The majority of the city's cases involve runaways, older residents who become disoriented or people who simply don't want to be found. Usually, they turn up in a few hours or days.
But in this case, the women seemed to have vanished.
Friends and family describe Jackson, the baby-faced girl from Willits, Calif., as high-energy — the type who talks and talks until everyone around her is exhausted.
"If we could tap a light into her we'd have light all day long," said Kathy Menzies, her mother.
After one semester of college, Jackson left Northern California in search of a more exciting life in Las Vegas. She told her mother that she was considering working for an escort service, but said she would stop short of having sex with customers. Menzies tried to talk her out of it, but realized she couldn't do much to influence Jackson's decision.
Instead, Menzies tried to keep tabs on her daughter, calling and texting her frequently.
When Jackson stopped responding on Oct. 3, Menzies knew something was wrong. In the days that followed, she called her daughter repeatedly. Then she called jails, hospitals and the morgues in Orange, L.A. and San Diego counties.
According to court records, Jackson was due to appear on four misdemeanor charges of prostitution and loitering to commit prostitution. Since late 2012, she had been arrested in Stanton, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, on a stretch of Harbor Boulevard frequented by sex workers.
Her attorney, David Nisson, said she did show up for her court date. She owed him $500 in fees, he said, and she gave him $100, promising the rest later.
"I told her I appreciated it, and she seemed fine," Nisson said.
Whatever she was doing, friends say, Jackson wouldn't have left without letting them know.
"She would call me if she was in trouble. We could just talk about anything she was going through," said Vaneda Aleta So, 21, a friend of Jackson's since seventh grade. "Something definitely is wrong."
Josephine Monique Vargas grew up in Santa Ana, the eldest of five siblings. They all called her "Giggles."
Her sister, Desiree Vargas, said she last heard from her on Oct. 23. Monique had spent the day celebrating with family but left in the afternoon, saying she was going to the store. Desiree believes she was headed to a market on East 1st Street; her mother remembers it was a nearby discount store.
When Vargas didn't respond to messages in the days that followed, her mother and sister assumed she was home with her husband. He told them he thought she was with them. When they finally figured out she wasn't at either place, they reported her missing.
Disappearing, Desiree said, is "something she would never do, walk out on her family and leave them behind."
Her friends and family walked East 1st Street, a stretch of storefronts and cheap motels known for prostitution activity, posting fliers on lampposts and asking for help. Vargas has a history of prostitution and her family worries her disappearance has gone unheeded because of it.
Her past "has nothing to do with this," said her mother, Priscilla Vargas. "I'm waiting for her. Her family is waiting for her."
Martha Anaya, pretty with long blonde hair, was planning her youngest daughter's birthday party in late November when she disappeared. She had paid the deposit at Chuck E. Cheese.
Anaya had struggled to get a steady job and when she was desperate for cash, she would work East 1st Street, her boyfriend, Fisher, said.
On Nov. 12, Anaya sent Fisher a text message saying her phone was going to be disconnected if she didn't pay the bill. She asked if he would pick up their daughter so she could work.
Anaya was in the habit of sending dozens of text messages daily to Fisher and her mother, but suddenly stopped. Fisher worried, but figured she would be home in the morning to walk their daughter to the bus stop. No matter where Anaya was, he said, she was always sure to be home before the 8 a.m. pickup.
She never showed up.
The women's families and friends say they are frustrated with the pace of the search. They wonder why investigators were slow to conduct interviews or look through the possessions the women left behind.
Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said investigators are doing their best, but that their options are limited because the women are adults.
"Where with a minor, if they're really young, we continue to look for them until we find them, with the adults …you put out fliers in the areas they frequent, to other law enforcement agencies," he said.
Like the other mothers, Linda Salcedo thinks police dismissed Anaya's case early on.
"I don't think the police took me seriously at first," she said. "They must have thought she was just one of many."
Salcedo and Fisher are doing their best to draw attention to the case. Fisher, like Jackson's mother, created a Facebook page to spread the word. And in the days after Anaya disappeared, Fisher and Salcedo walked East 1st Street, just like Vargas' family before them, adding Anaya's missing-person flier to the lampposts.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times