These are the things I know about my mother’s disappearance.
On the night of Oct. 12, 1995, Tami Seymour, a blue-eyed, dishwater blonde heroin addict, ex-convict and sex worker—was living with my 8-year-old little sister at Ernie’s Motel, located on the 1700 block of Merkley Avenue in West Sacramento, California. Investigators told me that her ex-boyfriend was in the room that night with them and told them days later—when he reported her missing—that she’d walked to the convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returned.
A witness reportedly told detectives from the West Sacramento Police Department during their initial investigation that they saw my mother arguing with a drug dealer. Detective Tom Bowler, the first investigator assigned to my mom’s case, concluded my mother was likely murdered that night, but lacking a body or any other physical evidence, there was no way to know for sure.
There are so many other things I don’t know, like if someone took her life or if she simply overdosed in a place so dark and hidden that she still hasn’t been found? If she was killed, was it by a friend or a stranger? Did she know she was dying? Was she afraid? Did she fight to stay alive or did she force herself to remain calm, hoping her control could somehow save her?
I was 15 when I learned, three months later, about my mother’s disappearance. The man who had been my legal guardian since I was 4—my mother’s younger brother—sat me down at the kitchen table and showed me an article from the Sacramento Bee that featured my mother’s mugshot, a picture that made her seem so much older than 37, hardened by her life on the streets. “Woman Missing for 3 Weeks” was written in bold font above her angry-looking face. In the article, Detective Bowler was quoted as saying, “Her disappearance is highly unusual.”
I was told by my uncle that she was probably murdered and that he had waited to tell me because he didn’t want to ruin the holidays. I remember how we briefly cried, but underneath the surface of our tears was a truth that is still difficult to admit: We blamed my mother for her death instead of seeing her as a victim.
Unlike the families of other missing persons I’d seen on the news, my family didn’t organize a search party. We didn’t post flyers, set up tiplines or canvass the streets for clues. Instead, we accepted the police reported version of her fate as the natural consequence of the choices she made in life. A drug-addict since her teens, my mother had been the black sheep of our family, known not for her soft smile or sparkling eyes, but for being a thief and a liar who abandoned her children. There would be no memorial service and no formal goodbye. We continued about our lives as if hers had never existed.
That attitude also seemed to extend to law enforcement. The FBI didn’t join in the hunt to find answers in my mother’s case. The original detective didn’t appear to do much more than take a few witness statements before concluding she was dead. It would take me years to understand that my mother—someone who was well-known to local cops—wasn’t viewed with the same concern as someone more clean-cut, more socially acceptable, would have been.
It was easy to cast my mother off as a fallen woman undeserving of compassion. Six months before she vanished, I’d done the very same thing.
In April 1995, she called our house to speak to my uncle, and I answered. I remember the hot pulse of anger that flowed through me upon hearing her voice on the other end of the line. I was mad at her for so many things, for abandoning me as a child, for choosing a life of drugs over raising me, and for never being the mother I needed. Instead of finding my uncle and giving him the phone, I unloaded a lifetime of pain on her.
“Why didn’t you just have an abortion,” I yelled. “You obviously never loved me.” I don’t know what I expected her to say, or whether I thought she would say anything at all, but I know her reply unmoored me.
“I do love you,” she said. I remember how soft her voice was that day. “Not everything you’ve been told about me is true.”
My mother said she tried to visit me when I was a toddler—shortly after I was found abandoned in her apartment and placed in the care of relatives—but she claimed no one would let her in the door.
I couldn’t believe my mother. For years she’d lied to me about big things, like who my father was, and small things, like whether or not she was coming to pick me up for the weekend. Her story, to me, was just another of her many manipulations, so—in anger—I called her a liar and hung up the phone.
My mother never called me back. Neither of us knew it would be the last conversation we ever had or that six months later, she would be presumed dead.
It took a dream of my mother, three and a half years after she vanished, for my anger to subside enough to become curious about her case. Following the dream, in which she stood before me—with a blank stare and described a man who was tall with brown hair and brown eyes—I decided to contact the West Sacramento Police Department and speak to a detective about her disappearance. Shortly after calling, I was connected with Detective Jim Duncan, who was unfamiliar with her case, but equally curious about the night she vanished.
Within six months of my call, Jim quickly identified a suspect in her case, someone who’d been in contact with my mother around the time of her disappearance. The evidence was circumstantial; two failed voice stress analysis tests, a changing story about seeing my mother alive years after she vanished, and a witness who admitted to being coerced into lying. But none of it was enough to bring charges.
“Without a body,” Jim explained, “It’s unlikely we’ll ever solve this. I’m sorry.”
For the next decade, I thought of my mom often, but I also believed there wasn’t anything more that could be done. Still, every time I heard news of an unidentified body found in California, I secretly wished it would be her and felt the fresh sting of disappointment when it wasn’t.
In 2009, I learned about NamUs.gov, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System website that launched in 2006 to help law enforcement and victims’ families in the U.S. compare missing persons cases against unidentified remains. Realizing my mother wasn’t listed on the website, I created her profile, basing her demographics off my childhood memories and the missing persons poster of her on the California Attorney General’s website.
Registering her disappearance on NamUs.gov inspired me to push harder to find answers. By then, she’d been missing 13 years, and still there was no evidence or clues that could explain what happened the night she vanished.
With renewed hope, I began searching NamUs.gov’s online database of cases monthly, as well as calling the West Sacramento Police Department just as often, hoping to either find a potential unidentified Jane Doe that matched my mother, or get a detective to revisit her case again. I was convinced that a new detective could re-question the suspect Jim had identified in 1999, and perhaps, get a confession that might solve her case.
Often, my NamUs searches yielded no results and my calls to the police department went unanswered, although occasionally, a caring detective or lieutenant would reach out and promise to look into her case.
While the lack of communication from the police department initially felt personal, I later learned that resources are limited and that new cases often take precedence over old, unsolved cases by sheer fact of their solvability. As a representative from the National Institute of Justice—which oversees NamUs.gov—explained to me in an interview earlier this year, “Anecdotally, during the first year, evidence from where the person was last seen or at the scene where the remains were found can be lost or destroyed. There are many other investigative reasons that the lapse of time contributes to the loss of valuable investigation and potential physical evidence, including difficulty in finding potential witnesses.” Although I was frustrated, I understood why my mom’s cold case wasn’t their top priority.
However, in 2015— 20 years after my mother vanished—a retired detective from the West Sacramento Police Department named Martha Barbosa called me to ask if I would allow her to look into my mother’s case in her free time, as a way to help her former colleagues in the department. After years of unreturned calls and dead-end searches, this felt like a gift. Immediately, I agreed to her offer.
Martha interviewed me over the phone and began the slow, deliberate process of looking through my mother’s case files, trying to uncover a possible missed clue.
“My mother and I weren’t close,” I explained during one of our calls. “She’d abandoned me as a baby for drugs and never came back. I only visited her on weekends for a few years before our relationship ended, long before she actually vanished.”
“I’m sure your mother loved you in her own way,” Martha said. She had a warm, maternal voice that made me feel safe sharing the harder parts of my mother’s story.
In 2016, on the eve of my 36th birthday, Martha called with news.
“We found your mom’s purse,” she said. I could hear the excitement in her voice. I was standing outside my house in Southern California at the time, feeling the heat of the midday sun on my face. I could barely think straight. My mother’s purse was the first piece of material evidence in her case.
“Where was it?” I asked, struggling to get my words out.
“In the evidence locker. There’s no log showing when it was found or by who, but I think it may have been there all along and someone forgot to process it,” she explained. “It was never even opened.”
Martha went on, telling me that she and the department’s forensics detective, Ruth Pagano, opened and documented the contents of my mother’s purse.
“I want you to know something,” she said. “In her wallet was a baby picture of you, wearing a red dress, sitting on your brother’s lap.” It was a picture I knew well, one that had hung for 16 years in my grandmother’s hallway before she sold her house and all her belongings were boxed away. It was a picture that, to an outsider, suggested we were a normal, happy family, full of love.
“She wrote ‘My babies 1981’ on the back,” Martha said. I tried to hold it in, but I knew she could hear the soft gusts of my tears through the phone. “She loved you,” she said.
While the purse didn’t reveal any major clues in my mom’s case, it did allow me, for the first time, to believe my mother may have cared more for me than I realized.
Two years later, in October 2018, while searching NamUs.gov for unidentified remains, I came across the case of a Jane Doe found in 2000 in Sacramento, just three miles from where my mother was last seen alive. If the case had been listed online before, I’d somehow missed it. Adrenaline pumped through me as I read the demographics of this unidentified woman: Caucasian, 21 to 53 years old, estimated death between 1995 to 2000. Parts that didn’t quite fit, like her height, were easy to ignore, since I figured a decomposed body might be shorter than a living, breathing human.
“I think this might be my mother,” I said on the phone to Heather Griffiths, the Sacramento County deputy coroner. I tried hard to sound calm, but my throat was shaking with each word. “She can’t be your mother,” Heather replied. “I’m so sorry. But this woman had some teeth in her lower jaw and your mom’s NamUs profile says she has full dentures.”
I panicked, realizing I had no idea if my mom actually had full dentures. When I wrote that on her profile, it was based on a memory of her pulling her fake teeth out to make me laugh as a child.
“I’m the person who created my mom’s NamUs profile,” I explained. “And I’m not actually sure she didn’t have any teeth. But I can try to find out.”
Since there were no dental records available, I resorted to tracking down a family friend and asking about my mother’s teeth. I learned my mom did have a couple bottom teeth, of this the family friend was certain. I immediately called the deputy coroner back and pressed her to run a DNA panel on Jane Doe to see if she was, as I suspected, my mother.
“I just want you to understand, this process takes a long, long time,” Heather explained. “It can take a year or more to get a body disinterred.” I pretended to understand, but privately I was frustrated. In my mind, getting an answer was as simple as taking a sample and running it through a machine. As months dragged by, I pretended I wasn’t agonizing over the test each day. I also continued to call Heather, pressing her for a timeline. Each time, she was patient with me and did her best to explain why things weren’t moving faster: Their office needed money to dig up an unidentified body and, with nearly 3,000 new bodies to process each year, they didn’t have it.
Eighteen months later, in February 2020, Heather invited me to Sacramento to meet in person and give her three separate DNA samples, a prerequisite for the grand finale: Jane Doe was finally going to be exhumed. Days later, the coroner’s office disinterred her remains and tested them to see if she was my mother.
The results were supposed to be instant. An hour at most from the time Jane’s plastic coffin was unearthed. Instead, the test took weeks after Heather discovered Jane’s remains were saturated from an underground water leak, making it impossible for her to sequence the DNA sample she’d collected.
For two weeks I felt disconnected from the world and from my body. All I could think about was Jane and my mother and how I was going to break the news to my family that this decades-old mystery, this unpunctuated pain we’d been carrying, silently, finally had an end.
Then, in early March, Heather called to deliver the news. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It isn’t your mother.” It felt like the air had been taken out of my lungs.
“Who is she?” I managed to ask, trying to stifle the pain that threatened to erupt into loud sobs.
“We still don’t know,” she replied. “Her information is in CODIS,” the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. “Hopefully, soon, we’ll get a match.”
Days after that call, our country went into lockdown as the pandemic took hold, and my focus shifted away from Jane and from my mother, to my own family’s survival. It took 10 months to find the courage to call Heather again, this time as a writer, hoping to ask questions about how her office processes unidentified cases.
While speaking to Heather, I learned Jane Doe still had not been identified, which could mean one of several things: She was never reported missing, she wasn’t from the Sacramento area, or her family had never submitted a DNA sample. Or, perhaps, it was a combination of all three.
“What’s next?” I asked Heather.
“For that particular case, now that we haven’t had a match in CODIS, the next step would be someone reports her missing and provides a DNA sample, or we do a genealogy profile,” she explained.
Much the same way law enforcement has turned to using at-home DNA testing companies to track down serial killers, coroner’s offices have used these same companies to try and find matches for unidentified bodies. The only issue, of course, was money.
This January, I also spoke with Heather’s boss, Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin, who expressed how difficult it is to solve long-standing cases without more financial support.
“Funding absolutely impacts what we can do for our cold cases.” she explained. “With the increased number of deaths over the years and the rising number of deaths due to the pandemic, we are struggling to just maintain day to day operations. Coroner’s offices across the nation are notoriously underfunded and understaffed. Finding the funds to actually pay for disinterments, added genetic testing and supplies for Rapid DNA testing has been a struggle.”
Another concern was convincing the victims’ families to submit DNA samples. “We do have issues with families not trusting the system when it comes to giving up their own samples. I don’t know how to get them to trust us, other than to say that we only use family samples for the sole purpose of identification of their loved one,” Kim added.
A month after my interview and nearly a year to the day after Jane Doe was exhumed, the West Sacramento Police Department mailed my mother’s purse to me as a gesture of kindness. It was no small feat, as the current investigator assigned to my mother’s case, Detective Andrea Barnett, had to document every single object in my mother’s purse, amounting to more than 200 detailed photographs, before the request to release it from evidence could be granted. For this, I was grateful.
Finally in my possession, I painstakingly looked through my mother’s purse, quickly finding the dog-eared baby photo Martha had told me about years before. But there was so much more. Along with three pocket calendars and address books, was her expired driver’s license, two misdemeanor citations for prostitution, multiple handwritten notes, and the paperwork she signed in 1984 to make her little brother my legal guardian.
What I learned from searching through her purse was that my mother had plans for the future. She was looking forward to celebrating her 38th birthday; she was considering detoxing at a health clinic; she was in love with a man named Johnny who didn’t love her back and she had dreams of being financially stable. I learned that she was more complicated than I knew as a child. A mother, yes, but also a woman and in many ways, a girl, still trying to figure out what her life would become. In my search I finally understood that in spite of all the mistakes my mother had made—largely influenced by the physical and sexual abuse she suffered as a child—she was not responsible for her ending. She was a woman whose life was stolen from her and with it, every opportunity she might have had to heal what was broken. She was a victim and she, just like Jane Doe, deserved resolution and justice.
To date, my mother’s case remains unsolved, but I continue to search for answers. Anyone with information about her disappearance is encouraged to call the West Sacramento Police Department at (916) 372-3375, and reference case number 958376.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-i-learned-searching-for-my-vanished-mother-tami-seymour?source=articles&via=rss What I Learned Searching for My Vanished Mother, Tami Seymour