On Shelli LaMadrid’s 39th birthday, Dec. 17, 2004, her ex-girlfriend vanished without a trace. To this day, the woman remains missing, despite several searches that have largely turned up empty and with no clear indication as to whether foul play was involved.
LaMadrid didn’t know about the disappearance until two weeks later, on New Year’s Day. She had called and called her friend’s brother, trying to figure out what happened, and finally got an answer: A petty argument between the two siblings prompted Kathryn La Madrid to walk out of her brother’s house in Fort Bragg, where she had been living, and not return.
Born in 1964 and raised in Sacramento, Kathy attended Sacramento High School and worked for many years at the DMV, according to LaMadrid. (Shelli changed her last name to LaMadrid when the two were dating in the 1990s.) Even though the two women had broken up, they remained close, like sisters. “She was the kind of person who would give you the shirt off her back, and she had a heart of gold,” says LaMadrid, her eyes welling up with tears, as she sits at a coffee shop on a recent morning. “She really did.”
Kathy went missing at 40 years old. She was tall at about 5 feet 8 inches, with green eyes and a distinguishing red-and-blue tattoo on her left ring finger. Witnesses reported seeing her walking across Noyo Bridge in Fort Bragg on a Friday afternoon, wearing dark, baggy men’s clothing, with a wallet hooked on a chain in her front pocket.
Since that first phone call with Kathy’s brother, LaMadrid has single-mindedly focused on figuring out what happened; she’s convinced foul play was involved and that Kathy won’t be found alive. But she keeps waiting for her investigation to produce a major breakthrough, to perhaps finally provide some closure to those involved in this long and emotionally exhausting journey.
“I just feel like a big injustice has been done,” LaMadrid says. “I don’t think she’s going to get justice [but] I want to find her for her family and for myself so I can get on with my life. Because I’m kind of stuck.”
Progress Comes Slowly
Immediately after Kathy disappeared, her brother, Reuben Casillas, posted fliers around town. He and LaMadrid spoke almost daily, desperately trying to track down leads. At one point, Casillas offered a $30,000 reward for information. People came out of the woodwork with gruesome stories and scandalous rumors, dragging down the police investigation.
Progress came slowly in those early years, and LaMadrid claims the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t much help. She says law enforcement didn’t seem to prioritize finding Kathy and ignored her many requests for assistance. The search foundered. “We were basically out in the redwoods looking for her,” she says. LaMadrid began volunteering for El Dorado County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit in 2008—to learn the ropes—and connected with missing-persons groups on social media.
In May 2013, the quest to find Kathy sprang forward when LaMadrid and two of her friends went out on their own in Fort Bragg (with the property owner’s permission) to where they suspected Kathy’s remains could be and spotted something black peeking out from under the needles in the forest—a polo shirt. LaMadrid learned from Kathy’s sister-in-law—the wife of Casillas, with whom Kathy had been living—that she owned a similar shirt, which hadn’t been found in her closet. There appeared to be blood on the clothing. The shirt was disintegrating, and she left it in place, as she says law enforcement had advised her to do with potential evidence.
Then, in May 2014, members of El Dorado Search and Rescue came out on an unofficial, private search at LaMadrid’s request to recover the shirt. But what they found was a fresher scene with more clothing, duct tape and a sleeping bag. They did find the black polo shirt, which they bagged, tagged and sealed, and turned over to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. (Capt. Gregory Van Patten confirmed his department received the clothing from LaMadrid but was unable to provide the evidence analysis as of press time.)
LaMadrid wanted to keep the momentum going, but “I can’t get a search for her every week,” she says. “It doesn’t work like that. So I had to get real creative.” In July 2014, she connected with Ja’Na Bickel of Special K-9s, a volunteer-run group based in Texas that assists with search and rescue by using canines specializing in the detection of human remains. According to Bickel, K-9 groups in California typically have to be called on by law enforcement.
The canines are trained to locate and alert on the scent of human decomposition, including tissue, blood and bones. They can search on land, in water and ash or inside vehicles, and have helped recover bodies after fires and natural disasters and in homicide investigations. Bickel leads searches with her two dogs: Sonny and Rami, who are both certified to search on land and water. After hearing about the ongoing, unsuccessful search for Kathy, Bickel agreed to get onboard. “I told her we’d come out and try. That’s really all we can do,” she says.
Covering Bickel’s expenses cost about $5,000 for the flight, hotel accommodations, food and incidentals. (LaMadrid tagged on another missing-person case: a 23-year-old man who went missing in Redding; he still hasn’t been found.) In November 2014, Bickel came out with two dogs to search for a week. “The dogs did what they were supposed to do,” Bickel says—alerting to the site of each item found back in May.
“It’s such an old cold case, it’s hard to find anything that law enforcement would consider a good alert,” Bickel says. “And you all have had flooding, fires and everything else since she went missing, and that makes it harder.”
Since 1990, after participating in a K-9 seminar with her husband, who works for Houston police, Bickel has been leading cadaver searches—what her husband calls the most expensive volunteer work you can do. In 2014, her organization received nearly 100 calls for searches all over the country, a number that has increased annually. “I’m not sure if the world is getting worse, or if people know now what dogs can do, but unfortunately we’re kept busy all the time,” she says.
Perseverance, Courage, Hope
Twelve years ago, LaMadrid never imagined her life would be consumed with searching for a missing friend. Nor did she know that she’d also assist in finding two other people, one deceased and one alive. Roughly 85,000 active missing-person records are listed in the National Crime Information Center, which is the United States’ central database for indexing crime information. “There are a lot of families out looking for their loved ones today and a lot of people don’t even know it,” she says.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, launched in 2007 and funded by the National Institute of Justice, provides search tools for families and law enforcement agencies to search nationwide for missing people. Kathy’s dental records, fingerprints and a DNA sample are all included in the system.
LaMadrid was part of a three-person search team that found David Clement on Dec. 19, 2012, in Camino. The 30-year-old U.S. Army veteran was last seen heading out for a jog and had been missing for about a month; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to The Sacramento Bee. This past May, LaMadrid ran into his father at the El Dorado County Fair. “I wished him a happy Father’s Day,” she says.
In February 2013, LaMadrid also helped organize a search to bring home 16-year-old Bedria Williams safe and sound. Williams left her school in Oregon on Jan. 11, boarded a commuter bus and eventually arrived in Sacramento. LaMadrid learned of the teenager’s disappearance on Facebook on Super Bowl Sunday and immediately got in touch with her dad. Police found Williams unharmed a few days later on Feb. 8 in an apartment in Sacramento County. “I believe Bedria being found was a miracle. . . . I was grateful to be a huge part of that,” LaMadrid says.
LaMadrid has a friendly and earnest personality, and she’s willing to help if asked. She literally wears her willingness on her sleeve: She has a black T-shirt with the photo of the smiling face of 9-year-old Michaela Garecht, who has been missing for 27 years. She wears the shirt as a reminder that the little girl hasn’t yet been found.
Garecht was abducted in 1988 in broad daylight outside a grocery store in Hayward. Her case was among the first missing-child cases featured on “America’s Most Wanted” in 1988, and her face was plastered on milk cartons, fliers and posters nationally, to no avail. The Hayward Police Department is still actively investigating the case, says Michaela’s mom, Sharon Murch. She says that LaMadrid has provided invaluable support.
“I understand that her involvement and her desire to reach out comes from her own loss, but honestly, as the mother of a missing child I have to admire that even more,” Murch says via email. “It is not easy living in the presence of loss. It is far easier to walk down other paths and avert your eyes from that gaping hole in the middle of life, whether yours or others. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to do what she does, a tremendous amount of compassion and just plain kindness.”
LaMadrid has become the California state volunteer coordinator for the Community United Effort: Center for Missing Persons, a nonprofit organization based in Wilmington, N.C., that provides services and advocates for the missing and their families. Monica Caison founded CUE in 1994 and says the organization has helped more than 9,000 families during the confusing and desperate times searching for a loved one. (CUE also sent search teams for Kathy in 2013, but they didn’t pan out.)
Over Labor Day weekend, LaMadrid tried to raise some money during the Rainbow Festival in midtown Sacramento to pay for cadaver dog searches. She says she didn’t end up with much.
Then, on Sept. 20, LaMadrid undertook another search for Kathy in Fort Bragg with a team of four volunteers. They returned to where the shirt had been found and the dogs alerted. (She declined to specify the location so as to not compromise the investigation.) But the endeavor proved unsuccessful and frustrating: A few volunteers flaked, the eight-hour round-trip drive cut into their search time, a shovel broke during digging and the group lacked backup equipment and, worst of all, nothing of value surfaced. “I need a professional dig team to go, or several men,” she says. “We did everything we physically could. We just couldn’t locate her. But I’m not giving up.”
LaMadrid will delay upcoming searches as she regroups and figures out the next step. A strong El Niño winter might set back her efforts even more, if the areas needing to be searched get flooded. “I’m going to have to let it go and settle back into normal life for the winter,” she says. “I have no choice.”
In the meantime, she’s launching a nonprofit organization called California Search & Recovery. (The application is pending.) This will help her raise money for future searches to help other families struggling to find missing loved ones. On the inside of LaMadrid’s lower left arm, a tattoo listing three words sum up what searching for Kathy has meant in her life: Perseverance, Courage, Hope. “It’s turned into a good thing where I can help other people,” she says. “And I’m going to do that forever.”