TAMPA — Linda Hershberger drives by the parking lot almost every day and wonders about her daughter and first grandson.
On a spring night in 1993, 18-year-old Bonnie Lee Dages left her home with her infant son Jeremy to meet a boyfriend at what was then a Kash n’ Karry grocery store in Brandon. Two days later, sheriff’s deputies found Dages’ silver Dodge Caravan in the parking lot of the store at the corner of Lumsden and Lithia Pinecrest roads in Brandon.
It was locked, with Bonnie’s purse and Jeremy’s diaper bag inside. But mother and son were gone.
They’re still missing, with no reported sightings in 26 years.
On Tuesday, Hershberger and other family members stood in front of a row of news cameras and pleaded for help from the public to help solve the mystery.
“Any piece of information, no matter how small or unimportant it seems, might make a difference,” Hershberger said at a news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Ybor City. “Each new piece of information leads to knowledge, and knowledge will lead us to answers.”
Detectives have always considered the missing persons case to be suspicious even though there’s no concrete evidence of foul play, said sheriff’s Corporal Greg Thomas. There have been people of interest over the years but currently no suspects.
Dages’ family remember her as a happy young woman who was quick to laugh and loved riding horses. Jeremy was born in December 1992, and Dages was a loving single mother. Fresh out of high school, she was living with a family she was nannying for but talked about using a small sum of money she’d inherited to move with her son to Missouri.
On April 28, 1993, Dages was last seen leaving her home with Jeremy about 9 p.m. for the Kash n’ Karry, which is now a Walmart Neighborhood Market. She was supposed to meet a man she was seeing at the time, according to her family.
But after her disappearance, the family learned more details about her life that raised concerns and suspicions.
The man she had been seeing was a family friend, 20 years her senior, her family said.
“She thought she was in love, and that he loved her, but he told her their relationship had to be kept a secret,” Hershberger said. “The reality was, he was using her as he had used other women. ”
The day she disappeared, Dages withdrew money from her inheritance and took it to the man, Hershberger said. Dages told her friends she was investing in a business with him.
“She said her life was about to change, he was going to marry her soon and she would have a new, happy life, but she had to keep it a secret,” Hershberger said. “Then Bonnie and Jeremy were gone. Vanished.”
When questioned by investigators, the man she’d gone to meet said he barely knew Dages, denied there were plans for marriage or a joint business, Hershberger said. He said he had no plans to meet her at the store that night.
Thomas, the sheriff’s corporal, said the family friend was one of several people associated with Dages who were thoroughly questioned as people of interest in the case.
“Until further leads come about, we really have no other information to cover with him at this time,” Thomas said.
Detectives have been stymied by a lack of the type of technological evidence that likely would be available today, such as cell phone data and surveillance camera footage, Thomas said.
One man came forward and claimed to be Jeremy, but DNA testing proved otherwise.
The family believes Dages was murdered. Maybe Jeremy, too.
“We envision every possible scenario constantly,” Hershberger said. “You can’t drive down the road and see a piece of woods that you don’t wonder if their bodies could be there.”
If the worst case is true, the family wants to know and lay their remains to rest. Still, as Bonnie and Jeremy’s birthdays and the anniversary of their disappearance have ticked by, loved ones have held onto a sliver of hope.
“We’ve accepted a long time that something really bad probably happened to her, but we still don’t know," said Dages’ sister, Nancy Richardson, her voice breaking. "She might still be out there, and how do you quit until you know?”
On Friday, Hershberger and other family members will travel to Tallahassee for the annual Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony. Hershberger has attended once before. She said it helps to be around people who know what her family has endured, but there is also a collective ache.
“There are so many children that are missing,” Hershberger said. "Just like Bonnie, they’re there one day and they’re just gone. It just breaks your heart knowing how much heartbreak there is out there.”
Investigators asked anyone with information on the case to call the Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-8200 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-8477.