Viridiana Maldonado left two young children with her sister and mother one October night and vanished without taking so much as a toothbrush or suitcase.
Her 6-year-old son still cries, wondering where she is. Her mother, older sister and family friends in North Charleston have grown increasingly convinced that something bad has happened.
"It's been two months already," her sister, Jeny Cuevas, said in Spanish. "She hasn't sent any word to the children, not anything."
The 21-year-old finished a waitressing shift at La Norteña restaurant on Rivers Avenue around 11 p.m. Oct. 11 and stopped by the North Charleston home she shared with her sister and mother. She told them she was going out with her sister-in-law.
They last heard from her between 1 and 2 a.m. Oct. 12, when they received a series of cryptic cell-phone text messages about drinking downtown with a friend named Miguel they had never heard of.
The final text message said she wasn't feeling well and mentioned going back to Mexico, her home country.
Her family doesn't believe she sent the messages, much less that she crossed the border.
North Charleston police have few clues. Investigators did learn that Maldonado's bank account was closed by phone on Oct. 17 and a cashier's check for the balance sent to Tacoma, Wash., the city where she used to live with her estranged husband, Detective David Watson said. Whether Maldonado or somebody else closed the account is unclear.
Her family said the account held about $1,000, and the cell phone bills that used to arrive at the house are no longer
showing up. Phone records show no activity since the text messages, Watson said.
In some respects, the situation recalls another missing woman in North Charleston, Brandy Hanna. The waitress at Alex's restaurant disappeared mysteriously in May 2005 and would now be 35. These are the department's only active missing persons cases, public information officer Spencer Pryor said.
Maldonado's 22nd birthday was Dec. 18, her family said. A recent photo shows her with long black hair. She is about 5 feet 4 inches and 115 pounds with brown eyes.
She and her husband, Jorge Maldonado, had a rocky relationship, according to both families. The two met in North Charleston and were married in 2005, but had been living in Washington state last year while he was stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis. They separated and she returned to South Carolina about a month before she was last seen.
With no word from her, Jorge Maldonado arrived from the West Coast to pick up their 3-year-old son. He has since left the Army and moved back to the Charleston area. The older child, from another relationship, remains with relatives.
Her family claims he has behaved indifferently since her disappearance, something he strongly denies.
"They can talk to me, ask me any question they like," he said during a telephone interview Dec. 7. He has cooperated with the detective.
The 21-year-old and his sister said they are tired of feeling like they're under a cloud of suspicion. Vicky Roberts, 23, is his sister and the person Viridiana claimed to be with the night she disappeared. Roberts said she hadn't seen her for about two weeks before that and isn't sure why she would say they were together.
"We're worried, just like everybody else," Roberts said. "We've cried. I've had really bad dreams."
The missing woman's family wants answers. Police have told Viridiana's older sister they are doing everything they can, but Cuevas hasn't noticed much progress: "Are they waiting for her to turn up dead before they do anything?"