Jeff Jardine

Mystery over, but not misery, for family of missing Modesto woman

They simply did not know, and that alone brought them to tears:

What happened to Lisa Toledo Valdez? Where did she go? Was she alive? Had something horrible happened to her? Was that their daughter, granddaughter, sister, friend they thought they saw walking down the road, slipping out of sight before they could approach her?

So many questions, no answers. A private investigator couldn’t solve the mystery. A psychic told them she was in a peaceful place.

They know the answer now. It, too, brings them to tears. And while it wasn’t the one they wanted, her family at least knows something.

She was last seen along the Tuolumne River near the Dryden Park golf course on July 22, 2015. Then, earlier this summer, a woman’s remains were discovered roughly 28 miles downstream and along the San Joaquin River at Durham Ferry south of Manteca, west of the confluence of the two rivers. The family learned this week that the DNA confirmed they were, indeed, Lisa’s.

She wore the same clothes she wore the day she vanished from Modesto. Her body, found on dry land, had been underwater at some point, but authorities don’t believe foul play led to her death, sister Monica Bergman said. No broken bones or signs of blunt force trauma. It appears she drowned.

Not that it makes losing her any easier, said Lydia Lerma-Toledo, Lisa Toledo Valdez’s mother. The 43-year-old mother of three had a “million-dollar” smile, her mom said. She had three children she adored. She had worked as a secretary at Bret Harte Elementary and for a time at the Alliance, but was unemployed when she disappeared.

She also had a substance-abuse problem, her family said, and the last people to see her described her as disoriented and erratic in her behavior. When her boyfriend reported her missing to authorities, the family went to the river area to pass out fliers and try to find her, conducting one extensive search on foot and another in kayaks on the Tuolumne.

“Homeless people would come over and tell us ‘I’ll keep an eye open for her,’ ” said her mother. “People were nice, concerned and caring.”

Others would tell them about a friend or relative who returned after being missing for a decade. Bergman posted on Facebook and drew an overwhelming amount of emotional support and offers of help. It helped the family stay positive, wanting to believe Lisa would soon walk through the door.

“We’d get calls from time to time that she’d been spotted and we’d race out to wherever,” Monica Bergman said.

One time, Bergman and her daughter saw someone who looked like Lisa. They called out her name.

“She looked down,” Bergman said. “We had to go right up to her before we realized it wasn’t her.”

They met with a psychic who told them Lisa was at peace and “that somebody had buried her,” mom Lydia said. The psychic “saw her blowing kisses. She always blew kisses when she came over. She would drop her little boy off with me and when she left she threw kisses at the door.”

These and so many other things kept their hopes alive.

“I’m a night owl,” said Monica Bergman, who would often look outside of her window half-expecting to see Lisa. “It would be just like my sister to come up and sit on my doorstep.”

Their hopes soared – in a cruel way – in the first weeks after Lisa’s disappearance.

“Someone found her cellphone and was listening to the messages,” said John Bergman, Monica’s husband. “The person who had it texted back.”

 ‘I can’t talk now. Will call you back,’ ” Monica said, repeating the message. “We all got excited.”

Then it stopped. No more texts, no replies, no Lisa Toledo. They found themselves in the same kind of limbo so many others have when loved ones have gone missing. They hoped and prayed. But as the days turned into weeks and months, they knew.

“What can we do?” Monica Bergman said. “What else can we do? You run out of things to do.”

And suddenly all of those stories in recent years about people who vanished with no explanation hit home with Lisa Toledo’s family.

“I notice the missing-persons stories more now because it’s something I share, too,” Lerma-Toledo said. “I’m more aware it’s happening.”

Next weekend, family members of some of the 17 people who vanished and remain unaccounted for in Tuolumne County will meet to share stories, support and raise awareness in an event at Columbia State Park.

Lerma-Toledo feels for them and those like them, even in her own grief. She will soon be able to bury her daughter. She will be able to visit Lisa’s grave. She no longer lives with the unknown. The known is tough enough.

“It’s better to know,” she said. “To have her somewhere where we know she’s at. We’re thankful we found her.”