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August 7, 1998

Family of Missing Girl, 13, Is Clinging to Hope


SEASIDE, Calif. -- Nestled alongside this small town on the Monterey Peninsula is the old Fort Ord, a sprawling Army post on the Pacific Ocean, once home to 36,000 people but rendered obsolete by the round of military base closings several years ago.

Now the community has scarcely one-tenth of its former population, and when people who work nearby return every night to Spartan homes among abandoned buildings, the streets are so quiet that even a soft breeze makes a racket.

The search for Christina takes on a wide dimension.

These days it is quieter than usual.

For nearly two months, 13-year-old Christina Marie Williams has been missing. The youngest in a family of five that lives in a house on a sleepy cul-de-sac, Christina took her dog, Greg, for a walk in the neighborhood on the evening of June 12. About a half-hour later, Greg wandered back alone.

Over the next few days, witnesses reported seeing two men in an old sedan lurking in the area before and after Christina and the dog went walking. One woman told the authorities she saw a girl who matched Christina's description sitting in the car, looking frightened.

Those sightings, unusual for a kidnapping case, enabled the federal authorities to develop sketches of the men and the car they were driving. But in the seven weeks since Christina disappeared, the drawings remain all they have to go on. That, and fervent prayers that Northern California does not have another Polly Klaas case on its hands.

"I feel like we're stuck in a bad 'Twilight Zone' episode," Christina's father, Michael Williams, said Tuesday, describing anxious weeks when only fitful sleep brings any relief for him, his wife, Alice, and their two other children, Jennifer, 18, and Michael, 16. "You can't get out. There's no resolution."

The Williams family is hardly alone in its anguish. A recent study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization whose headquarters are in Arlington, Va., found that among the nearly 1 million people reported missing last year were 200 to 300 children who were kidnapped by a stranger. Ernie Allen, the center's president, said that about two-thirds of the children were girls 18 or younger, and that half of those kidnapped were found slain. The others, he said, returned safely or are still missing.

Williams, 41, is a Navy meteorologist for the Defense Department who moved his family here last winter after 12 years in Japan and the Philippines. He has not returned to work since Christina vanished. His wife finally went back to her job as a housekeeper at the local Hyatt Regency Hotel this week, just to get her mind off things for a few hours each day.

Meanwhile, their home on Nijmegen Street has become Williams' personal command post. The telephone rings constantly with calls from law-enforcement officers and well-wishers. Friends stop by. The stereo, television and family pictures sitting on shelves in the living room are almost obscured by cards of sympathy and encouragement.

From the bedroom where he keeps his computer, Williams brought in a stack of printouts, more than 1,400 messages the family has received electronically from people all over the world. "Forty countries so far," he said. "We're getting 50 to 100 a day."

After Christina disappeared, Williams said one of the first people to contact his family was Marc Klaas, Polly's father, who knows a thing or two about the nightmare of a missing young daughter. His family's case came to a brutal end five years ago when a man arrested for drunken driving confessed to kidnapping Polly, who was 12, from a slumber party in her Sonoma County home, strangling her and leaving her body at an abandoned lumber mill 30 miles away.

Three years later the killer, Richard Allen Davis, was convicted and given a death sentence. He remains in prison while his lawyers appeal the sentence.

The Klaas case captured national attention not only for Polly's age and the brazen acts of the killer, but also for the protocols employed by law-enforcement agencies after the abduction was reported. Fearing that news reports of Polly's disappearance would hinder efforts to find her, investigators in Sonoma County delayed releasing any information, including a description of the suspect, his car and the victim.

Left in the dark were two Sonoma County deputies who encountered Davis on the night of the kidnapping, after a woman called to complain about a trespasser. They found Davis with a car in a ditch and questioned him for 30 minutes, then helped him pull the car onto the road and let him go. Six minutes later, his description was released. He was not caught for another two months.

The delay and its consequences led to new procedures for child abduction cases that stressed dispensing information quickly, widely and continually through fliers, news conferences and interviews.

As a result, Williams has worked nonstop to keep Christina's case in the public eye, winning widespread help from friends and strangers alike. His boss, Paul Brewer, set up a volunteer center. Celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Mariah Carey and Reggie Jackson have made public service announcements.

The search for Christina began here on the Monterey Peninsula, where investigators were helped by volunteers on horseback, by psychics and even by people who said they could communicate with Christina's dog. The search quickly expanded to contiguous counties and beyond as the San Francisco office of the FBI made the case its highest priority.

''We have received leads from 50 of our 56 divisions around the country," said Gerald Buten, assistant special agent in charge of the case, acknowledging the ambiguous impact of such a response. "That's a positive development from the investigation standpoint. But she could be anywhere."

The search has had at least some residual benefits. In recent weeks, the authorities have found the bodies of three other missing young women in Northern California counties. At least one discovery set off rumors that the victim was Christina.

And so the wait goes on.

''You have to be positive -- you have to have hope," Williams said. ''That's what keeps us going. You can't give up. It's your child. How could you possibly give up hope on your child?

"There are so many negatives," he added. "The only positive thing to believe is that we'll get her back safely. We just have to believe we will."

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