After Nephew’s Disappearance, Broward Woman Founds Guardians For The Missing To Solve South Florida Cold Cases
My nephew went to a party on Nov. 5, 2005, at a friend’s house in Southwest Ranches. His cell went to voicemail the next day. It wasn’t like him to not check in. The Broward Sheriff’s Office told us Matt was an adult and had every right to be missing. We knew we were going to have to take things into our own hands.
We gathered friends and family to put up fliers. We checked surveillance videos. We hired a helicopter, a diver and brought in a K-9 search team. We put up a $10,000 reward. We searched for Matt every day and every night. We urged the police to search the canals with sonar equipment. After work and every weekend, we would start searching. We put up fliers, dove canals and called the media. After months of it, we had to start wondering when it would be OK to stop looking.
On May 10, 2006, just before Mother’s Day weekend, and after six long months of searching using sonar equipment, we found Matt at the bottom of a canal. It was less than half a mile from where he was last seen.
During all of this, I learned that there were many other cars in canals. I put together a protest to urge the police to search for them. We went to where they found Matt’s car, off U.S. 27, and 20 or 30 people showed up. Many of them had someone who was missing. They didn’t know Matt or me, and I just felt I owed it to them to help them.
The news covered the protest, and Derek Borrero saw me on the broadcast. He owns Aquatic Ops, which trains divers in things like search and recovery. We developed a plan to dive the canals to search for lost vehicles.
In early 2007, Derek and his divers dove the same Griffin Road canal where my nephew was found. They found six vehicles. The Broward Sheriff’s Office finally brought their divers out, and four days later they had pulled out 31 cars. We couldn’t believe it. Thirty-one cars.
We began looking for anyone who disappeared with their vehicles. On April 5, 2014, we found William Naylor in a Coconut Creek canal. He had been missing for nine years. That was when we knew we needed to form our own company. In May 2014, we began Guardians for the Missing, a non-profit organization that assists families and the police with active and cold missing-persons cases.
It’s a full-time job, and then I also work full time. I’m in Sunrise, and I’ve worked for American Express for 24 years now. I guess they call my position a customer care professional. I do searches after work, and I do searches on the weekend.
When I get a cold case from the police department, the investigating officer sometimes shares the police file. In cases where we are called in by the family, we are often not provided any investigative information. We can spend weeks and months traveling route after route, looking for areas to investigate. We assist the family in passing out fliers. We get DNA and dental records and as much media coverage as possible. Most importantly, we lend moral support. There is so much more that I can’t put into words.
I try not to get personally and emotionally involved and set my feelings aside, but it’s hard to see a family suffering. I carry a heavy heart for them. In April 2010, we assisted in finding the remains of Nelta Jacques and her two young daughters in a vehicle recovered off Alligator Alley. That one was rough.
In January, Lisa Hayden-Gordon went missing in Fort Lauderdale, and it was a case so similar to my nephew’s. Hers was the first that my organization was involved in from the very beginning. I met her family one night and literally hit the streets running. I worked this case every day. Using sonar equipment, we found her remains on Feb. 27. She had driven her car into the New River.
People think these are suicides, but only one has been [declared] a suicide. People just don’t believe it. I’ve had to drive someone’s brother out to a location at 9 at night. I told him to picture how it would look in the rain, in the pitch black. A canal can look just like a puddle. People just drive right in.
I would like to see all the water surrounding our roadways protected with guardrails or fences. I would like police departments to get proper training on sonar equipment. And I would like every police department to have their own dive team.
Every missing person is someone’s child, parent or sibling. Knowing that, and having been through it myself, I will never give up trying to find someone, never give up helping the families of those who are missing, helping them get through their ordeal, as others helped me through mine.
Guardians for the Missing is currently involved in four searches:
• Yakelin Llanes and her two sons, Jonathan Mordoche and Mario Mordoche, have been missing since 1999. Llanes’ vehicle has never been recovered, leading McManus to believe they are in a body of water.
• The white, four-door sedan that sped away after the murder of Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Christopher Reyka in 2007.
• Trukita Scott, missing since June 2014, from Miami Gardens.
• Libby DiBenedetto, missing since spring 2000, from Davie.
For more information on Guardians for the Missing, visit guardiansforthemissing.com.