Drew Kesse is preparing for yet another ground search before the end of this year for his daughter, Jennifer, who vanished nearly seven years ago.
It will be the umpteenth time that Central Florida's forests and swamps are combed for clues about Jennifer, who left her Orlando condo on a Tuesday morning in January of 2006 and hasn't been seen since.
Lots of people might wonder about the point of searching after so much time. Doesn't her family know that, nearly a decade later, the chances of finding Jennifer are about as likely as recovering a penny dropped over the side of a cruise ship?
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But those people can't understand the persistence known only to families who are trapped in that agonizing limbo, the one between hope and grief. A place where families of missing persons are stuck without the finality of a funeral or enough optimism to expect a reunion.
The story of Leigh Abel makes the odds of finding what those families are looking for seem not so impossible. Whether by chance or organized search, some families do find relief — even after a decade.
"It's like an emery board that just keeps going back and forth until you feel kind of small and really helpless," said Linda Balch, Abel's daughter, of the limbo she lived in for 11 years. "Pieces just kind of drop off until you feel so helpless that there's nothing you can do."
Abel disappeared on Dec. 20, 2001, his 78th birthday.
He left his home in Orange City for an early morning fishing trip to Canaveral National Seashore, his third trip that week. Before he left, he looked in on his wife of 56 years and told her he'd be at "4," the number of the parking lot for his favorite surf-casting spot.
He never came home.
The Coast Guard searched the ocean. Police searched by helicopter, on horseback and with dogs.
Abel's wife, Margaret, and his daughters, Diane and Linda, plastered the area with his photo. They conducted their own searches, retracing the drive from his home to Canaveral.
Back then I was a reporter in the Sentinel's Volusia bureau and wrote a story about Abel just days after he disappeared.
I'll never forget the devastation on Margaret's face. How she told me that she rarely left the house, and showered with the phone on the bathroom floor in case he called.
All the while her husband's birthday and Christmas presents waited under the tree.
Eventually her daughter convinced her to move back to Michigan, where the family is from, so she wouldn't be alone in Florida.
"She was afraid daddy would come home and she wouldn't be there," said Balch, who lives in Michigan.
About a year after his disappearance, Abel's white Suburban SUV was found in Boca Raton. But it didn't reveal any answers about what happened to him.
Margaret died last year. So did Balch's sister, Diane.
Then in February, five months after Margaret's death, there finally was a break in the case.
Two men were checking out a piece of property for sale in rural St. Johns County, about 15 miles outside of St. Augustine and happened upon a skeleton.
Along with the bones were shoes, a shirt, a wedding band and dentures that matched the description of what Abel had when he went missing. Investigators also found a car key near the skeleton — Abel kept a spare with him while he fished.
They tracked down the Suburban in Miami and the key that had been in the woods for more than a decade fired up the engine.
Last week investigators announced that DNA from the skeleton matched a sample from Linda Balch, confirming the remains belonged to her father. Detectives say his death is a homicide and are searching for leads.
"I feel like my dad is safe now," she said. "We believe in heaven, but when you don't know where his final resting place was, it's very uncomfortable."
Eleven years after he disappeared, Balch was able to lay her father to rest next to her mother and sister.
It's the kind of closure that Kesse and, no doubt, the families of other missing people are searching for every time they scour the next piece of acreage.
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