The search team huddled around the photograph of the homeless woman panhandling at Tropicana Avenue and Jones Boulevard.
The picture gave them hope.
They studied the woman’s leathery skin and straight blond hair. Her narrow-set eyes hugged the bridge of a small, sloping nose hung above a pair of thin lips.
They glanced back at the pictures of a grinning 21-year-old Jessie Foster just before she went missing eight years ago in Las Vegas, then gasped. A lot can change in that time, but those lips, that nose — could it really be her?
“Oh, my lord,” Mary Borchers said.
“Yeah, we got to go down there,” Shannon Forsythe said.
Borchers is an advocate for sex-trafficking victims and a friend of Jessie’s mother, Glendene Grant.
Foster’s story in the documentary “Trafficked No More,” which was broadcast last month on several Las Vegas television stations, had brought in new tips about Foster’s possible whereabouts. But Grant, who lives in Kamloops, British Columbia, couldn’t follow up on all of the tips.
So on Sunday, Borchers traveled to Las Vegas from Los Angeles with Forsythe and members of her sex-trafficking victims’ assistance nonprofit group, Run 2 Rescue, to resume the search into a question no one has been able to answer since 2006: What happened to Jessie?
They dispatched 15 volunteers to pass out fliers Monday morning. It was then — when two volunteers had handed a flier to the homeless woman — that the photo had been taken. The woman didn’t say she was Jessie, but she said the missing person on the flier looked familiar.
That didn’t matter to Forsythe, founder of Run 2 Rescue. If Foster is in fact a sex-trafficking victim, she could have been afraid to admit her identity.
“We need to cut the meeting short,” Forsythe said to the waiting volunteers at East Vegas Christian Center.
The homeless woman could still be near Tropicana and Jones, but Borchers and Forsythe knew their window was closing. It was almost 5 p.m. and getting dark.
They piled into a Ford Explorer with another woman from Run 2 Rescue and two men for protection, and sped toward Tropicana and Jones.
• • •
Jessie vanished in 2006 from North Las Vegas, like a drop of rain on the desert floor.
In May 2005, she had come from Kamloops to the Las Vegas Valley. A month later, Jessie moved in with her boyfriend, Peter Todd — a man Jessie’s parents, Dwight Foster and Grant, barely knew.
When Jessie went missing — she last spoke by phone with her mother on March 24, 2006, and was last seen by Todd on April 3, 2006 — Grant filed a report with North Las Vegas Police. After learning Jessie had been arrested in June 2005 and had an outstanding warrant for prostitution, Grant was certain their second-oldest daughter — a former honor roll student — was a victim of sex trafficking.
Police searched Todd’s home. They interviewed him twice. He said Jessie took her belongings and drove off. Authorities didn’t find anything suspicious, North Las Vegas Police Lt. Tim Bedwell said.
They tracked every lead they could, even tips from psychics, but all police ever found were animal bones in the desert. They even got two retired officers to search every recent missing-persons case for a link. They found nothing.
Grant and Foster insisted Todd was a pimp and blamed him for Jessie’s disappearance. With no evidence to indicate otherwise, police cleared Todd of wrongdoing.
Jessie’s case grew cold.
Nearly eight years later, Jessie’s case still haunts the department. Bedwell can still picture Jessie grinning without a care in the passenger seat of a car.
“We’ve conceded for a very long time that even though this is a missing-persons case, common sense says there’s been a crime committed and she’s a victim,” Bedwell said. “We just don’t know what, and we can’t find evidence.”
Jessie’s disappearance changed the course of Grant’s and Dwight Foster’s lives.
They entered a world of what-ifs and body watches, holding their breath every time human remains were found in Las Vegas.
Early on, the mystery festered like an open wound. What if Jessie is alive and being tortured? What if she died alone in the desert?
The macabre thoughts went on and on for the parents.
That first year, Grant refused to leave home and let her cupboards go empty. She struggled to take care of her two other daughters and grieved constantly. She quit her job and focused her efforts on trying to find Jessie.
Grant and Dwight Foster hired a private investigator and made several trips to the valley to comb the city for their daughter. Still, no luck.
Then, near the end of the first year, Grant said she received a sign that helped her move forward. While on a flight to Las Vegas, she had learned police had found Shawn Hornsbeck, a child who had been kidnapped in Missouri and had been missing for four years.
Grant knew then Jessie might not come home any time soon. Grant would be in it for the long haul.
“Once I knew, it was easier to wait for the next few years to go by,” Grant said. “I don’t know how to explain that, but I just knew.”
• • •
Doris weaved the Ford Explorer through the rush-hour traffic on Interstate 15, toward Tropicana Avenue.
“If she says, ‘yes,’ we take her right there,” said Doris, Run 2 Rescue’s outreach coordinator, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her identity.
“We need to get her in the car and out of town to make sure no one follows us,” Forsythe said. “Then out of the state tonight.”
“We also need to consider law enforcement,” Borchers said.
Borchers thumbed through photos of Jessie as she listened. The similarities between Jessie and the homeless woman were unbelievable.
Still, the searchers reminded themselves the woman might not be Jessie. There are nearly 2 million people in Clark County. The odds of finding Jessie on the streets were slim.
Regardless, they would help the woman if she needed it.
About 10 minutes later, Doris exited onto Tropicana and sped past an adult video emporium and the Orleans. They notified a safe house at an undisclosed location to prepare for Foster. A plan was formulated.
“Let it be Jessie,” Forsythe said. “Let it be Jessie.”
• • •
Grant learned long ago to give up any expectations when people searched for her daughter.
She knows getting worked up will only make her crazy. Instead, Grant focuses on what she can control — her advocacy work.
After a detective told her no one would be interested in Jessie’s story, Grant’s mission became to prove the detective wrong.
Jessie’s story has appeared in documentaries, books and enough newspapers to fill three scrapbooks. Grant has traveled to high schools and universities across Canada, sharing her daughter’s story. She started Mothers Against Trafficking Humans in Jessie’s name.
Each time Grant helps another parent deal with losing a loved one to human trafficking, or helps someone by sharing her own story, she’s keeping Jessie alive.
Grant also prays … a lot.
“I don’t lose hope, but I don’t daydream about the what-ifs,” Grant said. “Those are the ones that will put you in the psych ward.”
Her ex-husband, Dwight Foster, from whom Grant has been separated since the late 1980s, has struggled to move forward. Grant said Dwight Foster was consumed with Jessie’s disappearance.
Dwight Foster stays up all night and sleeps all day. He is no longer the happy-go-lucky guitar player he once was. He even quit his job.
“Somewhere in his dad mind, he probably felt that he didn’t protect her,” Grant said.
Grant has chosen not to live in the past. She recently moved out of the home in which Jessie grew up. Grant has moved into a new home with new furniture.
Grant knows she can never go back to the life where Jessie brought friends over to bounce on the trampoline and pick grapes off vines. In those days, Grant always thought Jessie would grow up and do hair and makeup for movie stars.
Those are just memories now. Grant knows she can’t go back to that life, even if Jessie is still alive.
Still it isn’t easy to move forward. Grant cries once a day for Jessie and posts often on Facebook, promising to bring her home no matter what. Even if Grant doesn’t expect answers, she needs one.
“It means I don’t have to think Jessie’s being raped,” Grant said. “I don’t have to think that the crows picked her bones clean.”
• • •
Grant’s mind raced; she couldn’t sleep.
It was close to midnight, and Metro Police hadn’t finished scanning the woman’s fingerprints. Grant remained glued to her phone, struggling to remind herself not to expect anything.
Earlier that night Borchers, Forsythe and Doris had found the homeless woman. She appeared intoxicated and wouldn’t comment on whether she was Jessie. Borchers snapped three photos and sent them to Grant.
The first two pictures didn’t look like Jessie at all, but the third picture — could it be? Grant couldn’t say for certain. The search team needed to find out more. Borchers called Grant and gave the phone to the woman.
They wanted to see her react to Grant’s voice.
“Please,” Grant said into the phone. “I just need to hear you speak so I can tell.”
No response. The woman grew angrier. That’s when the search team decided to call Metro so they could determine the woman’s identity for certain.
“There were at least a dozen people stating that it was her, including our own team,” Borchers said. “Even law enforcement said the same thing: that it was her.”
After midnight, the fingerprint results came in. It wasn’t Jessie.
“I wanted it to be her,” Grant said.
The next day, the search resumed.