On July 18, the day Erica Smith should have been celebrating her Sweet 16, her family gathered at the slain teenager's grave.
They read from the Bible and put flowers at the site. They wept for the loss of a girl who loved to sing gospel music and dreamed of becoming an actress. And before they left the cemetery, they promised they would never stop searching for her killer.
"We told her that no matter what, we will fight for justice for her until the day we die," said Erica's mother, Pamela Dade.
Erica, an outgoing 14-year-old, left her family's Ashburn townhouse July 29, 2002, and never returned. Her body was found 11 days later in a shallow grave in Beaumeade Corporate Park near Loudoun County Parkway.
Loudoun County sheriff's detectives said they were still tracking down leads and conducting interviews. But on the second anniversary of Erica's death, her killer remains on the streets. Investigator Bobbie Ochsman, the lead detective on the case, said she is convinced a break in the case is only a phone call away and urged anyone with information to "do the right thing."
"Someone out there knows something," Ochsman said.
Erica's family is planning to hold a vigil in her memory and wants to set up a memorial fund to help other families of missing children. For the past two years, they say, it has been a struggle just to get through each day.
"The simple words, 'How are you?' will never be the same," Dade said.
Dade and Erica's father, William Smith Jr., said they have lost touch with some friends who don't seem to understand when they aren't up for socializing. Dade says there are days she can barely manage to get out of bed and go to work. Each time they see children waiting for the school bus outside their home, they think Erica should be among them.
"There's not a single day we don't cry. It gets so overwhelming that we cry, and we just can't stop," Smith said. "The world goes on with business as usual, and we have to get off in the middle of this world and deal with the loss of a child."
Erica, a tall, slender girl, was preparing to enter the ninth grade at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn when she was killed. The day of her disappearance, she told her family she was headed to a friend's home.
When Erica didn't return by dinnertime, her family knew something was wrong. By 9 p.m., they had called the Sheriff's Office. Over the next few days, they searched shopping malls, called her friends and handed out fliers with her photo. Erica's body was found Aug. 9, 2002.
Her parents said they do not know anyone who would have wanted to hurt her, and authorities have not released any details about the investigation. Sheriff's officials also have asked that details of Erica's slaying not be released because they think it would jeopardize their investigation.
Dade and Smith said they find ways to make it through the motions of daily life, but time has not made it easier to bear the loss of their daughter. They remember a girl who loved to talk with friends on the phone and who sang in the church choir. She had a clear, high voice, and her favorite song was "This Little Light of Mine."
Some days, Erica dreamed of becoming an actress or a dancer, and she once gave a cousin a letter with her signature, joking that he should keep it for the day she became famous, her parents said. Other times, she told her family she wanted to be a doctor or a preacher.
As a young girl, her mother recalled, Erica would clip pictures of lavish homes from magazines and declare she would live in such a place someday.
"She had big dreams about what she wanted to do with her life," Dade said.
Erica's parents said their hearts go out to other families that have lost a child. Smith said he was overcome with grief when he saw a television news report about the recent fatal shooting of 15-year-old Myesha Lowe in Northwest Washington.
"I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I know the horrible devastation they feel, and I know that it will never go away,' " he said.
On Thursday evening, the second anniversary of Erica's disappearance, Dade and Smith sat with other family members in their kitchen and cried as they looked at photos of their daughter. There is one of her in a cheerleading uniform and one of her carrying a soccer ball. There are baby photos and shots of her in the church choir.
Dade said she often wonders, as she walks through the grocery store or the mall, whether any of the people she is passing know details about her daughter's slaying. A $10,000 reward is being offered for details that lead to the killer's arrest.
Finding Erica's killer won't make the pain any less, her parents said, but it will bring them some peace.
"I want this murderer to know this horrible devastation that they have committed on such a beautiful child, and if they have even a shred of decency in their heart . . . please come forward," Smith said. "Please come forward and do the right thing."
Anyone with information about Erica's slaying is asked to call the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office at 703-777-0475.