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Year Later, Girl's Still Missing And School Faces A Lawsuit

November 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The fliers with her photograph are faded, and the yellow ribbons flanking the entrance to Elias Howe Elementary School are weather-beaten. But a year after 10-year-old Bianca LeBron left the school with a man, the questions about her disappearance are still fresh, and multiplying.

On Nov. 7, 2001, as her classmates lined up to enter school, Bianca told her fifth-grade teacher that she had to speak with her uncle, then climbed into a van whose driver made no effort to conceal his face. She was comfortable enough with the man, it seems, to skip school, even though she was a conscientious student, a child who routinely did her homework before going out to play.

No one called the police to report her missing until around 10 that evening when her family, who said they assumed that she was at one relative's house or another, learned from Bianca's sister that she had not attended classes.

Her mother, Carmelita Torres, said she believes that Bianca is alive. Yet she persuaded a Probate Court judge last April to declare Bianca legally dead, to support the wrongful-death suit she has filed against school officials because they failed to report the girl's absence.

A year after the disappearance, the Bridgeport police said they had no suspect and no promising leads, but continue to chase down the smallest tip. The city also continues to offer a $62,000 reward for Bianca's return. And her neighbors describe her as vividly as if she disappeared yesterday: a chubby girl with long brown hair and almond eyes. "She was a very beautiful little girl," her 29-year-old neighbor, Amy Colon, said. "And always happy, riding her bike or playing tag."

On that morning last November, when Bianca told her teacher that she needed to talk to an uncle, she also asked her girlfriends if they wanted to join her on a trip to the mall with the driver. Then she walked across the playground to the front of the school and was seen getting into a brown van. The girls later described the driver as a tall Hispanic man in his 20's with short curly hair and long sideburns or a beard.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Sgt. Jesus Ortiz Jr. of the Bridgeport Police Department, a burly father of four who choked up as he discussed the case. "But what keeps me optimistic is she knew who she went with. She didn't go kicking and screaming."

He said that Bianca's uncles had been ruled out as suspects and that the word "uncle" can also refer to a close friend of the family. But he said the man could also be known only to her: "someone who won her confidence."

It has been rumored that Bianca had a romantic involvement with the man, but the sergeant said the police could not verify that. "It could be a true abduction, or the boyfriend theory is possible, although we haven't been able to substantiate it," he said. "Finally, it could be that some family members were involved."

Sergeant Ortiz has folders full of tips and reported sightings of Bianca. He has worked with local and federal investigators here and in Puerto Rico, and sought help from a psychic. Her missing poster dominates his windowless office. "I'm haunted by it," he said. He also said that he would hold a news conference sometime next week, to appeal for the public's help. "We think the info is out there," he said.

The lawyer for Bianca's mother, Angelo Maragos, said the case was not getting enough attention from the news media. If Bianca "weren't from Bridgeport and was some blond, blue-eyed girl, the media would be all over this," he said.

Still, in this poor section of one of Connecticut's poorest cities, Bianca's disappearance has been noted. An extra camera was installed in back of the school. A police officer patrols outside in the morning and at dismissal, and the policy that requires parents or baby sitters to check in with school staff before a child leaves school grounds is more strictly enforced, officials said.

School officials said they could not discuss the case since it is in litigation, but a poster of Bianca hangs behind the desk of the principal, Lourdes L. Delgado. "No one has forgotten her or what's happened," she said.

Bianca's teacher, Robert Memoli, marked her absent on Nov. 7, 2001, but the school did not follow its own policy of notifying a parent when another adult tries to remove the child from school, said the city school superintendent, Dr. Sonia Diaz Salcedo. "We have to be more detailed and thorough about the way we note absences and attendance," she said in an interview. She also said that schools in urban communities need "to envelop all facets of a child's life."

Bianca's parents, Ms. Torres and Wilroberto LeBron, do not live together but have an amicable relationship, Sergeant Ortiz said. In an interview, Ms. Torres, 28, who works in sales for a beauty supply company, spoke of the prayers she says at St. Augustine Cathedral here for Bianca's safe return.

"I think she's alive out there," she said over the phone from the house on Clinton Avenue, just down the street from Bianca's school, that she shares with her mother and her three other children. A memorial to the girl sits in the narrow hall just beyond the front door, with a flier bearing her photo and prayer cards bearing the likeness of St. Theresa, the patron saint of children.

Ms. Torres filed the lawsuit for her daughter and "for other kids out there," she said. "I really blame the teacher for everything. He was responsible for her, and he never notified me."

Contacted by phone, the teacher, Mr. Memoli, said only, "Please, I can't talk about this."

The police have said the lack of communication was aggravated by the variability of Bianca's daily life. They said that after school each day, she went to the homes of various relatives, and that she had disappeared overnight last January, only to turn up the next morning at a friend's house.

Sergeant Ortiz said it was rare for parents of abducted children to take legal action before their child is returned dead or alive. He described Ms. Torres's decision to do so as "strange, but not suspicious," but he would not elaborate.

Last week, a cluster of boys playing outside the school said that ever since the disappearance, their mothers had fretted over their safety. Bianca was outgoing and always smiling, Daquan Crawford, 11, said.

"She knew everybody," he said, "that's for sure."

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