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A MOVIE MADE JUST FOR JENNIFER

On Tampa's 98th Avenue, a family replays the past in hope of resolution.

For 25 years, she has carried a suitcase filled with hope.

Inside the battered, floral-print roller, Kathy Longo tucked away clues to her 7-year-old daughter's disappearance: police reports, newspaper clippings, even trash she snatched from the garbage bins of suspects.

This month, she handed over the precious bag to a young Canadian actor, chosen to play Longo in a family-produced movie about her missing daughter, Jennifer Marteliz.

"It's like I have a puzzle, there's like 1,000 pieces in the puzzle, and I just need help with those last 50," said Longo, 52.

Called She Could Be You, the film is financed by Longo's family, but the ambitions are grand. Like the suitcase, the movie is loaded with the family's heavy hopes. They believe Jennifer, now grown and living under another name, will see the film, recognize herself on screen and call her mom.

Police, too, hope the movie might finally crack this case.

"I would really like to, before I retire, get this one solved," said Tampa police Detective O.P. Parrish, who has worked on the case since his rookie days. "It's one where you don't forget. You know, it's a true whodunnit."

Hours after dark on a recent evening, Tampa's 98th Avenue shone with the alien glow of movie floodlights. The film crew, tool belts loaded with cords, video equipment and measuring tapes, wandered in the yard of the tiny duplex where Jennifer lived next to the railroad tracks.

Security guards kept onlookers at bay while cast in makeup and costume headed into the house for the latest scene. A woman unloaded foil-covered dishes into a large tent for the cast's next meal.

Inside, Jennifer's childhood bedroom was redecorated just as she left it in 1982, right down to the stuffed E.T. doll. Longo's sister, Nancy Tunstall, 51, sat in a black director's chair. Technicians tested lights. Actors took their places. Someone turned off the noisy air conditioner. Everyone sat in silence until Longo's sister yelled, "Action!"

An Orlando actor played Jennifer's father. He nervously answered questions from an actor, who played a detective.

"Cut," yelled Tunstall when the men finished. Her husband, Gordon, a corporate financial consultant, smiled and lovingly patted his wife's head.

"Great job, guys," Tunstall said, looking relieved.

In a rented house across the street, Longo sat on a couch, surrounded by home videos, stage makeup and curling irons. She never goes on the set. It's too painful.

Instead, she chats with cast members, works Sudoku and readies costumes - as many as 70 costumes a day.

With a warm smile and kind eyes, Longo doesn't look haunted. She doesn't visibly show signs of the pain she has lived since Nov. 15, 1982.

Born into an old Tampa family that made its fortune in aluminum, Longo grew up a rebel. She dropped out of Plant High in the ninth grade, got married, gave birth to two girls, Toni Lisa and Jennifer. Longo and her husband divorced. Jennifer was living with her father.

That day, Jennifer walked more than a mile from Shaw Elementary to the duplex she shared with her father, Rolando Billie Marteliz and his then-wife, Sherrie L. Slom Marteliz.

Rolando Marteliz still lives in Tampa, where he runs a home inspection business. He declined to comment for this story.

Jennifer, a spunky girl who loved Strawberry Shortcake and cheerleading, wore an orange print dress with yellow flowers, ballet flats. A classmate joined her, but the two split near the duplex. Before they parted, Jennifer asked her friend to watch her walk to the duplex.

That's the last anyone saw of Jennifer.

Investigators quickly brought tracking dogs, helicopters and volunteers to search. Jennifer's picture went up on billboards, fliers and grocery bags. She was among the first missing kids to peer out from school milk cartons in the days before 24-hour cable news coverage, before lost children like Elizabeth Smart became household names.

Looking back, Parrish wishes he had today's tools. Now, there are national sex offender databases, DNA and Amber Alerts.

"If we would have had the technology available today ..." his voice trailed off. "We were still on typewriters. Back then, we didn't have the term sexual predator."

Longo's family believed they would soon get answers. They bought Christmas presents for Jennifer. When the holiday came, Longo sat alone with a pile of unopened gifts. In April, she made an Easter basket. She finally threw it out when the uneaten candy drew bugs.

When her daughter's disappearance remained a mystery, Longo decided to solve the case herself. The milk carton campaign led to calls of Jennifer sightings across the country. She flew to Arizona, Georgia, 13 states in all. No luck.

She had her own suspicions. She befriended a cab driver, who helped her track suspects to bars and homes, where she rummaged through their trash. She sifted through in hopes of any trace of Jennifer's whereabouts. She even tried psychics in hopes of a cosmic clue.

Police continued to interview suspects. One man, a former neighbor of Marteliz and a felon, raised red flags when he flunked a polygraph. Prosecutors reviewed the case. In the end, nothing led to an answer.

As the years passed, Longo's life changed. She remarried, took a job at a Mail Boxes Etc. and moved to Pasco County.

Longo never stopped her search. She can't talk about Jennifer without her dark eyes getting teary from the open wound.

Last fall, Longo's sister told her she wanted to write a movie script about the case for the 25th anniversary of the disappearance, November 2007.

That meant Tunstall had less than a year to write the script, cast actors, shoot and edit the film, find a distributor and get it into theaters. Tunstall had no experience. She calls herself a numbers person, not a writer.

Tunstall tried to present all sides: the attorneys', the cops' and her sister's. She used police reports and hired someone to review the 160-scene script.

She and her husband created a production company, Diamond Lion Productions. They set up a casting call and plucked 92 people from 400 hopefuls.

At first, the family couldn't find anyone to play Longo. They needed a young woman who fit the family's Italian-Lebanese ancestry. They found a match in Anna Primiani, 27, an actor from Alberta, Canada, who found the tryout information online and sent in a tape.

Longo immediately felt a connection with Primiani, a slim woman with an intense gaze. Primiani followed Longo around, trying to understand.

"You want to be really true to the character," Primiani said. "This is a true story. This is coming from the heart of the family."

Before Primiani goes to the set, Longo checks her hair and clothing to make sure the actor looks just like Longo's younger self.

That's because Longo believes her daughter might see the movie and recognize her mother. Primiani takes her role seriously, and builds herself up emotionally for the scenes to show Longo's pain.

Like any mystery, no one knows the next plot twist. The movie shoot won't end for more than a week. After the film is finished, the family may show it at independent film festivals. One plan is to rent out a Hollywood theater and invite film distribution representatives to see it. The family dreams of seeing it in theaters everywhere.

The family won't say how much it's costing, only that it's worth all that time and money if the movie can deliver Jennifer.

"I know she's grown up and aged," Longo said. "I hope she sees it, that she sees it and calls me. I think about that all the time."

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

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