Sister's search still a struggle
Featuring Doe Network member Libba Phillips.

By M.S. Enkoji
Sacramento Bee

July, 2003

For four years Libba Phillips searched for her younger sister who had gone her own way, disappearing into Florida's urban underbelly.

And for the past two years, the Fair Oaks woman feared she would only find her sibling through a coroner who had taken charge of her withered remains, keeping them in storage if and when a next of kin shows up.

"I knew what the odds were," said Phillips, 35. In the meantime, Phillips allowed herself to expand her own life, marry, start a new career, organize a nonprofit organization to help others with missing loved ones. But a part of Phillips was consumed by the tortured wait. Then, in February, her phone rang.

Ashley Phillips, now 28, was alive.

"I thought you were dead," Libba Phillips remembers saying to her sister as emotion buckled her knees. A weak, thin voice replied, "There were times that I wished that I was."

Libba Phillips, her heart throbbing with joy, also envisioned terrible scenarios.

Now, Libba Phillips assesses the months since that phone call, holding back inquiries of her whereabouts that could awaken nightmares in her sister's conscious: "She may never be the person that she was four years ago, but the person she is now is a miracle."

Libba Phillips isn't the same, either. She is a die-hard advocate for greater sensitivity from law enforcement and improved forensic techniques to match unidentified remains.

In Tampa, where Ashley Phillips disappeared, the Police Department refused to file a report when the family initially reported her missing in March 1999, said Libba Phillips.

Without an official missing person designation for Ashley Phillips, the Phillipses were cut off from information about unidentified remains, and other law enforcement agencies were not informed that anyone was looking for Ashley Phillips.

The family was on its own to search and distribute fliers that offered a reward for information. Libba Phillips kept a cell phone with her even while she slept. She took calls from people who claimed to have killed her sister and others who demanded the reward.

She felt she had no other choice.

"What I've discovered is if my sister can fall into a gap, how many others are there?" Phillips said. When Ashley Phillips didn't come home from work her parents in Tampa suspected something.

During her teenage years, she had derailed a promising life with drugs and alcohol, swinging back and forth between rehabilitation and addiction. When she disappeared, Phillips was engulfed in an effort to stay clean.

With little more than gut feelings, the family couldn't convince police that Ashley Phillips -- whether she was an adult or not, whether she had a fringe lifestyle or not -- was in danger.

A spokesman for the Tampa Police Department said the department's blanket policy is to list anyone as a missing person if someone fears for their safety.

"We err on the side of caution," said Joe Durkin, a department spokesman. But he could not explain why authorities in 1999 declined to list Ashley Phillips as missing. "I can't speculate on what the conversation might have been," he said.

It was only after the sisters' mother spoke to the Tampa police chief in December 2002 that the department listed her as missing.

The experience embittered Libba Phillips.

She founded the nonprofit Outpost for Hope, whose Web site offers help and support to a world of family members also searching for missing loved ones. The Web site features about a dozen missing persons cases and offers resources in every state.

Phillips publicly detailed the consuming search that pitted her against police departments, forced her into scary neighborhoods with her stepfather as bodyguard and put her on planes to chase down fruitless clues. Phillips also is a state representative with the Doe Network, a collaboration of several hundred volunteers who research older cases of missing persons or unidentified remains and attempt matches.

Phillips, a photographer, and a friend, Marquita Plomer, began filming Phillips' experience a year ago for a documentary that will end much differently than they had feared.

Except for a few close friends and associates, Phillips and her family hadn't talked publicly about the reunion because they wanted to ensure Ashley Phillips' safety even now.

They remain protective.

Phillips, who lives outside California, offers fragments of the last four years at her own pace -- her memory comes and goes -- and her sister pieces together the lost years, almost day by day. "The details are very disturbing," said Libba Phillips, who believes someone abused her sister. "It's hard for me to know what I can do."

When Ashley Phillips got in touch with her sister, she had no idea her family was frantically searching for her, and even now Libba Phillips is not sure why she chose to call or how she ended up where she is.

Libba Phillips does know someone smashed the orbital bone under her sister's eye, the flawed healing still apparent. She knows her sister kicked out a truck window once to get away from someone.

Ashley Phillips did tell her sister that she has been clean for at least a year, that she is living with a man, that they have an infant daughter.

Libba Phillips has twice visited the modest apartment her sister shares with the day laborer, who, Libba Phillips believes, encouraged her sister to get in touch with her family about the time the baby was born. He does not know English, so Libba Phillips is unable to press him for details of her life, such as how they met and what he knows about her sister's ordeal.

The sisters' mother visits more often. Libba Phillips, who just returned from a visit two weeks ago, hopes to visit again later this summer. For now, she spreads photos on the table of her with her new niece and her sister, smiling with pride.

Her sister, the once-glamourous teenager with the tangled, glossy mane and model-slender frame is transformed, said Libba Phillips.

Ashley Phillips lives simply and peacefully.

Libba Phillips, though, is ready to talk.

She rose Thursday at Toastmasters, the public speaking club, and talked about the sister who disappeared, the sister she found and the sister she loves.