The last time Louis Zaharias saw his two smiling children was Nov. 20, 1987.
The night before, he and his wife had argued. But he recalled how he hugged and kissed young Christopher Zaharias good night. The boy was only 3. Zaharias then kissed his 15-month-old daughter Lisa.
“I woke up early the next morning because I had to go to work, so I didn’t see them,” Zaharias said in a telephone interview from his Arizona home Thursday. “I came home that night and they were gone.”
So was their mother, Susan. In the eight years since their mother allegedly took them from their Mission Viejo home, Zaharias, 41, has gotten a divorce and, through the Orange County district attorney’s office, a felony arrest warrant against the children’s mother.
Now, the nation’s largest direct mail advertiser has decided to run an “age progressed” picture showing what Christopher might look like at age 11.
“This has given me some hope,” Zaharias said.
Connecticut-based ADVO Inc. will distribute Christopher’s picture to more than 61 million households nationwide. The cards that ask the familiar question, “Have you seen me?” will include the boy’s March 25, 1984 birthday and characteristics such as blond hair and blue eyes. Also included is a toll-free number, (800) THE LOST, for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It is the second time the advertiser has featured Christopher. The first time they printed a picture in 1988 with the boy’s photo at age 3, said Vincent Giuliano, ADVO’s vice president of government relations.
“We believe that several new leads have been developed and we decided it was worthy of doing another distribution,” Giuliano said. “We’re just looking for that one person who knows something about Christopher.”
In March, the company will also feature an age-enhanced photograph of Christopher’s sister, Lisa, accompanied with their mother’s photograph.
“We feel confident that there are some people who know where they are and this may help,” said Jim Gailliot, an investigator in the district attorney’s child abduction office. “Our biggest concern is for the return of the children and prosecution of the mother.”
Last year, the district attorney’s office reported 244 kidnap cases and of those, 12 resulted in arrest warrants being issued, Gailliot said.
Susan Zaharias is now 36. She had blond hair, brown eyes, and is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall.
Her arrest warrant was put into the National Crime Information Center, which is available to all law enforcement agencies, said Gailliot.
He added: “We are willing to extradite her and bring her back.”
For Louis Zaharias, who is now a teacher in Phoenix, the day he lost his children launched a severe emotional and financial downward spiral.
He funneled his frustration first through a divorce and then through a series of civil lawsuits filed against his ex-wife’s relatives who live in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania--states where she may now be, he said. He said they settled out of court, and is prevented from disclosing the settlement amounts.
“I have incurred $550,000 in bills in eight years of searching for the children,” he said. “I would work during the day and search at night. I’ve hired eight private investigators and had big legal bills, too.”
“Yes, that’s a lot of money,” Zaharias added. “But let me ask you this. What price should I have put on the children? Would you stop at $200,000? Or $300,000? Unless you have this happen to you, you can’t understand the drive.”