The search for Shelly Suzanne Jennings is over.
The 53-year-old Modesto woman, missing from her family for 23 years, stepped off a bus and was greeted by a Modesto police officer Wednesday morning, police said.
“The officer said, ‘Your daughter is looking for you,’ ” Jennings’ daughter, Brandy Chapman of Oklahoma, said by phone Wednesday afternoon, just minutes after speaking with her mother for the first time in more than two decades. “She knew it had been awhile since. When I said it had been 23 years ... I was just bawling.”
Jennings moved to Modesto in 1993, bringing daughters Rachel and Julie with her. Chapman’s father had legal custody of her, so she remained in Oklahoma. One day late in 1994, Jennings dropped the two younger girls off at school in Salida and never returned to get them. They saw her only one other time – at a mental facility in Modesto – before their father took them back to Oklahoma. They began looking for Jennings many years ago, and the internet helped a bit because they were able to find some addresses and arrest records in places such as Florida, Wyoming, Arizona, Missouri and Nebraska.
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“We were always about two years behind her,” daughter Rachel Ford told The Bee in December.
Chapman learned in December that her mother had been arrested in Redding. Chapman flew immediately to Northern California, only to find that Jennings had been released and was headed to Modesto. So she posted pleas for help on the social media sites managed by area homeless advocates, and the word spread.
Chapman then drove 22 hours from Oklahoma to Modesto, arriving on New Year’s Day and spending a week scouring the parks and shelters for information, and handing out fliers, with no success. She returned to Oklahoma, feeling depressed and frustrated.
“Just today, I was feeling really negative about everything,” she said.
But her hard work proved invaluable. Wednesday morning, a passenger on a bus from Sacramento to Modesto recognized Jennings from photos on fliers posted throughout the region and called police. According to Modesto police, Officer Jeff Harmon met Jennings as she came off the bus, and soon thereafter arranged the phone call reuniting mother and daughter.
“She was worried that she was going to be arrested,” Chapman said.
They talked for more than an hour during the initial call, and other chats followed and the emotions flowed, Chapman said. So many years, so much catching up to do – about Jennings’ life, her daughters and their families she has never met.
“She asked me, ‘How old are you?’ ” Chapman said. “But she remembered my birthday (Feb. 13). She said, ‘I’ll make it back (to Oklahoma) before your birthday.”
Chapman said she planned to leave late Wednesday or early Thursday to drive back to Modesto to reunite with her mom, who will stay with other relatives here until that time. Then they will drive back to Oklahoma, where Jennings – of Choctaw Native American heritage – can receive medical and mental health care through Native American Health Services.
“I just want to get her home and get her the help she needs,” Chapman said.