Whenever I see stories like that of Autumn Pasquale, the 12-year-old girl from Clayton, Gloucester County (NJ), my heart aches, because I know how fortunate I am to know where my children are.
According to law enforcement authorities, Autumn, who is described as five-foot-two with blonde hair and weighing approximately 120 pounds, was last seen leaving her father’s West High Street home on a white BMX bicycle at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. She was reported missing nine hours later. Reports say the FBI has already joined the search, and that’s good.
It’s my prayer that the child is found safely.
Facts reminiscent of fiction
Seeing this case play out in real time brings to mind memories of one of two cases that inspired my second book, The Bridge, a fictional account of a little girl who went missing from a North Philadelphia housing project.
Tahira Maxwell was 10 years old when she went missing from the Cambridge Plaza housing project on 10th Street near Girard Ave. on Sept. 26, 1993. She was beautiful and smart and, by all accounts, she knew her way around her environment. But her environment was one that was fraught with danger.
In a place where drug use and crushing poverty stood side-by-side, each driving and sustaining the other, crime was a daily reality. But there was also something else; something that I found when I talked to the residents of Cambridge Plaza.
There were people who cared deeply about the children who lived in and around the high rises that made up the community. There were neighbors who would watch over a neighbor’s child, and share their meager resources with them.
In a community where drug dealers conducted their business relatively unchecked, two worlds routinely collided.
On the one hand, there were tall buildings with non-working elevators and shadowy stairwells, where groups of men talked too loud and laughed too hard as they guzzled forties of Old English malt liquor from brown paper bags.
On the other hand, there were hard-working, compassionate neighbors who bonded together to make the projects a livable environment. That spirit was evident in the marches and vigils that the residents staged in the wake of Tahira’s disappearance. It was also evident in the anger they expressed when the child was found.
In Oct. 1994, almost exactly 18 years ago, Tahira’s body was discovered stuffed into a vent on the roof of the high rise where she lived. She’d been missing for 13 months, and the residents were angry because they felt that the police, though they mounted a massive search, did not do all they could to find the child before it was too late.
When I spoke to the detectives who investigated Tahira’s disappearance, they were still sensitive to that anger, and made a point of telling me that they’d literally collected boxes of evidence in their efforts to find Tahira. Still, they were too late, and all of us, from the family, to the neighbors, to those who investigated the case, still mourn that unfortunate reality.
I earnestly hope that the authorities who are investigating Autumn’s disappearance will find her in time. I also hope that every missing child, including the Tahira Maxwells of the world, will see the same swift response that we’ve seen in Autumn’s case.
We can’t afford to lose even one child — whether they are from a North Philadelphia housing project, or from a South Jersey suburb.
So here’s my heartfelt plea to the authorities handling the search: Find Autumn Pasquale. Then bring the lessons from that search back to Philadelphia, and find our missing children, too.
UPDATE: According to the Associated Press, “the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s office said in a statement early Tuesday that the body found in Clayton at about 10 p.m. Monday has been preliminarily identified as Autumn Pasquale.”