Updated: January 26, 2014 at 8:36 pm
No one knows how a Colorado Springs woman went missing nearly nine years ago and wound up homeless on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico. Neither police nor her family members know how she survived in the dangerous border city or what she did there for so many years.
What they do know is every detail of how she was rescued and brought back home to the Pikes Peak region. And that in itself is an incredible story.
The search for Sara - not her real name to protect her privacy - and her eventual homecoming in October involved a varied cast: a resolute Colorado Springs police detective just months from retirement, the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, mental health professionals in California and Colorado, and even the office of U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. Although none had met Sara, they came together to bring her home, inspired by her sister's unrelenting dedication.
"She is my sister; I had to find her because I decided that I was her protector," said Celeste Shaw, Sara's older sibling. "No matter how depressing and heartbreaking it was not to know if she was all right or not, I knew that I had to keep searching.
"Being homeless and on the streets of Tijuana for over eight years, she suffered starvation, malnourishment and physical damage from violence," said Shaw, who lives in Colorado Springs. "I know our family has been abundantly blessed and that her return is a gift from God."
Even with Sara's miraculous return, her family's ordeal is far from over.
Sara, 48, is mentally ill - the principal cause for her disappearance - and her condition deteriorated after years of going untreated. Even so, 2014 will be a year of new beginnings for Sara and her family as they try to make up for time lost - and perhaps piece together a bit of the past.
'We've hit rock bottom'
Shaw, 49, recalls her younger sister as a sweet and charismatic girl who was liked by her peers at Woodland Park High School. Sara also was a well-rounded athlete, taking part in volleyball, track, gymnastics and basketball.
After graduating in the mid-1980s, Sara took a year off from school before moving to Grand Junction for college. She stayed only two semesters before coming home when signs of mental illness began emerging.
"She was hearing voices, seeing things, she would beat herself up," Shaw said. "The state hospital diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and I thought, 'Now we have a name for this, we should know what to do. We've hit rock bottom.'?"
Little did they know how far away the bottom really was.
Sara joined the Navy for a short time but was given an early release because of her mental health. She worked odd jobs to make a living, but her condition plagued her.
"She did not want to be mentally ill, she wanted to be normal, but it seemed like the harder she tried, it just got worse for her," Shaw said.
"She kept seeing doctors and getting stabilized, but then she would relapse. It was a constant battle, and she did not like taking her meds."
The medication made it difficult for Sara to hold thoughts and express herself, her sister said. Sara spent the next two decades in and out of mental health facilities. Repeated run-ins with police, homelessness and alcohol and drug addiction added to the list of complications.
Soon, Sara was vanishing for days - and sometimes weeks - at a time.
When she disappeared in March 2005, her family was worried but expected her to return. At the end of April, Sara called her sister asking for money.
"She said she was in Tijuana and she needed us to wire money so she could get back home," Shaw remembered. Communication lines crossed and the money never reached the bank in Tijuana; Sara called repeatedly, asking for funds. In early May, Shaw and their mother told Sara they would check on the wire transfer and asked her to call them back. No call came.
It would be more than eight years before Shaw would again communicate with her sister.
'No manual' on where to start
For the first four years after Sara disappeared, Shaw looked incessantly for her sister. She knew Sara had been in Tijuana, but she didn't know how to find her or the state of her health. With two countries involved, the missing person report she filed with Colorado Springs police in 2005 had limited reach.
"There's no manual on where to begin; you reinvent the wheel," Shaw said.
"So I began wherever I could. I contacted the consulate, started my own search, looking through databases and coroners' websites all along the border, and looked at bodies. Sometimes I would look at 50 unidentified bodies in one sitting, searching for any clues like fractures, tattoos, scars, dental records, piercings - anything that would either match with her or exclude her."
The reality of how many people were unaccounted for took a toll on her emotionally.
"I would think about how I was looking at all these people who were missing, who had families who loved them, and I would wonder if someone was out there, looking at my sister's report," Shaw said. "It was a very lonely feeling."
U.S. Consulate staff made it clear that Shaw should not to go to Mexico to look for her sister, nor should she involve Tijuana authorities or a private investigator there because of rampant corruption and crime.
In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly issued warnings to U.S. citizens to use extreme caution when traveling in Mexico because Americans are routinely targets of scams, assaults and kidnapping for ransom.
Thousands of miles away from her sister and painfully aware of the possible perils in Mexico, Shaw focused even more on her seemingly lone search.
What Shaw did not know, though, was that help was coming her way.
In early 2009, Sara's case came to the attention of detective Ron Lopez, who led the Colorado Springs Police Department's missing persons unit. Lopez had been a champion of using the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUS, a nationwide database that lets law enforcement, medical professionals and coroners share information on missing persons' cases.
"It gives law enforcement resources we don't have. At a local lab, they can't spare the resources they have because they have a bunch of homicides that take priority," Lopez said. "NamUS makes those missing cases a priority. They get sent to labs and matched against other databases, so that you can possibly get a lead or a positive identification."
But even NamUS wasn't producing many results in Lopez's search, especially because Sara had been in Tijuana so long and had not been collecting benefits.
That's when Lopez got in touch with Shaw and enlisted her help.
"Celeste is a very bright woman, and she was completely devoted to finding her sister," Lopez said. "I knew we'd make much more progress working together and sharing all the information we had."
Lopez got in touch with the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and asked them to check out NamUS to look through Sara's case profile.
Unbelievably, four years later, in July, a consulate employee believed he recognized the woman in the profile; she was an American who was in a shelter for mental illness and addiction in one of the poorest areas of the Mexican border city.
"He saw a picture of Sara, and he couldn't believe how much older she looked in person," Lopez said. "When people live on the streets, it's really tough. They age much more and much faster. Those struggles show on their faces."
Shaw was in Grand Lake, celebrating her parents' anniversary, when the call came that her sister had been found. Lopez was the one to give her the news.
"I thought, 'Whatever he says next is going to be life changing.' And when he told me that she was alive and that they found her, I couldn't believe it was even possible."
Many stepped up to help
Without support from the Mexican authorities, few options on the part of the U.S. Consulate and no road map to navigate how to bring back a severely mentally ill American who had no proof of citizenship, Shaw contacted Rep. Lamborn's staff in a desperate attempt to get help.
"Our involvement really consisted of getting all the parties together to pull resources and knowledge, so we could figure out how to bring Sara home, then reinstate her benefits so her medical treatment could be paid for," said Brandon Robinson, who handles immigration cases as part of Lamborn's staff.
Shaw, other family members, Lopez, Lamborn's staff, the U.S. Consulate and representatives from AspenPointe - a Colorado Springs organization that assists people with mental health and addiction issues - spent several hours on a conference call discussing how to get Sara back to the United States and get her the medical attention she so badly needed.
"I would say we had really good people, and I can say for myself and everyone, including Congressman Lamborn, we cared for Celeste and her sister, and we wanted to do a good job," Robinson said.
"Lopez was so driven, because a lot of his cases did not have happy endings, so this was a great outcome. Everyone did everything they could possibly do."
Over the next couple of months, Shaw and all the people she affectionately calls the "rescue team" worked to put a plan in motion that would successfully bring her sister home. Sara, meanwhile, was at the shelter in Tijuana, where she was monitored, got three meals a day and had a bed.
"Being away from Sara was excruciating, but at least we knew that she was in a stable environment," Shaw said. "It just took so long to get all the documentation in order, figure out what role every person would play, how and when it would happen."
On Sept. 24, two doctors with the County of San Diego drove into Tijuana and persuaded Sara to get into an ambulance with them. When they reached the border with San Ysidro, Sara was welcomed back to the United States by Dr. Piedad Garcia, assistant deputy director for Behavioral Health Services for the County of San Diego. Garcia worked with Shaw and the U.S. Consulate to coordinate Sara's return to the United States, which she said was unprecedented and complex but surprisingly went through without a hitch.
"Sara was so quiet when I saw her, she could clearly understand me, and I was amazed by how well she responded to the whole situation," Garcia said. "It was such a moving story, and it was really Celeste's resilience that motivated me, and everyone involved, to work so hard. Celeste was truly the one who brought her back."
'I'm more compassionate'
Once she obtained conservatorship over her sister, Shaw and her mother drove to California and brought Sara back to Colorado Springs. Facing her sister after eight years, she said, was like meeting a stranger she already knew and loved.
"She saw me and she smiled, then she gave me a hug, and she did the same with our mom," Shaw said. "The nurses couldn't believe how immediate her improvement was, feeling safe with family again, knowing someone cared for her."
Sara now lives in an assisted living facility in Colorado Springs, where she's getting the treatment she needs. Shaw has pledged to be her sister's advocate for the rest of their lives.
"She's my sister, I love her, and you seldom get the opportunity to do this twice. So, I'm more compassionate of her, and I don't expect her to change or be different," Shaw said. "I know she needs help, but I have learned to accept her for who she is."
On her best days, Sara can barely comprehend everything that went into bringing her home or how many people worked endless hours to make it possible.
Shaw said she feels enough gratitude for both of them.
"I give her a hug first thing when I visit her and again when I part from her, and I tell her I love her every time, because I don't want her to ever question if we care about her. She is a very valuable member of our family, and I want to do a better job of assuring her of that," Shaw said.
"For the future, we all take it one day at a time, not in a hurry because we want to enjoy every minute of having her back."
SARA'S DISAPPEARANCE, RESCUE
March 2005: Sara disappears from her home in Colorado Springs.
April 2005: Sara calls from Tijuana, Mexico, asking for money.
May 2005: Sara calls family members for the last time.
July 2005: Celeste Shaw files a missing person report with Colorado Springs police for Sara.
Early 2009: Colorado Springs police detective Ron Lopez begins working on Sara's case.
Christmas Eve 2012: Sara is admitted to a shelter/addiction clinic in Tijuana.
July: U.S. Consulate staff confirm there is an American woman held at a shelter in Tijuana and work with Lopez to identify her.
July 15: Shaw is notified Sara is alive.
Aug. 8: Multiway conference call held, rescue plan set in motion.
Sept. 24: San Diego County health care workers bring Sara back to the United States.
Oct. 9: Sara brought back to Colorado Springs by Shaw and their mother.
Sara disappeared from her Colorado Springs home in March 2005. She ended up in Tijuana, Mexico, about 1,200 miles from Colorado Springs. Battling mental health problems, Sara fell out of touch with her family for a time but was reunited with her family in October.