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Keep up search, mother pleads

In her first statement, a missing boy's mother thanks those who have searched for three days and says not to give up.

Reading from handwritten notes, Leah Hackett pleaded Wednesday for searchers to find her missing 8-year-old son, Zachary Bernhardt.

It was the first public comment by the 29-year-old woman, who has remained in seclusion with her mother and sisters in the Clearwater apartment where she last saw Zachary on Monday morning.

Blonde and slender, Hackett stepped up to microphones and spoke emphatically for about one minute. She thanked people for searching and praying for her son.

"He is a beautiful boy, inside as well as out," she said. "Anyone who ever met Zach has loved Zach."

It was the third day of an extensive search for the boy, who was wearing a T-shirt and shorts when he disappeared before dawn Monday. None of his clothing was missing from the apartment, police said, and no evidence of a crime has been found.

"We miss him. We love him very much. And we want him to come home," Hackett said.

She turned away in tears and, flanked by sobbing family members, climbed the stairs and returned to her apartment at Savannah Trace without answering questions.

Pinellas County sheriff's deputies with dogs trained to find cadavers searched woods between the apartment complex at 2690 Drew St. and Eisenhower Elementary School, where Zachary is in the third grade.

A Tampa police helicopter and Clearwater police searched mangroves and brush along the west end of Courtney Campbell Causeway. The FBI has offered technical assistance, such as behavioral science and profile studies, to Clearwater police.

Police took fingerprints from inside the apartment and around the door. Detectives were interviewing former roommates, babysitters and other people who know Hackett and Zachary or have had contact with them.

Detectives also were talking again to some residents at the apartment complex, but the ground search in the area was suspended Wednesday afternoon. Other areas may be searched today.

"Nothing has panned out," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "What has mystified us is that there is no evidence of anything. No evidence of a crime, a runaway, nothing. We don't know why he is gone."

While contending there is no evidence of a crime, Shelor refused to release a tape of the 911 call Hackett made to report her son missing because it is part of "an active investigation."

Earlier Wednesday, Hackett's mother and sisters sat on the curb outside the apartment for hours and showed reporters photographs of Zachary and Hackett, but declined to talk about his disappearance.

They taped fliers with Zachary's photograph to the windows of their vans in the parking lot. They showed reporters notes of encouragement written to Hackett by Zachary's cousins and other relatives.

"Everybody: Zach was always good at hide and seek! Never stop hope! All prayers with you! As Zach always says, "Don't worry, be happy,' " one note said.

Hackett, a telemarketer, told police she went for a walk around the complex Monday at 4 a.m., leaving the door unlocked and her son asleep. When she returned 15 minutes later, Zachary was gone, she said.

Based on information from family and friends, Zachary was not the type of child to run away, Shelor said.

Gloria Zimmerer, assistant director at the Missing Children Help Center in Tampa, talked to Zachary's family and detectives before putting his photograph on the center's Web site and printing fliers for nationwide distribution.

Zimmerer said she doubts the boy was forced to leave by a stranger, noting that there was no sign of a struggle at the apartment. She also thinks the chances that Zachary ran away are slim because the bond between the boy and his mother is strong, and because no clothing is missing.

She questioned whether an 8-year-old who had never run away before would plan a getaway in pre-dawn darkness.

"At 8 years old, you get kind of scared," said Zimmerer, who has studied missing children issues for 17 years.

But as time ticks away, so too does optimism.

"We have a lot of cases where children have been gone for a week or so and have been located," Zimmerer said. But "if they're gone for 36 hours, we get a little concerned."

_ Times staff writer Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report.

Mother's statement

A statement read Wednesday by Leah Hackett, mother of missing 8-year-old Zachary Bernhardt:

First thing is, my family and I would like to thank everyone who has searched, helped, passed out fliers, prayed or thought about Zach since he disappeared Monday.

The media has been very helpful and respectful through this whole ordeal.

He is a beautiful boy inside as well as out. He himself would be the first one out searching if he could. Any time Zach heard about anyone in trouble or needing help he asked how he could help. Anyone who ever met Zach has loved Zach.

The support of the community has shown us how much Zach is loved. We miss him. We love him very much. And we want him to come home.

We're all here waiting, so please don't stop looking for Zach and help bring Zach home.

Thank you very much.

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