I am a father, a husband, a brother and a son, the first one being the most rewarding and at the same time the most painful.
It was 30 days ago today that I last heard from my daughter Heather.
Heather was a happy, excited 20-year-old girl on December 17, 2013. That is the last day before she disappeared. Loving, beautiful, she meant the world to me.
She still does. Even more so, in fact.
Heather is like many girls her age. She loves her freedom, and she is loved by her friends. A cosmetology student and a talented artist with a brilliant eye for color, she has a selfless heart in everything she does and toward everyone she meets. I have many favorite pictures of her, but this one (above) I took a few months ago, with Heather smiling and relaxing, cuddling with our family dog in the kitchen captures her spirit best. My daughter always loved working with kids, including the ones in our Southern Baptist church, where she helped take care of them from time to time. Heather loves animals and children and helping those less fortunate. When she traveled to Costa Rica for a missionary trip three years ago, I told her how as a diver, she might enjoy the beauty of the water -- how extraordinary it is when you break the calm, and the plankton lights it up a luminescent green.
When she returned from the trip, she said nothing of the water. "Dad, I have to tell you what I did that was so great," she said. Then she told me how she had traveled to a tiny village and talked to a small woman living in a 10 by 10 foot house with a broken roof and water leaking through it. "We built her a new roof," she told me. "The lady cried. And then I cried. I've never used a hammer in my life, and I built her a roof." The next day she traveled to the town's orphanage. She taught the children how to read books and stories. She never once mentioned the water, although she swam in it with her missionary companions. She was totally selfless in her love toward other people.
I watched her grow, along with my 30-year-old son and my 16-year-old daughter, from helpless babies that depend on us for everything into dependable young adults who are educated and able to face the world on their own two feet with confidence. All the while, as a father, I have never stopped watching over them with the instinct to protect and provide for them.
I was watching TV in my favorite chair on the night of Tuesday, December 17.
My wife, who does bookkeeping at the sign shop I operate in our hometown of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was in her chair and our youngest daughter was there in the living room fiddling on her phone as usual. I heard my own phone ding as a text was received. I opened the text and there on the screen was a photo sent from Heather in the driver’s seat of a truck with a big smile, driving a manual transmission truck. Below the photo were the words: "Just learned to drive a stick, I’m a Pro!"
Now you have to understand that I have a truck, which Heather has always loved, but it was a manual transmission. She and my younger daughter have always wanted that truck so I held onto it many more years than I normally would have in hopes that one of them would learn to drive it -- and would actually want it one day. I had tried a few times to teach Heather to drive it, but honestly I thought we were headed straight into a wreck. It was funny each time. But now she was driving one and so very happy.
It is the last communication I have had with my daughter, the last picture I have of her on my phone.
The last time anyone saw Heather, she had a first date with a young man I've never met.
I didn't talk to Heather about it, but she had a good time. I didn't think much of it.
Heather and her date went to dinner and drove around looking at Christmas lights, which Heather has always loved. They ended up at a local mall parking lot, and Heather asked her date to teach her to drive the truck so that she could learn to drive a stick. That was the moment where she texted me the photo of her proud accomplishment.
Some time after that photo was taken, Heather’s date returned my daughter to the condo that she shared with her roommate, who was out of town for Christmas. She parted with the young man for the night -- which is the last time anyone saw her.
Details get blurred after this, but from what Heather’s roommate tells us and the police, Heather called her roommate, who was also her friend, and told her she had an "awesome" time and was excited to see the young man again.
It is after this point my greatest nightmare began to unfold. Without me knowing, without me even having a clue, like a thief in the night, my worst fear was creeping into my life unseen and without even the slightest sound.
Wednesday, December 18 came and went without notice. The day seemed normal enough. Work was normal. Home for dinner, a little TV, and then off to bed. Without me knowing what was about to hit me, the next day also began with the same now ominous normalcy.
I headed home to wrap presents that were requested by the girls earlier in the week. It was only 4 days ago I had gotten the text from Heather: no words just a photo of a laptop she really wanted for Christmas, knowing the way to get it was to text me the photo as she has done for years. Texting to mom was a surefire way to delay the purchase and discuss the item many, many times before anything was bought. I love the way my girls have me wrapped around their fingers and can use me to get what they want. It makes me smile when they do it.
As the sky grew darker outside, the nightmare began creeping ever closer. Still silent, still unseen -- and then there is a knock at the door.
Outside there was an officer.
I didn't panic. After all, I have many friends in law enforcement who stop by all the time for one thing or another and this person was a friend. I arrived at the door with a smile and a handshake, but soon the mood darkened. The officer asked me, “Are you missing a car?
I looked in the driveway and all were there so I replied, “Nope, all of them are right there."
He replied, “What about a dark green Dodge Intrepid? “
"That's Heather’s car -- why?”
Now the fear was starting to reveal itself to me, but still not quite the intense shellshock yet to come.
The officer tells me that Heather’s car was reported abandoned at a nearby boat landing. I grabbed the extra keys and got into his car so that we could go have a look. It only took a short ride, and we arrived.
There, parked sideways sat my daughter's abandoned car, alone in the darkness.
The fear inside me at this point grew with each heartbeat, with each breath I took, but still I tried to swallow my gut to ward it off.
I unlocked the car as the officer looked over everything. It’s a mess, but it is Heather’s mess. Probably nothing to worry about, I told him. We do a search of the surrounding area and nothing looked alarming or out of the ordinary. During all the time we have been there, I frantically called Heather’s phone, but it goes to voice mail without ringing. This is not like Heather at all to have her phone off.
I tell the officer this as we grow more uncomfortable with the situation. The dread is now acute. After many calls to different people including his supervisor we know that something is not right here. Still, I'm praying it could be an innocent situation.
After I returned home, I began to lose it.
Worry and emotions were turning on overdrive, and I was calling everyone I could think of. Where was Heather? Where was my daughter? What can you do to help me find her?
The night carried over into morning, with calls still going out and information starting to pile up from records I could find online and calls I was making.
Sleep? Well that word became meaningless for the next week. I could not sleep if I wanted to. Food? Nothing was going to keep me from every second of every day searching for answers to find my daughter and find her safe. Hours turned into days and days turned into weeks. First it was dozens of people helping then thousands then tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands yet no real answers were coming.
Social media (with the hashtag #findheatherelvis), local media, newscasts, national media and broadcast were now underway and yet still no answers. I began to look at everyone around me with suspicion. Every time I closed my eyes, I only saw Heather. Nightmares were now the only dreams visited upon me if I could get to sleep at all. When I fell asleep, it only lasted for a very short time before I jumped up crying -- and it became uncontrollable. My wife tossed and turned restless next to me, both of us covered in the sweat of anxiety. She had never had a nightmare in her life. I never asked her what she dreamed about, because I know her nightmares were the same as mine.
Tips and leads pour in by the thousands. Each one had to be checked out and fully investigated.
All of this, and it had only been just under a week. How long would this go on? Why can’t I find Heather? What do I do? What did I miss? Prayers are constant, prayers for Heather to be safe and prayers for Heather to be found.
These prayers quickly turned to prayers for God to strike me dead if that’s the price I needed to pay for Heather’s safety and return. Still no answers came.
The days seemed to take longer than normal to go by and the nights became filled with constant nightmares. I could see my daughter in my thoughts each and every moment no matter if I was awake or happened to sleep. The desire to find Heather and bring her home safe consumed my life now, there was no stopping. The word "quit" did not exist for me on this task.
The young man who took her on the date was brought in to be questioned by the police and eventually fully cleared. I have never met the young man, but his story checked out and a polygraph fully cleared him of any potential involvement.
We dealt with law enforcement hourly, the calls never stop, those who are around you want nothing more than to help you fix the problem but they stumble for the right words to say -- not knowing that there really is nothing that is right.
I deal with some remarks that are cruel and malicious with nothing more in these people's hearts than a desire to inflict more pain, why I do not know. "I have your daughter," some tips say, with demands. They provide proof, only asking for large sums of money be wired to far off lands and strange names before they will even talk to you.
Life now is so far from what I have always considered normal, and I would trade all that I own for Heather’s safe return. The things we hold dear in our lives now are rearranged and look nothing like they once did. My children are inconsolable. My church's presence is constant. My pastor knows not to try to talk to me or justify "God's will," but he listens, and that's all I need him to do. Family and friends are so much more precious than anything material that man could ever make. My children have always been first but now I know the true meaning of the word first and will never forget what that is.
On the case, there are innuendos and rumors, and police are pursuing leads. From the start, there was relentless questioning the police inundated us with, all I know with a desire to find her, to bring her home. Did anyone want to hurt her? Was she being stalked? Did she have any ex-boyfriends? Was she a runaway? A walk away?
Because it is an active case, I cannot reveal the nature of the police's investigation, but currently there is not enough evidence to point to any one theory. In my opinion, this was not a random disappearance, but I believe someone who she knew and trusted may have betrayed her.
Some say to give it over to God. Some say to let the police handle it. Some want to start beating people until they talk and some just walk on by as if they were immune. Everyone deals with the unbearable pain of tragedy in their own way when they are not going through it.
If you were to ask me in early December, I would have once told you what has happened to my family could never happen. I could never imagine the nightmare I currently live every day. I tell every parent and every child to please be aware of your surroundings. Always call when you're going to be away from loved ones. When you deviate from your plans, tell someone. Don't take it for granted that the world is a safe place. If you decide that you have to stop for gas, tell someone that you are stopping for gas. Keep people aware of where you are. Always take a friend in two or three.
Hold your loved ones close, tell them how much you love them every day. Never let them doubt how much love you have for them so that if you are ever in the position I am in, you will be able to look in the mirror with less regret.
Heather's disappearance has shaken completely the entire foundation that I base faith on. Both in mankind and in God. It has caused me to become overly protective of my family. It's caused me to question everyone around me. It's caused me to become more aware of situations. I'm very observant of everything going on around me now and hypersensitive to the slightest indication of anything that has gone wrong.
I don't think there are any words that anyone could say to me short of "We found Heather, and she's safe." Anything other than that it is not going to comfort me.
I assure you that we are all just seconds away from living through our worst fears, and they sometimes find you when you least expect it.
It has been 30 days of hell. But I am praying for a miracle. And I refuse to give up hope.
We will find my daughter. We will find Heather Elvis.