LOMPOC, Calif. - Lompoc's Police Department has just one cold case in its records.That's pretty impressive -- except perhaps to the family and friends of that one particular victim.
This month marks the 13th anniversary of the disappearance of Dana McPeek.
Holding on to hope: That's what kept the McPeek family away from the Lompoc cemetery for more than 10 heart-wrenching years. Ruth Whitaker spent every moment of every waking hour, hoping her daughter Dana was still alive.
But she knew better.
"I always knew Dana was gone," Whitaker said. "She was not the type that would run away."
Dana disappeared in the thick of night: It was May 3, 2001.
The 33-year-old woman spent the evening with a friend at the Chumash Casino, doing a little gambling. The outgoing, street-savvy McPeek won a couple of hundred dollars before the two women headed back to their separate apartments. That was around 11:30 pm.
"Dana said she was going to get a change of clothes for house-sitting," Whitaker said. "She was going to spend the night at her friends. I think that on the way home she stopped for somebody she knew."
We tracked the drive from McPeek's apartment on North Third to that friend's home where she was house-sitting on North X St. The nearly six-mile route took just minutes.
"We've thought, did she stop by a store and meet somebody?" said her sister, Randy McPeek. "What happened to her on the way, across town, where she never showed up?"
But the truck McPeek was driving that night did. It was found early the next morning, in a nearby alley.
"Someone pulled into a parking spot and got out and walked away," said Randy.
The apartment landlord saw the person, from behind. She couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman, but said whoever stepped out of the truck was wearing a T-shirt, rolled at the sleeves with a pack of cigarettes tucked inside.
"I believe that was the person that had something to do with her disappearance," said Randy.
"No signs of a struggle in the pickup?" I asked.
"No," answered the sister.
There was one piece of evidence inside that truck, along with Dana's change of clothing: a partial thumbprint.
"This is just part of it," said Sgt. Chuck Strange, as he slapped the case file down on the counter. The Lompoc police sergeant took us into an office to talk about the McPeek case.
That partial print wasn't enough for a match.
"These are documents and actual police reports compiled by different detectives," Strange said.
He shows us the dental records police used to link another piece of evidence to McPeek. It's a portion of her jawbone that turned up 10 years after her disappearance, roughly six miles up Miguelito Canyon in Lompoc. Detectives say the area was remote but accessible by vehicle.
Strange said the Department of Justice determined the bone had been there a long time, but forensics experts couldn't say exactly how long. Still, the discovery helped stir up the case again. But one thing was certain: Dana wasn't alone.
"Unlikely that she would walk that distance without having been seen by somebody," said Lompoc Police Chief Larry Ralston. "There were some people of interest that we looked at, that we had not looked at originally, but those leads kind of fizzled out."
There's been lots of speculation. Strange says there's no way to know if Dana's death was accidental or if foul play or drug use were involved.
"It's all speculation at this point," said Ralston. "Hope someone will come forward and help us to clear this up."
"I truly believe the day will come when someone will come forward and answer these questions that we have," said Strange.
It took years to chisel away at the family's hope. Now, they cherish her memory with a new marker at the Lompoc cemetery. It reads "Dana the Great."
"We have someplace that we can go," said Randy. "So these things give us peace. I wouldn't say there's closure because I don't think there ever is."