Every two weeks or so, Sandra Thornton leaves home with shovel in hand to continue a methodical search for a daughter missing and feared dead for two years. Since Marinthia McCoy disappeared, Mrs. Thornton has spent countless hours tracking leads, conducting interviews, collecting evidence and using the shovel to probe possible burial places.
Miss McCoy, 26, a stocky brunette with blue eyes and a rose tattoo on her left arm, disappeared Sept. 20, 1989, after a wild few hours of partying between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
"It was as though she vanished off the face of the earth. It's been a living hell for me. She was my best friend and I know she's dead," her mother told the Florida Times-Union in an article published Monday.
Mrs. Thornton describes her missing daughter as a dancer, a dreamer, a loving parent and an alcoholic.
When she disappeared, the twice-divorced Miss McCoy left behind a son, now 11, a new home, a bartending job and a new car.
Margaret Hyde, a missing person's detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, says she can't believe Miss McCoy would purposely leave so much behind.
"She has a child who she's never left for any length of time, and I don't think she would have left him. Somewhere along the road, she met up with foul play," she said.
Last June, Mrs. Thornton began digging for her daughter's body off the 90 miles of highways between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
Usually accompanied by her husband, Clayton, Mrs. Thornton chooses random spots with odd piles of dirt or finds places where she thinks the body could be buried. She has dug in at least 50 spots.
"I'll find her," she said.
Some police hold out hope that Miss McCoy is still alive. One investigator surmised that she couldn't handle life's pressures and just took off.
"We prefer to think she's not dead. Sometimes . . . they don't want to be found," said Lt. Chuck Evans of the Daytona Beach Police Department.
The day before she disappeared, she and a male acquaintance checked into a Daytona Beach hotel. They returned to Jacksonville, where she danced in a bar's bikini contest before returning to Daytona Beach in a limousine, her mother said.
The couple arrived in Daytona about 3 a.m. and 30 minutes later she ordered a limousine for a return trip to Jacksonville. The driver told police and Mrs. Thornton that he dropped off the woman somewhere in Jacksonville.
The driver, now serving a prison sentence for bank robbery, has been questioned by police several times about Miss McCoy.
"He steadfastly denies any involvement with her disappearance. I can't disprove his story, but I can't find anyone in Jacksonville who says they saw her back in town," Mrs. Thornton said.
She said she plans to keep up her quest.
"You'll never meet up with a pit bull like I am. Once I get started, I don't stop," she said.