A young mother, gone without a trace

October 9, 2011

She sees her daughter in pieces, in features dispersed throughout the family members who are still here.

Richard has the tiny mole above the right corner of his mouth. Sometimes Valencia touches it, lightly, the way she used to touch the mole on his mother’s face, before she disappeared.

U’Andre’ has his mother’s wiggling feet, the ones Valencia used to dress up in white leather booties. She still has the booties. They are on her kitchen table in Temple Hills. They are unscuffed. Her daughter never scuffed them because Valencia never put her down, because when her daughter was born, Valencia looked at her and thought: “I can’t believe I made this. I made this, this special baby.”

She named her daughter Unique.

Varndell has his sister’s slender calves and lanky height; so does Ashley, Unique’s other sibling.

Together, they are a whole family, minus one. A whole family with a hole.

One year ago, on Oct. 10, 24-year-old Unique Harris disappeared from her home in Southeast Washington. In the middle of the night. While her children slept in the next room.

“I have never in my life not known where my child is. For 24 years, I spoke with her every day, and now . . .

Valencia breaks off. She leaves sentences unfinished. Sometimes she wonders whether she has fallen apart and just not realized it yet.

“My daughter was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing, and . . .

“It only took me five hours to bring her into this world, and now I have spent a year . . .

On her worst days, Valencia has pulled her car over to the side of the road and taken out a pair of the latex gloves she carries for her job as a home health-care aide. She has torn open black trash bags that people have dumped from their cars. She has torn the open trash bags wondering whether they might contain her daughter.

When people die, there is a horrible finality. When people are missing, it’s the hope that’s unbearable.

The absent anchor

Valencia Harris had her oldest child young. She was not yet 20, and the last time she saw Unique’s father was a few weeks after her daughter was born. For years, until she met Ashley and Varndell’s father, it was just Valencia and Unique, revolving around each other. At 44, Valencia looks young. Smooth skin, trim figure, fashionable shoes. Lately, she feels old.

She raised her three children in Richmond. They graduated from John Marshall High School, Unique wearing a white cap and a sheepish smile. She’d cared less about class work than about friends; her family used to tease her for being so soft, for caring so much that everyone got along.

Unique was the quintessential big sister. The one who remembered things, who made big celebrations out of little events. If someone forgot that it was Mother’s Day, Unique had already picked up an extra card. If the family ate KFC, she wanted it served on real plates. She wanted things to look right.

When Valencia moved to the Washington area in 2006, “Unique held the family down,” says Varndell Jordan, her brother. Unique’s door was always open; her family always came first.

In the summer of 2010, just a few months before she disappeared, Unique decided to follow her mom north. She and her sons’ father had been broken up for awhile, and now that her boys were approaching school age — U’Andre’ was 3, and Richard was 5 — she thought it would be a good time to reboot her life. She’d chosen a vocational school, and Valencia promised to help with child care while Unique took classes to become a massage therapist. Unique was waiting to hear about financial aid.

During those few months, the mother and daughter saw each other nearly every day.

On Friday, Oct. 8, 2010, Unique brought the boys by her mother’s after school. Valencia’s father was visiting, and Unique asked her grandfather — also a Richard; she named her older son after him — if he would give his great-grandsons their fall haircuts. U’Andre’ and Richard were looking a little shaggy. Grandpa Richard trimmed; Valencia and Unique chatted; the boys played.

By the time they were ready to leave, it was dark outside. Unique didn’t have a car, and Valencia was on bed rest with a broken foot, so Richard drove his family home and waited until everyone got inside. Unique had moved into this complex only five weeks before. Valencia hadn’t liked the neighborhood but was trying to let her daughter make her own decisions. Besides, Valencia reasoned, it was a five-minute drive from her house. What could happen that she couldn’t get there in five minutes?

Richard said he would talk to them tomorrow, and he did.

On Saturday night, he called, and they were popping popcorn and getting ready to watch a movie. One of Unique’s younger cousins, Talaya Reed, was there for a sleepover, and the kids were laughing in the background. Unique asked whether Richard wanted to say good night to his great-grandsons. “Okay, then,” he said to his granddaughter before she passed on the phone. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

He didn’t.

About 9 a.m., Tiffannee Reed got a phone call from Talaya, her daughter. Unique, the 9-year-old said, was gone.

“She told me they woke up and that Unique wasn’t there,” Tiffannee says. “I told her to calm down, that she probably just walked to the corner store.” After Tiffannee hung up, she tried calling Unique, but her phone rang and rang.

Tiffannee stayed in touch with Talaya throughout the morning but was stranded across town. She was sure that Unique would be back by 3 p.m., their scheduled pickup time. But when she arrived, the kids were still alone. Tiffannee called Valencia. They wondered whether Unique had stepped out on an errand and gotten waylaid — buses in the District can be so unpredictable. Richard drove to Unique’s.

Talaya said she thought she might have heard a man’s voice, but that it could have been from the television or the next apartment. The boys hadn’t heard anything. They hadn’t seen anything. They didn’t remember anything. Their mother put them to bed, and they slept through the night.

Richard took his great-grandsons to Valencia’s, then went back to pick up some of their clothes. That’s when he noticed Unique’s purse hanging on a dining room chair.

Her glasses were folded on a pillow on the bed.

An optometrist had told Valencia that her daughter was seeing poorly in fourth grade. By the time Unique was in her 20s, her eyesight was so bad that she could barely read a bedside clock; she slept with her glasses next to her on a pillow. She’d just purchased new frames — Dolce & Gabbana, a splurge, to mark the move to the District and her back-to-school plans — which she’d shown her mother a few days before.

Unique wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her children because she was a good mother; everyone said so. Unique wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her purse; it’s where she kept her money and identification. But the glasses. Unique couldn’t have gone anywhere without her glasses.

Richard reached for his cellphone. He doesn’t remember dialing the number, but he must have, because soon Valencia was on the phone and he was telling his daughter, “Valencia, honey, it doesn’t look good at all.”

Criminal unit case

When people disappear in the District, their relatives are directed to the missing persons unit. It is not a crime to go missing. Fathers walk out. Teens run away. Older people wander off. It happens all the time.

There are forms to fill out. Clinical forms. A 37-page one is available on the D.C. police Web site; it classifies cases by whether missing persons are “endangered” or “involuntary” or “juvenile.” It catalogues every mark and spot and quirk that a body can have. On a form such as this, the mole near Unique’s mouth would have been described as “MOLE U LIP.” The tattoo of her sons’ names on the small of her back would have been “TAT BACK.” It’s very efficient.

Many of these cases stay with missing persons.

“But we assigned this one to a criminal unit.”

Joel Maupin is the commander of the District’s 7th Precinct, where he has spent his entire 28-year career, and where Unique disappeared from.

He explains why his precinct made this decision: “We felt it would be very odd that she would disappear.” As far as anyone knew, she didn’t have family problems. She didn’t have a drug problem. And yet, “there was no indication of any foul play. The place wasn’t disheveled; it wasn’t torn up. . . . You do have cases where people just leave, but we didn’t feel like that was the situation here.”

He cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation, including questions about suspects. Sometimes Valencia worries that the police aren’t doing everything they could be doing, that she is fighting this fight alone. Every scenario she runs through in her mind leads her to a place that doesn’t make sense.

If someone took Unique, why didn’t anyone hear her scream?

If she walked out, why didn’t she take anything she needed?

If her purse and glasses were left behind, why was her cellphone gone, and why did it continue to ring long after the battery should have died?

About the case of Unique Harris, this is what Maupin can say:

“It’s unusual.”

Pictures of Mommy

“I have lost many teeth.”

Six-year-old Richard pauses to count how many, then finally gives up. “Oh, many.”

He stretches his hand out to his grandmother, and Valencia tips the tiny cloth bag into his palm. A molar tumbles out.

“This was Mommy’s baby tooth?” The idea astonishes him.

“That was Mommy’s. See? She had a cavity.”

Valencia is careful. She wants her grandson to remember his mom, but not in a way that upsets him. The grief counselors told her she should be open to conversations if the boys wanted to have them. They said she could have them write letters and attach them to balloons.

“How does it make you feel, to hold your mommy’s teeth?”

“Weird.”

“Good weird, or bad weird?”

“Weird like a piranha tooth!” He loves fish.

It’s a Friday night. Richard and U’Andre’ now live with their father in Richmond, but they visit Valencia one weekend a month. (Ramon Cain says he didn’t learn of Unique’s disappearance until weeks after it happened, after he thought it strange that he couldn’t reach her to arrange for the boys to visit at Halloween.)

Tonight they’re eating popcorn and waiting for a movie to start. “Piranha.” Richard likes it, but when it gets too risque Valencia changes the channel to a cartoon about a talking dog.

She moved to this apartment a few months ago. It’s strange to live in a place Unique has never seen, but signs of her daughter are everywhere. The floors are cluttered with Avon gift baskets that she hopes to sell to raise reward money for information about the disappearance. The dining room table is cluttered with pictures and fliers, which she relentlessly posts around town. She wears a T-shirt with Unique’s face on it. She wants people to ask about her daughter.

She holds vigils every few months outside Unique’s apartment. There’s another one scheduled for the year mark of the last time she spoke with her daughter. She hates it when people call it “The Anniversary.” An anniversary sounds like something to celebrate.

A year ago Oct. 9, Unique popped popcorn with her sons and sat down to watch a movie, just like the family is doing this night. Rituals continue, even when part of the family is gone.

Valencia wonders whether the boys’ hair is looking a little shaggy. She asks Varndell, who is visiting, if he’ll give them their fall haircuts. He takes them into the bathroom while Valencia searches through a rubber bin for a photo to bring to the vigil.

“There’s a picture with four friends?” offers Richard, who has emerged, freshly shorn. “They’re kind of hugging?” He sits on the carpet with an album and slowly turns the pages, looking for the photo.

“Grandma?” he asks. “Where’s your little teeth?”

“You’d have to ask my mama,” Valencia says. “Mamas are the ones who keep their babies’ teeth. Mamas know about all the teeth in their babies’ heads.”

Richard can’t find the picture he was looking for, but he’s found another one that he likes. Unique stands in a pink swimming suit at a water park. Her arms are crossed in front of her like she’s cold, but she’s smiling big.

“I wish I could have this picture.”

“You can, baby. Just don’t lose it. These are my most precious possessions now.”

He holds the photograph around its edges, careful not to bend it.

“I actually,” Richard says, “I actually really miss my mom.”

Black and Missing

Several months after Unique’s disappearance, when Valencia wanted to do more and there was nothing more she could do, police put her in contact with the Black and Missing Foundation, a group founded by two sisters-in-law to provide resources to the families of missing persons of color, who often don’t get as much attention.

Black and Missing — which is based in the District — has gotten involved in about 800 cases across the country, organizing searches and helping post fliers. Of those 800 cases, only about 45 have been resolved.

It is possible to stay missing forever.

“You want to remain hopeful and prayerful,” says founder Derrica Wilson, a former police officer. “But we all know that every day the chances are getting slimmer and slimmer.”

Slimmer and slimmer that things will resolve well. Or resolve at all.

One of the country’s foremost experts on the psychological concept of “closure” is also based in the Washington area. Psychologist Arie Kruglanski teaches at the University of Maryland and studies the circumstances under which closure becomes particularly important to people.

“When the preoccupation with the consideration of possibilities becomes extremely resource-consuming and energy-consuming, and they cannot deal with anything else, with all of the challenges that come with not knowing,” Kruglanski says, then closure becomes paramount.

Which, of course, Valencia already knows.

Reminders of Unique

She gets out of her car — still in her scrubs; it’s the end of a long day — and walks up to the complex.

The buildings are boxy, brick, low-slung. The sound of an ice cream truck gets louder and softer, but never completely disappears. The Southern Avenue Metro station is about a mile away; there’s a laundromat up a few blocks and some food places on Alabama Avenue SE. Other than that, there’s nothing remarkable. It’s just a place where people live.

Sometimes Valencia comes here to visit the last place she saw her daughter.

It’s warm and muggy, a mid-September day that feels like mid-August. Valencia checks to make sure that some posters she’d hung are still there. They are, waterlogged and faded. Then she walks up three flights of stairs to the apartment she still thinks of as Unique’s. When she’s come in the past, it has still been unoccupied. But today she knocks, and a few seconds later, a young woman opens the door and peeks out.

“Hello?” She looks nervous.

“My daughter used to live here,” Valencia says after a moment. “She disappeared. Be careful. Be very, very careful.”

After leaving the complex, Valencia drives to a nearby Extra Space Storage facility. This is the other place she sometimes goes to be close to Unique. It’s where all of her stuff is. Valencia transported every item from Unique’s apartment, afraid to get rid of anything that her daughter might want or that might be needed for DNA evidence.

Here is her Christmas wreath. Here is her nail polish — she was always a girly girl. Here is her sewing bag, which Unique crocheted in brightly colored yarns.

Sometimes when Valencia drives to the apartment or the storage locker, she thinks about how unfair it is that these are her memorials. She cannot visit a living Unique, which is what she wants. She cannot drive to a cemetery and grieve at a granite stone.

Extra Space Storage and a sprawling apartment complex. That’s where she can go.

“Bali Bliss,” Valencia coos, picking up a pink bottle of lotion from Unique’s toiletries. It was one of Avon’s new fragrances in 2010. Valencia gave it to Unique, and she wore it every day. “She loved it. Loved it.” She opens the bottle, closes her eyes and fills her lungs with Bali Bliss.

Here is Unique’s file box, where she kept her important papers. At the top is a mailing from Centura College, where Unique planned to begin classes in massage therapy. The flier is neon and optimistic.

“Careers await you,” it says. “Your future is in your hands!”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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