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Girl still haunts St. Petersburg family's dreams one year after vanishing

Leah Martin holds a photograph of her daughter, Morgan Martin, outside their St. Petersburg home. Morgan was 17 and pregnant when she disappeared last summer.
Leah Martin holds a photograph of her daughter, Morgan Martin, outside their St. Petersburg home. Morgan was 17 and pregnant when she disappeared last summer.
Published Jul. 25, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — In the dreams, Morgan Martin is laughing. Or sitting on her twin bed, watching Nickelodeon. Or in the background, far away, walking down a street.

"She's always there, somewhere," said her mother, Leah Martin. "Sometimes, she's eating dinner. Sometimes, she talks to me."

The teenager vanished a year ago today. She was 17, four months pregnant, wearing fuzzy pink slippers, gray pajama pants and a white tank top. She stepped outside the family's home at 2808 17th Ave. S, carrying only a cellphone. She wanted to talk to her baby's father, her mom said, to tell him: "It's a girl!"

But Morgan never came back.

St. Petersburg police believe the outgoing teen likely encountered foul play. Detectives recently reclassified the case from a missing person to a homicide. Police officials would not discuss if they have a suspect.

"We feel we've made progress," spokesman Mike Puetz said. "There are still leads being pursued."

Morgan called her mother daily before she disappeared, worked at Checkers and vetted future babysitters. She Googled "fetus" to visualize how her daughter was growing. She wanted to name her Ja'Leah.

"She was excited to become a mother," Leah Martin said. "She wanted to have someone of her own."

Police have interviewed friends, family and the father of the baby.

Morgan's face and measurements still hang in posters in gas stations and tattoo parlors. She is 5 feet 2, 175 pounds and half Puerto Rican. She has black hair, brown eyes and a scar on her chin and the left side of her lip.

Her 18th birthday passed in December, her due date in January.

Her older sister, 21-year-old Sierra Cahill, inked "Morgan" in cursive across her chest. Her baby photos and school portraits decorate the family's one-story home. Her favorite jackets, the ones she snagged from lost and found boxes, are still in her closet.

Morgan is everywhere, her mom said. And nowhere.

"Her room still smells like her," Leah said. "I hear songs she'd like on the radio all the time. I cried when iCarly came on TV."

In one of her mom's recurring dreams, Morgan casually walks through the door, like any other day after work or school.

In another, Leah tries to take Morgan to a police detective.

"And she says, 'Mom they can't hear me. Just you! Mom you're the only one who can see me — not them!' "

The family has spent at least $100 on psychics. One told them Morgan is on a couch in a basement.

Another said Morgan is alive, underground, confined by four walls.

Leah, like investigators, now believes her daughter is dead. When news broke nationally about the kidnapped women who were kept captive in Cleveland, locked away for a decade by an abusive captor before escaping in May, Leah hoped Morgan did not share the same fate.

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"That would be the worst thing because it wouldn't be Morgan anymore," she said.

To mark the anniversary of her disappearance, Morgan's family and friends plan to post 500 fliers around St. Petersburg today.

They made new shirts with "Team Morgan" printed in bubble letters. They'll swap favorite memories about the teen who made up songs about showering, posed for photos like a Vogue model and emptied her family's ravioli supply during food drives.

"Everyone has a Morgan story," Leah said. "We talk about her every day and dream about her at night."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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