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Saga in Cleveland gives hope to families of missing Tampa Bay kids

For a few Tampa Bay families, the news out of Ohio was personal.

Three young Cleveland women had escaped a decade of captivity, a saga that offered a sliver of hope for families whose children have disappeared.

Dade City resident Carole Bernhardt, 73, says she prays for her grandson Zachary every day. He disappeared nearly 13 years ago from a Clearwater apartment at age 8, when his mother went for a brief walk. Police never found a body and never developed clear suspects.

The Cleveland women's escape "was a miracle,'' Bernhardt said Tuesday. "I was really glad. I thought why couldn't that be us? And then you keep praying.''

Hilary Sessions, 67, of Valrico saw the news on television while sitting with her chihuahua and cat in her lap. "I thought, 'Somebody's getting awfully lucky today.' ''

Her daughter Tiffany was a University of Florida student who disappeared 24 years ago. Hilary Sessions worked for years as an advocate for missing children and their families.

"The logical thing is that she is never coming back,'' Sessions said, "but cases like this keep your hope alive. You can't ever give up that hope. It is what keeps getting me up every morning.''

In an average year, about 1.5 million children disappear around the country, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Most are runaways or children abducted by family members in custody disputes. A few are kidnapped by babysitters or others who know them.

Abduction by strangers, common in Hollywood fare, is actually very rare. The most recent survey put the count at about 115 cases a year, the center said. Children who escape long-time captivity are so rare they become national sensations like Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard and now the three Cleveland women.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement gets some of the state's toughest missing person cases. Sixteen employees track down tips, match human remains, tend to desperate families and resolve about 85 cases a year.

"We can't help but feel for the people who experience this kind of event, but you can't let it get to you. Children and families are depending on us,'' said supervisor Carole Frederick. "Today was a terrific day. It reinforces our belief that there is hope all the time.''

Zachary's disappearance from his Clearwater apartment changed the routines of the entire extended family of Carole Bernhardt, a retired Hillsborough County school bus driver with five daughters, 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Parents keep a closer rein on children. Cousins grieve for Zachary and wonder what he might be like at age 21.

Because of Cleveland, "We'll be getting together now to support each other,'' said Denal Donnelly, one of Bernhardt's daughters. "One of my daughters is the exact same age as Zach. She is taking it hard.''

Morgan Martin was 17 and pregnant when she stepped outside her St. Petersburg home in July to meet someone. She never came back. Police have no suspects but think the odds of foul play are high.

Morgan's mother, Leah Martin, said she talked a bit about the Cleveland case Tuesday to co-workers at a Clearwater Hess station, but she is trying to stay low-key.

"People get nervous and don't know what to say,'' Martin said. "I get everything from, 'I'll pray for you' to 'I dreamed that Morgan's body was floating in Lake Maggiore.' ''

Though somewhat encouraged by the developments in Cleveland, Martin can't help but wonder what they experienced behind those locked doors.

"I don't want to find my daughter and find out she has been through the most horrifying thing in her life, someone torturing her every day,'' Martin said. "Still, I would love to see her come through that door.''

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

Saga in Cleveland gives hope to families of missing Tampa Bay kids 05/07/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 11:03pm]

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