After nearly seven years, Brandi Stahr's mother was about to have the missing young woman legally declared dead when Stahr turned up alive in Kentucky, working as a department manager at a Sam's Club store under her real name and Social Security number.
The case was an emphatic reminder that even in this age of Internet databases and instantaneous searches, someone who really does not want to be found can get away with it, at least for a while.
Stahr was a Texas A&M University sophomore when she disappeared in 1998, apparently after an argument with her mother about her grades. Texas law enforcement officials feared she had been murdered. They searched for her body in the woods of Brazos County in Texas, and questioned a serial rapist and murderer just hours before he was executed last year.
But last month, Texas Rangers and U.S. marshals, acting on a tip, found her in Florence, a Cincinnati suburb off Interstate 75. Stahr, 27, has been hiding in plain sight, working for five years in one of the numerous stores near the highway.
The source of the tip was not disclosed, and the two U.S. marshals and two Texas Rangers who worked on the case refused to comment or did not return calls.
Since she was found, Stahr has avoided the media -- she did not reply to a letter sent to the store -- and her co-workers are not talking, either. Her mother, Ann Dickenson, did not return calls to her home in Moody, Tex.
But Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that if Stahr's intention was not to be found, she did things right, including not obtaining a Kentucky driver's license and not having utility bills in her name. Investigators have not said how Stahr traveled or whether she had roommates.
Stahr did pay taxes, but because of federal privacy laws, law enforcement officials do not have access to tax records, IRS spokeswoman Pat Brummer said.
Frank Viera, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said the same laws apply to that agency's records, except in cases of violent crime or fraud involving a government program. And there was never any proof Stahr was a victim of violence.
Law enforcement officials and missing-persons organizations said Stahr's story is a reminder that such cases are not always what they seem.
Angela Ellis, founder of the North American Missing Persons Network Web site, said Stahr's case is unusual because of the amount of time that lapsed between her disappearance and discovery. Of the 79 people on Ellis's Web site whose whereabouts were determined, 40 were found alive.
According to the FBI, many people listed as missing are not victims of foul play, but simply wanted to disappear.
Kay Scarborough, a professor of police studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said technological advances such as the Internet cut both ways for law enforcement officials: Information that can be used to track people is more readily available, but so is information on how to avoid detection.
"People are just smarter about those kinds of things, because they've gotten more publicity and because they do watch TV and learn things," she said.
For those in law enforcement, "the overabundance of information that we have, we think we can surely use it to our advantage, but sometimes we don't know what to do with the information or can't develop it to make sense of it to help with the case."
Mange said that while the Rangers are pleased that Stahr has been found alive, "we wish she would have been considerate of everyone's time. But it's not against the law to be inconsiderate."
"You need to let people know," Mange said, "because people care about you, even if you don't believe that."
That would have saved Stahr's mother a lot of heartache, said Nikky Munz, co-owner of a gift shop in Moody, an agricultural town of about 1,500. Munz suggested that Dickenson release balloons each year on Stahr's birthday as a sort of therapy and gave Dickenson the balloons to do so.
"She said that it helped her so much, that she was touching or reaching her," Munz said. "It was her way of releasing her love and care to Brandi." Now, with Stahr's discovery, "everyone is just excited for Ann."