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Mother's search for daughter continues

Jeanine Rodriguez Hicks remembers exactly what she was doing at 4 p.m., Oct. 31, 1985.

She was waiting for her estranged husband, G.R. Rodriguez, who shared custody of their 2-year-old daughter, to return her that afternoon.

She's still waiting.

Instead of seeing Rodriguez' car pull into her driveway with Jeanice, she said, she saw his parents' car pull up about 6 p.m.

They were alone.

Hicks said they handed her a letter from Rodriguez that read, "By the time you read this I'll be out of state."

That was the last Hicks heard from Rodriguez. She said a few days later he called her mother collect to say the baby was fine. A telephone bill received 27 days later indicated the call was placed from a small town in Georgia, Hicks said.

Rodriguez's father, Gregorio Rodriguez, said he does not remember delivering a letter to Hicks the day his son left, nor does he know where his son is.

"We have suffered, we have gone through hell," said Rodriguez, who says his son fled with the baby because he was treated unfairly by law enforcement and by the court system and because, at the time, Hicks was an unfit mother.

According to the elder Rodriguez, who lives in Odessa in Pasco County, Hicks was given custody of Jeanice in a hearing during which neither his son nor his son's lawyer was present. He said Rodriguez fled after learning of the court's decision.

"What they did was against the law," Rodriguez said. "They made a bad man out of a good man."

Hicks, who lives in Citrus Park, contends there was a mixup in communication and the hearing was to have been rescheduled.

"I searched desperately for the first couple of years," said Hicks, describing how she would "drive by his sister's in the middle of the night" hoping to see Rodriguez's car.

Hicks said the first few years went by in a blur. She remembers scouring Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee, especially campgrounds, for any sign of Rodriguez and her daughter.

"We had gone to Tennessee on vacation, and he loved the mountains," Hicks said. "What better place to hide than in the mountains in a small town?"

The past 13 years have not been uneventful for Hicks. She has remarried and divorced, given birth to two sons, Russell, 12, and Jesse, 5, and conquered a drinking problem.

Through it all she has never stopped searching for "Neacie," who would now be 15.

She did, however, taper off her search after the first few years, reasoning that even if she found her daughter, the child would no longer know her.

The child would have been "ripped apart if I take her away from the only parents she really knows," Hicks said.

Over the years Hicks, 36, has stayed in touch with various FBI agents assigned to the case while also following up on any leads that have come her way, though none has panned out.

"It has been going on a lot longer than we would like," said David Thomas, supervisory special agent in the FBI Tampa office. "It's difficult in a lot of these cases to get information leading to the whereabouts."

Hicks fears time may be running out. She believes if she does not find Jeanice, or at least get a solid lead, while her daughter is still in school, her chances of succeeding will be greatly diminished. She said she wants to find her daughter so they can at least know one another.

But the bitterness continues. After all these years the two families continue to suffer, each hurling bitter accusations against the other.

"She's done so much to this family, you just wouldn't believe," the elder Rodriguez said. "If she wants what's best for the baby, she should leave my son alone."

Hicks asks anyone who might have pictures of Rodriguez between the ages of 13 and 18 to send them to a post office box so she can give them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Officials there say they can do an age progression from the parents' photos that will give them an idea of how Jeanice might look now.

Hicks said the photos can be sent to P.O. Box 574, Odessa FL 33556.