Daughters Seek Clues In Md. Disappearance

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Justine Snow remembers the day she and her sisters realized that something terrible had happened to their mother. It was in November 1980, on Justine's 16th birthday.

Nancy Snow, 44, was living in downtown Annapolis, where she worked as a political consultant. Her daughters were in California, where they lived with their father.

Nancy Snow had telephoned early that month, asking her middle daughter what she wanted for her birthday and promising to call again soon. "I love you, my darling," she said, "and I miss you."

After the call, an uncharacteristic silence followed, its message becoming undeniable when Justine's birthday came and went without a gift, without the promised phone call.

"Nothing," Snow said last week, recalling that difficult realization and issuing, along with her sisters, an emotional appeal for information that might help break the case.

The sisters, then teenagers, are now closer to the age their mother was when she vanished -- a victim in what investigators say is one of the city's oldest unsolved but active murder cases. They are haunted still but hopeful that a newly invigorated investigation will resolve a mystery that has cast a shadow across a quarter-century.

"We just want to get her back and bring her home," Justine Snow said. "We want to honor her memory with a memorial service and have a place to kneel down and tell her how much we love her."

Nancy Snow spoke seven languages and traveled the world, her daughters said. She had lived in West Germany and Brazil, and for a time hosted a television talk show in California. According to a news report after her disappearance, she was known in Annapolis as a "cosmopolitan and level-headed socialite."

Late in 1980, Snow's family was growing increasingly concerned by her sudden, uncharacteristic silence. Her friend Paul T. Collins III told the family -- and later police -- that she was away on a boat delivery job. She had met a man called Captain Jay or Captain J, Collins said, and had been hired to crew a ketch sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean.

When she did not return, Snow's oldest daughter, Stacy, moved into her mother's apartment on East Street and began showing her picture everywhere. In February 1981, Stacy Snow and Collins traveled to Florida, where she showed a photo at motels and he reported her missing for the first time.

"It was horrible," Stacy, now a mother of six, said last week. "I felt sick to my stomach all the time and very frustrated and just lost. I didn't understand why she would have done this. Nothing made sense to me."

According to the news reports, Snow's family began to suspect that Collins was withdrawing money from her bank accounts. They fell out with Collins, and in 1982 a newspaper reported that he had left Anne Arundel County and was being sought for questioning by police.

Collins, who was not charged, declined to comment Friday, citing the advice of a lawyer. The lawyer, Mark Chandlee, did not respond to messages left at his home and office that evening. Dave Cordle, the chief investigator in the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office, said Collins "might be considered a person of interest."

In the years after Snow's disappearance, the case grew cold. Investigators could not find any Captain Jay or the ketch he was said to be delivering. A person whose identity the police do not know once provided information that investigators deemed credible, and Cordle is hopeful that that person will contact them again.

In interviews last week, the sisters, who now live outside Maryland, spoke of the pain of losing their mother and the grinding uncertainties that accompany it. Stacy and Kimberly asked that their married names and exact locations not be published out of fear for their safety.

"My mom was my world, my anchor," Kimberly said. "You have that taken away and all the sudden there's this emptiness, this hole, and it can never be filled."

The emotional trauma has leapt across generations, leaving Kimberly concerned that her own children's "faith in the nature of basic human goodness" could be jeopardized. Several months ago, she said, she overheard one of her children, a toddler, singing a made-up song about how mothers disappear when they die.

"I want to be able to take my children to a place where we can put flowers on a grave and let them know what happened," she said.

Justine Snow said she is haunted by questions: How did she die? What was her last thought? Did she know how much I loved her?

"The reality of it hit me so hard that someone you loved could disappear and you'd never know," she said. "The last 25 years have just eaten me up inside with worry and sadness."

So hungry is she even now for answers that she spends hours on a Web site that features reconstructed images of the faces of people whose remains have been found but not identified. She compares them to a picture of her mother, holding it at different angles, examining the eyes, the mouths, the lips.

By the time she called Cordle, late in 2003, her mind was swimming in details. "I had all these facts and figures and clues in my head, and if I died, all this stuff would be lost -- that was my biggest fear," she said. When he agreed that the case deserved another look, she said, "I hung up the phone and sobbed. I felt like someone just saved my life."

Cordle has since found and reinterviewed many people who originally spoke to investigators. And Justine Snow recently provided a DNA sample for comparison against unidentified remains in a national missing persons database, Cordle said. The results are not yet back.

The daughters are asking that anyone with potentially useful information, even if they believe it is trivial or may already have been provided, contact Cordle. He can be reached by phone at 410-222-1740, Ext. 3863; by e-mail at SACORD@aacounty.org ; or by mail at 7 Church Circle, Suite 200, Annapolis, Md. 21401.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company