Shortly before she disappeared, Alisha Johnson had been talking about turning her life around.

The 19-year-old Alexandrian was a single mother of two who loved to party and club-hop and had had her run-ins with the law. But Johnson wanted to go back to school, get things together, her cousin Chernique Allen remembers.

"She was hitting a mature point; she wanted something different, better," Allen said. "She wanted more out of life."

Johnson's aunt Delores Armstrong had great hopes for her.

"She had a hard childhood, but it didn't stop her from trying to get on with life," Armstrong said. "She was a very determined person."

That was in 1996. Johnson never got the chance to find a new path. One sunny Sunday afternoon that summer, she left a friend's apartment to run to a nearby five-and-dime store to buy hair gel. She never came back.

"She was just gone," Allen said.

Six years later, in 2002, Johnson's fate finally became apparent, when investigators were able -- through DNA tests -- to prove that Johnson almost certainly had been slain. Parts of her body had been found in Fauquier County, about 50 miles from her home, only a week after she disappeared. But missteps and confusion had kept police from identifying her remains for years.

Even today, a motive and a killer have yet to be identified.

"We keep asking ourselves why," Allen said.

Johnson's disappearance went virtually unremarked in Alexandria. There were no prayer vigils, no media attention, no large rewards -- just one family's years of anguish and uncertainty.

Recently, Johnson's family called on the public to try to find her killer. Relatives held a vigil in Alexandria late last month not only to honor her memory but also to encourage anyone who might have information to contact investigators, who say that they have no suspects.

"We have some ideas, but we need people to come forward," said Detective Thomas Durkin of the Alexandria Police Department, who is aiding Fauquier County detectives in their investigation. "Piecing something together after eight years is kind of hard."

For Johnson's family, the DNA identification was a cruel end to years of not knowing.

The day she disappeared, Johnson had spent a weekend partying with girlfriends. Sunday morning, she had headed over to a friend's house in Arlandria so the two of them could plan a visit to the Ibex club in the District that evening to listen to go-go music.

She told her friend, who had just stepped out of the shower, that she was going to the store, saying she'd be right back. Authorities don't even know if she made it there.

The next day, Johnson's mother, Sheila Johnson, contacted police to say her daughter was missing. But her disappearance created barely a ripple.

"It was very difficult to get attention for this case," said Amy Bertsch, an Alexandria police spokeswoman.

As Johnson's family continued to worry about her mysterious disappearance, Sgt. Eric Junger of the Fauquier County Sheriff's Office was spending hundreds of hours on a grisly case: a pair of badly decomposed legs, hacked off below the knees, found in Marshall a week after Johnson was last seen.

One leg was discovered in a back yard, and after an extensive search of the area, another leg was found about 1,000 yards away in a forest, police said. The rest of the body has never been recovered.

A forensic anthropologist examining the skeletal remains mistakenly told investigators that they belonged to a white woman in her late twenties or early thirties, Junger said.

"We spent years looking for someone who looked completely different, who fit that criteria," Junger said. "I found out I was looking for the wrong person."

Junger said he had followed more than 260 leads across the country, asking families of missing white women to donate DNA samples. None matched.

Then, in 2002, a forensic scientist went to the state database that held tissue samples of people who had been convicted of felonies. A sample from Johnson, who had a juvenile record and had been convicted as an adult of shoplifting in Fairfax County in 1994, was in the database. Police got a hit.

After receiving DNA samples from Johnson's family, investigators officially confirmed that the remains were that of the woman who disappeared from the Alexandria street on her way to the store.

"It was difficult for me to think someone can disappear from the face of the earth and no one reported her missing," Junger said. "And here, her family had reported her missing all along."

Junger said he is frustrated that he lost years chasing down erroneous leads, but expressed relief that he finally knew who the slain woman was.

"The fact that I have a face and a name is much more important than anything else," he said. "She is a real person with a real life and a history."

At last month's vigil, memorial fliers were passed out with Johnson's criminal mug shot -- the only picture that the family appeared to have. About 25 people, mostly relatives, came to remember Alisha "Lisa" Johnson at St. John's Baptist Church in Alexandria. Her uncle, Wayne Johnson, eulogized his niece, who didn't get a chance to live the life she had wanted.

Afterward, they gathered outside with candles and sang "Amazing Grace" in perfect unison, the aching lyrics hanging for a moment in the evening air.

Her mother stepped forward and in a strong voice told the small gathering: "We all miss her. Who did this to my daughter will be found. Keep the faith -- believe very strongly."

Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

Family and friends hold a vigil for Alisha Johnson, who disappeared in 1996. Some of her remains were identified in Fauquier County.Brenda Johnson hugs the victim's mother, Sheila Johnson (facing forward).