Winton mom's drive keeps hope for missing girl alive

LIVINGSTON -- To some, it might be just a poster with a photo of an unknown blonde, blue-eyed child, pasted on the back of a truck.

For Beverly Smith, mother of missing child Vanessa Smith, it's a ray of hope that someone will do the right thing and come forward with information about what happened to her daughter 11 years ago.

"She's my daughter. She's priceless. And I want her home," said Smith.

Smith and about 10 detectives from the Merced County Sheriff Department's Major Crimes Unit gathered at the Travel Center of America in Livingston on Wednesday to hand out those posters to truck drivers.

Each poster contains information about Vanessa, her photo at the time she disappeared, a time-lapse photo of what she might look like today and the $50,000 reward available to anyone who provides information that can lead investigators to her whereabouts.

Vanessa was 15 when she disappeared near her Winton home during Memorial Day weekend 1997. Sheriff's investigators believe she had left home around 7 p.m. to go for a walk and disappeared near the area of Mercedes Avenue at Jones Road.

Her walking stick was found along a path she typically took, and she was wearing a light blue dress. She has a birthmark from her shoulder to her elbow on her right arm, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Smith said she and detectives gave posters to 54 truck drivers at the center. Sgt. Jason Goins said the posters, which are placed on the backs of the trucks, are useful because many trucks travel across the country and the posters are seen by thousands of people.

Goins acknowledged investigators have no new leads in the case. "We have received several tips through the years, but nothing that would assist us in locating her," Goins said.

Smith and her husband Art say they still hold onto hope that Vanessa is alive -- hope that motivates her to press forward on a daily basis. "No one will take that away from me," Smith said. "I just know in my heart she's alive. I can't explain that to you or anyone else. I just know it in my own heart."

Smith also wants to make sure that the public remembers her daughter. "People tend to forget," Smith said. "They go on with life, unless it happens to you."

Vanessa is one of two missing-child cases still open in Merced County. Pamela Ann Pedro disappeared without a trace after being dropped off by her mother at Atwater High School on Sept. 13, 1982.

If you or someone you know has information about the disappearance of Vanessa Smith or Pamela Ann Pedro, please call the Merced County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Unit at (209) 384-7472.

Those interested in contributing to the efforts to find Vanessa can send donations to the Vanessa Smith Trust Fund, P.O. Box 1313, Atwater, CA 95301.