Volunteers organized by search-and-rescue nonprofit Texas EquuSearch tromped through a wooded area in the eastern Hillsborough County community known as Keysville last Saturday. They were seeking 21-year-old Kelly Vazquez, whose family has not seen her since May 23.
Vazquez returned home to her grandmother’s house in Valrico that morning around 9 a.m., saying she’d gone to the Seminole Hard Rock casino in Tampa the night before. She picked up some clothes, said she’d be back in a few hours, and left again with a man she was dating, her grandmother Maria Vazquez said.
An out-of-state friend video messaged with Kelly Vazquez later that afternoon as she shopped at Walmart with two men. That friend, Madison Repsher, says Vazquez mentioned she might go to the casino again before the call cut off. Vazquez later texted that her service was bad because she was in “the middle of nowhere.”
A day later, Maria Vazquez received a text from her granddaughter’s phone saying she was headed home. But it never happened.
“After that, her phone went dead,” Maria Vazquez said.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation on May 29, but a sheriff’s office spokesperson said they could not share many details, “as this is still a very active case.”
That agency did confirm the investigation has led detectives to Keysville, an unincorporated area near Lithia. Spokesperson Amanda Granit said both the sheriff’s office and private search parties have been involved in the effort to find Vazquez.
Kelly Vazquez’s mother, Debbie Courville, and several of Kelly Vazquez’s friends have utilized social media to seek information and publicize her case, and said they’ve passed along several leads to sheriff’s investigators.
Courville, who lives in Oregon, said she has been doing anything she can to keep people aware of her daughter, including posting comments on stories about Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who captured national headlines after disappearing during a van trip across the U.S. She knows that the story of Petito, whose remains were later found in Wyoming, has brought attention to missing persons cases in general.
“I just don’t understand why some cases get that kind of attention and others don’t,” Courville told the Tampa Bay Times.
Kelly Vazquez’s loved ones have also used social media to publicize the cases of two other young women missing from eastern Hillsborough County: Veronica Reyes-Diaz, 23, who disappeared from Dover on Jan. 17, 2020, and Cieha Taylor, 28, who disappeared from Plant City on Feb. 6, 2020. Both of those women have been featured on the Hillsborough sheriff’s cold case podcast, Unfinished Business.
Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies receive thousands of reports of missing persons each year. The vast majority are resolved with the person being found within days.
Many missing person cases involve adults who leave home and are not classified as “endangered” or having “unusual circumstances,” but state law requires they all be “investigated promptly using appropriate resources.”
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Which cases law enforcement alerts the media about or publicizes on social media is up to the agency’s discretion, and depends on the circumstances and the investigation.
Courville said she spoke to her daughter nearly every day before her disappearance, and that they had discussed plans for her to get a new start in life by moving to Oregon, where Courville lives on a farm. Other family members said Vazquez had dreams of working in the medical field and was taking steps to make it a reality.
Maria Vazquez said her granddaughter has struggled with drugs. She said she’d gotten clean about a month before her disappearance and worked a job as a restaurant server, until she hurt her knee, lost the job, “and kind of relapsed.”
Kelly Vazquez had lived with her grandmother off and on for most of her life. They went everywhere together, friends said, from the nail salon to the gas station.
Maria Vazquez took things into her own hands in the days after her granddaughter first disappeared, contacting a man she described as a known drug dealer and driving 15 miles with him to Keysville, where he took her around to different trailer homes where he said she might be, searching and talking to people.
“I had this stranger in my car,” Maria Vazquez said. “People said I was out of my mind, and the detective scolded me later, but I did it for my granddaughter. She’s such an important person to me. I’m a 68-year-old woman, and I’ve been out there on foot some days searching for five hours.”
Maria Vazquez said she contacted the man her granddaughter left her house with on May 23. She said he told her he last saw Kelly Vazquez walking barefoot in Keysville on the afternoon of May 24, picked her up, and dropped her off at a friend’s house. She’s tried to get answers from that friend, but said they’re not talking.
In June, a person came forward in possession of Kelly Vazquez’s two iPhones, an older one with no service, and the one she had been using when she disappeared, Maria Vazquez said. The person who had them said someone had tried to sell them to their daughter. The phones had been reset and wiped of information, and the SIM card was missing from one of them. They couldn’t be activated, because Maria Vazquez had previously reported them to the phone company as stolen.
“We’ve heard all kinds of stories — overdose, trafficking — but it’s all hearsay, the detectives say,” Maria Vazquez said of her granddaughter’s disappearance. “We really don’t know what’s going on.”
More recently, Maria Vazquez said detectives showed her a pair of shoes that were recovered by volunteers during a search in Keysville, though she’s unsure where exactly. Searches have taken place near a bridge on Nichols Road near the Polk County line, Courville said, and around Keysville Park.
“I’m 100 percent sure,” Maria Vazquez said. “Those are her shoes.”
Courville said her daughter had started hanging around a new crowd before she disappeared.
“Kelly is so funny, smart and really would do anything for anyone,” Courville said. “She just wanted to be accepted, and I think a group of parasites took advantage of her. I understand people are scared to come forward, but anyone that has any info, you can do it anonymously, please just give us a lead.”
Anyone with information about Kelly Vazquez should call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at 813-247-8000.
Tips can also be submitted anonymously online, by texting the keyword CTYTIP and your tip to 847411, or by downloading the HCSO Tip app for phones.