The following is an article published by Phil Luciano of the Journal Star
"Strangers still refuse to forget little girl"
October 14, 2007
The sad, mysterious case of Andrea Gonzalez soon will mark 14 anguishing years with few satisfying answers.
After five years of hellish upbringing, the former central Illinois girl vanished in Franklin County, Alabama, in late 1993. In a story that grabbed national headlines, a massive manhunt came up empty. In a stunning twist two years later, her father and stepmother were charged with capital murder.
But both got off with short prison sentences and have gone on with their lives. And Andrea Gonzalez still remains out there, somewhere.
Police think she likely was dumped or buried somewhere. Yet a few folks wonder if she still could be alive.
Either way, they all remember. They can't forget the sloe-eyed girl with a wide smile that pushed into chubby cheeks.
Soon, the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, which has spent countless hours trying to find Andrea, will permanently memorialize her with a courtyard and marker. Meanwhile, a community that still wants answers prays that
the commemoration sparks memories and courage.
"They're hoping whoever knows something will come forward," says Louise Hinkle, who had no connection to Andrea but long has prodded local media and police to keep the case alive. "It's been a long time."
Andrea's long, harrowing road to Alabama began in early 1988, when she was born in Galesburg to Paul and Michelle Gonzalez. A year later, Michelle Gonzalez had a boy, which Paul Gonzalez claimed was not his.
Shortly thereafter, he got work in Russellville, Ala., a town of 8,000 residents in a rural, northeastern chunk of the state. The family moved down there, but the couple had marital problems. Michelle Gonzalez moved with the two kids to Peoria, where she had friends. The couple would divorce.
Michelle Gonzalez had legal troubles and difficulty caring for the children. Over time, Andrea and the boy would spend stretches with foster parents, who noted signs of neglect. Eventually, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took the children from Michelle Gonzalez after investigating a report that Andrea had been molested by someone else.
Michelle Gonzalez (who reportedly still lives in Peoria, yet I could not locate for comment) would never see her kids again. The boy was put up for adoption, and Andrea was sent to live with her father -who by then had remarried, to Kim (Williams) Gonzalez.
On the morning of Nov. 20, 1993, Paul and Kim Gonzalez called the Franklin County Sheriff's Department to report that Andrea had vanished while they slept in their mobile home. During the next two days, 400 police and volunteers scoured the area. Bloodhounds found her scent on the porch, but no further - suggesting to police that an intruder had worked open the trailer's flimsy lock and carried off Andrea.
Suddenly, though, the search slammed to a halt. Though Paul Gonzalez had passed a lie-detector test, Kim Gonzalez did not. Police began to take a long, hard look at her.
In interviews with reporters (including me), she blamed the polygraph failure on stress from the disappearance and her ongoing pregnancy.
"I realize it's a long shot, but if anyone has her, please take her to a hospital," she begged the media.
Some folks in the shaken community bought her story and rallied around her. Turns out, she was a pretty good actor.
In 1997, Kim Gonzalez voluntarily went to the sheriff's department and admitted to having fatally scalded Andrea in the bathtub. Details would differ, depending on the source: She claimed it was an accident; authorities later depicted Kim Gonzalez as repeatedly abusive.
Paul Gonzalez claimed he had wanted to call an ambulance, but Kim Gonzalez talked him out of it. So he helped her wrap the body in a garbage bag and toss it into a waterway known as the Mon Dye Bottoms Recreation Area.
Divers never found a body. The Gonzalezes were charged with capital murder.
But with no body and no hard evidence - and with increasing finger-pointing between the couple and their lawyers - the case began to unravel.
Prosecutors made a deal with Paul Gonzalez for his testimony against his wife. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got a 10-year sentence. But he served just two years and reportedly has relocated to his native Texas.
Despite his testimony that pointed to her as the killer, Kim Gonzalez escaped a capital-murder conviction. With her attorneys portraying her as a dim victim of her husband's fast talking, she was convicted of child abuse and got a 10-year sentence. But she served just over two years, and she reportedly is living somewhere in Alabama.
Russellville remains stunned, not only over the short prison terms but also a lack of resolution. Andrea is out there, somewhere.
That is why the sheriff's department, based in the county seat of Russellville, will make Andrea part of its new quarters, scheduled for completion early next year. Though plans are still in the works, the complex likely will feature a courtyard paved with black-granite bricks. It also will include a marker - originally crafted and donated by a local artist for Andrea's grave site - etched with the girl's face and name.
Community groups are raising money for the effort. Meanwhile, investigators wonder if the memorial might prompt new tips.
"We haven't given up," says Larry Plott, sheriff ever since Andrea disappeared in 1993. "We hope and pray that one day we can find the body and give a proper burial."
A pair of local residents echo the urgency for continued investigation, via the Web page wheres-andrea.com. The simple site features news links and messages about Andrea.
"This child was never found," one note reads. "How many of you would just give up searching for a missing loved one without absolute proof of their demise?"
Hinkle, the local activist, goes a step further. The Gonzalezes' stories never added up, Hinkle says.
"I believe she was sold," Hinkle says. "It could've been for pornography."
Though Sheriff Plott has seen no such evidence, he says he is open to any possibility. Meanwhile, Hinkle and others continue to search online, looking for traces of Andrea - who would be 19 years old.
In Galesburg, Darlene Chambers, one of Andrea's foster mothers, doesn't know what to believe.
"I don't think anyone is going to know, unless her dad comes forward," Chambers says. "And he's not going to do that."
In nearby Altona, maternal grandmother Garnet Cantrell still hopes for a conclusion.
"After all this time, you'd think someone would come forward," she says. "Someone's gotta know something."
PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,
686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155.