Many years ago, while pregnant with her son Enrique, Lola Rios Gutierrez made a blanket for his arrival, a blue fleece for a baby boy. Her 4-year-old daughter now sleeps with it every night. She tells her mother it’s her big brother.
The last time Rios Gutierrez saw her son, Enrique Rios, now 17, he was heading for bed at their Esparto home. It was 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 17.
“He said, ‘Goodnight, Mom,’ ” Rios Gutierrez recalled last week. “And then the next morning, when I woke up, he wasn’t in his room anymore.”
Enrique’s friend and classmate, Elijah Moore, vanished 25 days later on Nov. 4, a day after his 17th birthday. That same day, a security camera at a Woodland check-cashing center captured a grainy photo of Elijah wearing a black hooded sweatshirt over a yellow shirt, a green backpack slung over his back.
Today, their faces look out from the FBI’s website and from block-lettered missing persons posters. Candles that glowed at a neighborhood church in November glowed again Friday evening during a vigil at Cesar Chavez Community School in Woodland, keeping alive hope the two will return home safely.
About 50 people – friends, family, teachers and neighbors of the two young men – offered tearful support for two families grasping for answers. One after another, those gathered peeled off the circle to lay down a lighted candle. Soon, the candles formed the sign of the cross.
“This is a spiritual battle now,” Elijah’s mother, Alicia Moore, told the crowd, clutching a photo album with the title, “Bring Elijah Home.”
“Every day I try not to think about where my son is, or if he’s OK,” she said through tears. “My intention is not to cry. But it is too surreal. It’s too much of a nightmare.”
Elijah Moore and Enrique Rios were classmates at Cesar Chavez Community School. In the months since they went missing, local authorities have enlisted help from federal agents and offered a reward for clues into their disappearance.
“We have two families who are desperately missing their sons,” said Gina Swankie, spokeswoman at the FBI’s Sacramento field office. “Somebody knows exactly where they are, and we need them to come forward.”
Swankie called the effort to find the teens “an active, ongoing investigation,” with local investigators and federal agents working in tandem. Phone calls have come into the FBI’s field office, but investigators are holding the information close. Swankie would not discuss the tips or whether they have translated into leads, but said she stays in “frequent contact” with the teens’ mothers. On Friday, Swankie and other FBI officials joined the two families at the vigil.
“The FBI and the Woodland Police Department are keeping the families in our thoughts every single day,” said Robert Tripp, a supervising special agent in the Sacramento field office. “We want to bring this to a conclusion.”
Before their disappearance, both teens had enrolled at the community school in hopes of restoring their academic standing and returning to class at their respective high schools in Woodland and Esparto, Enrique’s mother said.
The two became friends, she said. She recalled how polite Elijah was when she took the pair out for lunch, and how he said, “Thank you,” several times when she dropped him off at home.
“To me, I took it that this boy was a really nice young man,” said Rios Gutierrez, 33, who works as an office clerk at a Woodland elementary school.
Both teens were assembling the building blocks of a trade, learning construction skills in an after-school program at the campus and earning paychecks in the process. Enrique seemed excited and engaged, instructor Tommy Hobbs recalled.
“In the beginning, it was, ‘I get to go to work and get paid.’ But when he realized he can recover (course) credits, it dawned on him that, ‘I can do this,’ ” Hobbs said. “He was learning practical skills, saying ‘The more I do, the more I can get out of that.’ ”
“He loved his school. He always told me he would never miss a day of school,” Rios Gutierrez said.
The waiting and wondering have been devastating for the families. Elijah is the youngest of Alicia Moore’s three sons. She described him as an “average teenage kid,” who plays video games and basketball; loves animals and everything science; and even at close to 200 pounds, would climb up on the loveseat with his mother. Life without him, Moore said, has been “a nightmare.”
“Every night before I’m going to bed, I’m thinking about my son,” Moore said. “I love him dearly. None of us are the same without him.”
Lidia Vicente, Enrique’s grandmother, had hoped a $10,000 reward for information leading to the teens’ return would be enough to bring them home. Now, she’s not sure.
“I was so happy when they offered the reward, but now, I’m scared,” Vicente said. “Why doesn’t anybody call?”
Each night now, before she sleeps, Vicente said, she says a simple prayer: “If he’s cold, cover him. If he’s hungry, give him something to eat.”
The night Enrique went missing, Rios Gutierrez said, he went to bed at home much like any other night. “The only thing was that he was just really quiet,” she said.
The next morning, she found he wasn’t in his room. His favorite clothes, his wallet – all were still there. He had his phone, however, and Rios Gutierrez started calling and texting. She said Enrique texted back. He said he was sorry, and told her he had fallen asleep at a friend’s house. They were in the same school program, he texted, but didn’t say who it was. Then he turned off his phone.
For a few days, she continued to get an occasional text from Enrique’s phone before it would shut off again. One of the messages read that he wanted to be free.
“I thought, ‘He’s never said anything about not wanting to be home, not wanting to be with family,’ ” she said.
Rios Gutierrez said law enforcement authorities initially assumed that he ran away – he took his phone, after all, and he’d run away once before for three days. She believes her son left to hang out with friends, and was planning on coming back home when he ran into some kind of trouble.
“I want him back. I want this over,” she said.