http://www.pal-item.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060723/NEWS01/607230305/10085 years later: Still hoping, praying Daughter of Niqui finds joy in celebration
Family, friends of missing woman gather, celebrate
BY RACHEL E. SHEELEY
Five years ago, Marilyn Renee "Niqui" McCown disappeared after being last seen at a coin-operated laundry in the 1000 block of South E Street.
She remains missing.
In the past five years, much has changed for her daughter and her family.
Her little girl, Payton Johnston, was just 9 when she last saw her mother. Just a week ago, she celebrated her 14th birthday.
McCown's nine siblings and stepsiblings didn't always see eye-to-eye back then.
"We have gotten closer because we have the same focus. We want the same thing," said McCown's sister, Terrilyn Jett.
They want to know what happened to McCown.
On past anniversaries of McCown's disappearance, the family has had candlelight vigils. This year, they organized a celebration of McCown's life and brought together, with the help of the Midwest Coalition for the Missing, several families and law enforcement members who are seeking lost loved ones or the criminals who are to blame. About 100 people gathered Saturday at the Richard Jeffers Boys & Girls Club for the discussion, food, fellowship, and entertainment for children.
"We just decided to celebrate the memory of her -- not to say that she's not coming back," said McCown's sister, Michelle McCown-Luster.
"I feel so good," McCown-Luster said. "It's overwhelming to see all these people from out of town coming out."
"The community just seems to be there for us," Jett said, noting that there are three donated billboards around Richmond reminding people that information is still sought in McCown's disappearance.
When her sister first disappeared, Jett said she was terribly angry. It took a long time, she said, but she was finally able to let go of that anger through faith.
"We live by faith, not by sight," Jett said.
One day, she hopes that their prayers and questions will be answered.
"Niqui lives daily in my heart," McCown's mother, Barbara McCown told those gathered. "I talk to her and I sing to her and I pray with her.
"For you who loved Niqui and held her close, she is not gone. Look around ... Share this with everyone and let them know the power of love," Barbara McCown said.
Many tears were shed during the evening as Barbara McCown and others recalled McCown. However, none were so touching as those shed by Payton when she tried to thank her family members and friends for their support during the past five years. She broke off, in tears, and turned sobbing into her father's arms.
"This is why we're here," said Patti Bishop, co-founder of the Midwest Coalition for the Missing. "The pain of the child whose mother was snatched away without that final moment."
Bishop's stepdaughter, Karen Jo Smith, was last seen in 2000 in Indianapolis and remains missing. However, Smith's ex-husband was convicted of her murder in 2004.
"We feel we all understand each other's pain," said Karren Kraemer, co founder of the coalition, whose daughter is missing from Milwaukee, Wis.
The McCowns and other families with missing members were able to gain inspiration Friday night by hearing the stories of prosecutor Ellen Corcella, whose work led to the conviction of Smith's ex-husband, Lt. Don Bender of the Indianapolis Police Department's missing persons unit, and two officers from North Carolina.
Bender likened each missing persons case to being given a 1,000-piece puzzle of a field full of sunflowers, only to find just four pieces in the box and having to locate all the others.
"If Niqui was a victim of violence, you can be assured there are other people out there who know about it," Bender said.
The speakers encouraged the McCowns and others in similar circumstances to work and find support from others who share their experience, to work with law enforcement and to continue to keep their loved one's story in the minds of their communities because it only takes the right tip to solve the mystery.
Although Payton Johnston was moved to tears Saturday night as she remembered her mother and shared her appreciation for those who have helped her, she also was able to find joy in the evening.
The celebration of her mother, Niqui McCown, also include a birthday celebration for her, complete with cake, the "Happy Birthday" song and gifts.
Payton grinned as she dumped foam peanuts from a box to discover a mouse, speakers and mouse pad for a brand new computer from the Midwest Coalition for the Missing members.
"She is the best of Niqui's life," said coalition cofounder Karren Kraemer, adding a promise that the mothers in the group will offer Payton any assistance they can. "We'll be here for the rest of her life."