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Missing Girl’s Family Refuses to Surrender Hopes for Her Safety

ASSOCIATED PRESS

An hour before sunset, on a long road behind her home, Christina Williams took her dog for a walk and never returned.

The 13-year-old’s father, Chief Petty Officer Michael Williams Sr., was at President Clinton’s visit to the National Oceans Conference in nearby Monterey.

Basketball fans on the decommissioned base--formerly the West Coast’s largest training command and now a 28,000-acre expanse of rugged terrain with thousands of boarded-up buildings--were watching Antoine Carr lead the Utah Jazz to a Game 5 victory over the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

“In the third quarter she walked the dog again, and that was it. She didn’t come back,” says Christina’s brother, 16-year-old Michael Jr.

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Three dogs next door, riled by a noisy basketball party nearby, were barking continuously.

“If Christina had screamed, no one would have heard it,” Williams says.

FBI officials will only say they believe Christina was abducted; they refuse to speculate about what happened to her after that.

As many as 4,600 children are taken by strangers annually in the United States, but there are only about 100 murder-kidnappings a year, and most of these children are killed within three hours, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va.

The Williams family got some quick help from Mark Klaas, who formed a sort of missing child response team after the kidnapping death of his daughter, Polly, in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993.

Oakland Raiders running back Napolean Kaufman taped a public service announcement recently for Christina, who was wearing a Raiders shirt when she disappeared. Earlier, Clint Eastwood, Reggie Jackson and Mariah Carey made televised pleas, and her parents appeared on “Larry King Live.”

Her story also has been featured twice on “America’s Most Wanted,” which prompted two recent sightings in Greensboro, N.C., of a girl witnesses believed to be Christina.

“There have been other sightings about 10 times of someone who resembles Christina and that turns out negative,” Williams says. “Are we hopeful? Yes. But we temper that knowing there have been other sightings and those have not panned out. . . . [But] all it takes is that one sighting.”

*

These days, the television at the Williams home, about 130 miles south of San Francisco, is tuned to the news. Time is spent distributing fliers with Christina’s picture and sketches of two suspects, talking with any reporter requesting an interview and answering the thousands of e-mails offering support.

The phone rings several times each hour. Someone is always knocking on the door. This is no time to play a round of golf, go to the movies or for Williams, a meteorologist and oceanographer, even to work.

“Christina. One word,” Williams says. “For the most part, everything revolves around Christina. Doing something to try to get Christina back.

“That’s all you’re thinking about. That’s all you’re focused on, that’s all you’re doing.”

Christina disappeared on June 12, a slow Friday in the first week of her summer vacation. She had spent the day at home, making Filipino rice cakes with her mother and playing with Greg, the dog she’d picked out from the pound less than two months earlier.

When she left the house about 7:30 p.m., her mother didn’t expect her to be gone more than 20 minutes. Dark-haired Christina, slim, shy and only slowly adjusting to a recent move to the mainland United States from Japan, was predictable that way.

“She’s just the most innocent little girl you could meet,” says Jennifer, Christina’s 18-year-old sister.

Williams says Christina never would have run away. Her military identification and money were still in her room when she vanished. And she wouldn’t have left Greg.

“She is probably close to a perfect daughter,” Williams says. “Everything she does, it’s helpful, it’s courteous. She works hard, she’s conscientious, she’s punctual, she’s reliable.”

“She would always be concerned about us,” Williams added. “So that’s how she was. Is. Was, six weeks ago.”

Thirty minutes after Christina left, her mother, Alice, went outside to look for her and discovered Greg two doors down, unharmed and still wearing his leash.

Investigators say a woman saw Christina sitting in a gray car near the house, looking frightened. A jogger on the base earlier in the day had been harassed by two men in a car believed to be the same one Christina was later spotted in, possibly an older model four-door Ford Granada.

There are more than 5,000 registered cars like it in Monterey County alone. The FBI is checking into all of them, and others in the state, but so far none has led to Christina.

Two sightings July 19 at a Greensboro, N.C., store have given the family some encouragement, but Williams says they are trying not to become too excited; other sightings have not panned out.

“The first one, we got pretty high up there and came down pretty far,” Williams says. “This particular situation, you’re hopeful. You want this to end. You want this to end today. It’s so difficult.”

Investigators are equally anxious.

“The difficulty on any case like this is that you’re dealing with time and you’re trying to find a child,” says Bruce Gebhardt, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office.

“You’re hoping that the child is being taken care of, fed. You’re hoping that the child is returned safely and that’s what we’re still hoping for here, even though it’s been a length of time since Christina’s been missing,” he says.

The worst part was an erroneous report that a body found June 24 was Christina’s.

“When you’re sitting here and they say they’ve found a body, and they’re over here saying, ‘Yeah, it’s Christina Williams,’ how does that make us feel? It really messed us up really bad,” Jennifer says. “The news media are the best people. They’re the ones who are getting to all the people out there. When that happened, I learned that the news people are also our worst enemies.”

Williams says their world has turned into a kind of twilight zone.

“You see people doing their everyday stuff and you’re stuck in this nightmare,” Williams says. “You wake up; whatever nightmare you had while you were sleeping, it’s nothing compared to this.”

*

Striving for some normalcy, Alice Williams recently went back to her job as a hotel housekeeper, and that has helped her relax a bit. But there is rarely a moment that the family is not looking for Christina. They are concerned that people will forget about her the longer she’s gone.

The most difficult thing is the uncertainty.

“This is what eats you alive, that there’s no resolution,” Williams says in the family’s living room, which is bursting with cards of encouragement tucked into every possible space. “If someone in your family dies due to a car accident or gets shot and killed, yeah, that’s devastating. But you gradually learn to cope with it.

“But how do you cope with something like this that’s ongoing? You know about the worst-case possibility. But you have to keep [the] hope that she’s OK--and she could be,” Williams says. “There have been plenty of people who have come back after months, after years.”

Alice Williams remains optimistic.

“I think she’s alive and someone is hiding her or taking care of her,” she says. “I don’t think she’s hurt or something. I think she’s OK.”

But it’s a tough balance. Jennifer sleeps in Christina’s room, and she and Michael Jr. rarely go out. There’s almost always someone in the house, in case Christina calls.

This has been no summer; Jennifer, who had planned to spend the time with her boyfriend in Missouri before joining the Air Force in the winter, has become frustrated and tired of the well-intentioned but constant inquiries from strangers and friends alike.

A family trip to Yosemite is on indefinite hold. An outing to a recent nearby garlic festival became a chance to hand out fliers to the thousands of visitors, rather than the feast of food and music they had anticipated.

Before Christina disappeared, the family hadn’t gone to church in three or four years. But since her vanishing, they’ve attended every Sunday.

“You have to be religious, because that’s your only hope,” Jennifer says. “That’s our only other answer, is God.”

It’s been hard for Michael Jr. to watch his mother get upset all the time about his sister. And it’s hard to be positive, but Williams feels there is no other option.

“We have a very strong family. We’re a very loving family,” he says. “That helps. We try not to dwell on any of the negatives, and there’s plenty of negatives. Even though negatives do come up, you try to suppress them as much as possible and try to say, ‘She’s OK, we’re going to get her back.’

“We’ve got to do everything it takes to get her back.”

Anyone with information about Christina Williams can call the FBI’s confidential hotline at 1-800-671-3343.


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