“Every child that comes home gives me hope.”
After being abducted, raped and held captive in a Cleveland house for at least a decade, three young women were finally freed this week.
As they slowly adjust to freedom with their families, their story is encouraging a Tacoma mom who lost her little girl 14 years ago.
December of 1998, a two year old Teekah Lewis smiles for a video camera and laughs with her mom, grandma and sisters in her home the day after Christmas.
One month later, she disappeared.
“We were at the bowling alley. I was there with my family and I went to go bowl. She was there. She was right behind me,” recalls Teekah’s mom, Theresa, who has talked about the night of January 23, 1999 countless times with police, reporters and friends. “I turned and I looked around and she was gone.”
Theresa Lewis says in a matter of seconds someone took Teekah, who was wearing sweat pants and a Tweety Bird t-shirt and carrying a little purse with Starburst candy wrappers and some change inside.
“I still blame myself to this day because I should have never taken her to the bowling alley,” she says. “Why did I do it? Why did I take her there? I would have all six of my daughters if I just didn’t go that night.
Tacoma police investigated the more than 700 tips they received in the weeks and months after the girl’s disappearance. Detectives never found a witness to Teekah’s abduction, so they have no description of a suspect.
There were reports of a dark-colored Pontiac Grand Am speeding from the New Frontier Lanes’ parking lot moments after Teekah vanished. While the case is still open, police don’t know what happened to the toddler.
“I never felt she was gone. Never,” says Lewis.
She is sure Teekah is alive and she believes a family is raising her as their own child.
“I think someone took her that couldn’t have kids,” she says. “It was an opportunity for them to snatch her and now they’re raising her.
Lewis invited me into her home in Tacoma, where one wall is a shrine to her little girl. I paged through a photo album she put together to celebrate her daughter’s Sweet 16th birthday, which would have been last year.
The album shows photos lovingly arranged from “day one and all the way until she was two.”
Wherever Teekah is, her mom hopes she’s looking through a photo album too, wondering why she doesn’t have any baby pictures.
“I hope that one day Teekah will see herself on the news or just Googling ‘missing persons’ and see her two-year-old picture and be asking, ‘where’s my baby pictures?’ And start asking questions to the parents,” she says.
Lewis also wants people to go online and look at an age-progression photo that shows what Teekah might look like today.
“Get to know your neighbors,” she says. “You never know, Teekah still could be in the state of Washington. She could be in that house right next to you. You never know.”
While she continues to wait for her daughter to come home, every day is a challenge for Lewis.
“She had the most amazing teddy bear eyes, and those dimples,” she says with a sigh, looking at a picture of her daughter.
“Teekah was, she was my world. Teekah took my heart. She was my everything.”
She was a momma’s girl too.
“She got everything she wanted,” Lewis says with a slight smile. “When we went to the store, if she wanted Starburst, she got it. She was my world.”
Part of what helps Lewis get through the day is that she’s studying to become a private investigator on missing children cases.
The little girl’s disappearance led to The Teekah Lewis Act in Washington that created a multi-agency task force within the State patrol to assist local agencies in missing and exploited children cases.
Just as Lewis remembers in detail the night Teekah disappeared, she has also practiced what she will do if she sees her again someday.
“I’ll just wrap my arms around her and not let her go again,” she says.
“She’s not going to be the same little girl that she was 14 years ago. She’s going to be a totally different person. She’s almost an adult and I just hope with the pictures we have and with the video tapes we have she’ll,” her voice breaks with a long pause. “She’ll remember.”
By LINDA THOMAS