The Day is Here – We Love You, Michelle

On May 27, 2011, 26-year-old nursing student Michelle Hoang Thi Le went missing from Hayward, California, just hours before she was going to meet a friend for a weekend trip. Immediately, our family and her friends launched a national search campaign to find her. After 113 exhausting days of searching for her, our amazing volunteers found her on September 17, 2011. Though we didn’t find her alive, like we were vehemently hoping, we had our answer. We had no choice – that answer had to be enough. We laid her to rest and tried with our might to get back to living a different life without her.

It is hard to believe that a year ago today, we found Michelle, after 113 days of searching for her. It’s also hard to believe that the day has come to ensure there is justice for her murder.

The trial is beginning.

I am apprehensive and anxious. And I can’t sleep. The past three weeks have been nerve wracking, to say the least. Every night, my nightmares have revolved around murder, death or being chased by some impending crisis. I’d rather stay awake.

Since she went missing on Friday, May 27, 2011, life took a screeching halt and turned another direction, down a road that we were never prepared to travel. Our search center was our second home; our search teams became our second family.

All that most people see in the news is about her disappearance, the murder, her accused murderer and, now, the trial. But there was a life she had before May 27, 2011 – one full of dancing, playing, laughing, and loving with her friends and her family. Time is slipping by so fast, it seems, and it becomes a challenge to keep that story about the living, breathing Michelle we all know and love. I didn’t want her to become just a memory, a frozen face in pictures. I want to continue telling her story over and over again – about who she was, what food she liked, what she liked to do – everything just to remind myself and others that she existed here, with all of us, before her life was robbed from her.

Our family, her friends – everybody had their own special relationship with her before that day. I can only speak on my own behalf, but I know she spread her light to so many others.

To me, Michelle was a big sister. I looked up to her for as long as I can remember. I miss everything about her.

My favorite memories revolved around Michelle, Michael (her brother), and my brother – all of us within four years of each other in age. Growing up, we would all play “house”, which eventually progressed to video games, Pokémon, card games, board games. You name it, we played it. I remember it was like a kid’s dream come true when Michael and Michelle moved in with our family when she was 14, so the four of us cousins – we all grew up together in a zone that seemed like constant playtime.

We grew older into our teen years. I remember Michelle giving me boy advice in middle school, her tweezing my eyebrows for the first time at twelve, her helping me write my first “crush” letter, burning our sappy love song CDs. My mom even banned us from going into each other’s rooms past 10pm, because we’d be found early in the morning groggy and sleep-deprived from talking until dawn. I remember we even got our first jobs together and scheduled our shifts with each other so we would be able to lounge at La Jolla shores during the day and work at night. I remember choreographing stupid dances to hip hop songs.

We grew up in a huge family with many cousins, most of them boys, so she was my main confidante even into our 20’s. I remember talking about our future weddings and joking about what we would say when we made our maid of honor toasts. I remember talking about me moving back up to the Bay Area so we could hang out here together. I kept my word and I did – only 3 days too late, on May 30, 2011.

She seemed to live as though she knew the secret – that life was short and precious; that relationships mattered most and everything else was just stuff. Most people don’t reach that realization until much later, but Michelle – she always knew. Michelle was joyful, carefree, lighthearted, beautiful inside and out. She laughed easily, joked often, forgave liberally and gave constantly without expecting anything in return. She loved to shop. She was your BEST bargain shopper and had a seriously awesome, fabulous closet. She loved to dance and going out with her friends. She loved to eat, and then judge all restaurants on Yelp. She loved to read. She had 3 tattoos – a compass, a sparrow, and her mom’s signature on her left breast, over her heart. She hated heels and always opted for sandals or boots. She would loan her friends anything they needed or wanted – whether it be a car to get to a job interview or a scarf on a cold day. She gave and gave, and even took her passion for helping and put it toward a career in nursing.

She was in an accelerated nursing program and was only 6 months from graduating from Samuel Merritt University when she was killed. She was only 26 years old.

I remember so much more than words can ever write, than pictures can ever express. I want to capture all of the details in a box, with memories I can pluck out to re-live all the playtimes, shopping dates and conversations we had. But that’s not possible.

Since September 17th 2011, after we found her, we’ve seen grief settle in the veins of each of our lives, spreading its symptoms like a virus. Some of us have lost relationships and friendships after a change of that size and impact. Some of us have grown closer to others who were complete strangers before. Some of us continued to live her legacy because that’s the only way we knew how to cope with our loss – by keeping her name alive. Some of us pretended it never happened, imagining that she’s on vacation or on a very long leave. All of those who loved her – we were all challenged to press ‘reset’ to a new normal.

One of the most important steps of building her legacy and ensuring that her death was not in vain is to make sure her killer is not roaming the streets free with blood on their hands. And we have to take that step – now. Whether or not we want to face the tragedy again, it’s time to. For Michelle.

We cannot thank everyone enough, still, for bringing her home to us. We know that there are many families out there who have missing loved ones, and we were fortunate enough, at least, to be reunited with ours. Please stay with us while we begin the legal process to ensure justice in her name.

She was a granddaughter, a daughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a puppy mom and she is missed everyday.

I love you, Michelle.
We love you, Michelle.

Sierra LaMar: Anatomy of a Search Day 163

Ain’t no one left in the house except the search junkies. They have suffered multiple wasp attacks, extreme heat, ruptured muscles, broken bones, a heart attack, and appendicitis, yet they still come back for more. It has been nearly six months since Sierra LaMar disappeared. Seasons have come and gone. A housing complex has been constructed and settled. A suspect has been arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder. But still, we have not found Sierra LaMar.

 

As search leaders struggle to define viable new search locations, volunteers continue to be deployed into the field to seek any sign of the missing Morgan Hill cheerleader. The amateurs that first walked through the doors in May and April have evolved into seasoned search and rescue personnel. The no longer consider every discarded cigarette butt as a game changer; instead they search for more tangible forms of potential evidence. March’s freshly dug grave is September’s hardened mound of dirt. April’s discarded body may be today’s bone fragments.

 

The good news is that despite nearly 1,000 search assignments, we have located no sign of Sierra LaMar. Either a sociopathic cretin named Garcia-Torres has done an amazing job of covering up his crimes, or Sierra is still alive. There is nothing in his background to suggest that he has the capacity to eliminate the traces of his criminal activity. Instead, there is a drooling trail of petty crime, attacks against women, and links to Sierra, who he claims that he never met. So that leaves the possibility that she is still alive, either as a victim of human trafficking, or under the control of his partners in crime.

 

Of course, this is simply speculation, and until we have real answers I suspect that the search for Sierra will continue. We will never give up hope and we will continue to look for a girl who is either watching us from heaven, or waiting to be rescued. As long as her family holds out hope and continues to show up at the search center to encourage, hug, and thank the volunteers; and as long as the community continues to believe that anything is possible, the amazing search junkies will continue to weather the elements as they seek the child who we all know is somewhere out there.

Legacy

Legacy is defined as something transmitted by or received from the past. In my business, which so often deals with the aftermath of loss, legacy is at the vanguard of peoples thoughts. While it might not have been at the forefront of our minds when all was well, it becomes integrally tied into future considerations as we cope with the loss of a loved one. The closer our relationship to the one who has passed, the more we think about their legacy.

 

8-year-old Polly Klaas

When the past arrives suddenly and without invitation defining a legacy is a way to make sense of the senseless, and to give meaning to death. It was thoughts of legacy that helped me ascend from the depths of the abyss after Polly’s tragedy in 1993. She had given beautiful meaning to her life, but after October 1, she only existed in memory and risked being measured as nothing more than a statistical abstraction. I wanted to ensure that her death had meaning; that it was not in vain. To achieve that goal I had to create her legacy.

 

Violet and I thought that the Polly Klaas Foundation would be the instrument of that legacy, but instead we were deceived. Finally, the KlaasKids Foundation, which we founded and controlled, became the vessel upon which her legacy would be conceived and implemented. Stop Crimes Against Children became our mission and Polly was our beacon. Almost 20-years later, we feel a sense of accomplishment and truly believe that Polly’s death represents more than a point on a pie chart.

 

Amber Harris Video In Omaha, Nebraska the parents of twelve-year-old Amber Harris struggled mightily to define the legacy of their slain daughter. On November 29, 2005 Amber got off of the school bus at the wrong stop and was never seen alive again. Her remains were discovered in a shallow grave on May 10, 2006. The man sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and murdering Amber was a registered sex offender who lived near her bus stop. At Amber’s publicly televised memorial her mother announced that her legacy would include school bus rerouting so that proximity to the homes of level 3 registered sex offenders could be avoided. Amber’s parents were successful in that effort.

 

 

 

Megan Kanka & Megan’s Law

So many laws are named after murdered children. When the mother of seven-year-old Megan Kanka quietly and eloquently told reporters that if she had known that a high risk sex offender lived across the street she never would have allowed her daughter to play alone in the front yard, it struck a public nerve. Since 1996, convicted sex offenders in the United States have been required to register with local law enforcement and citizens have been able to access that information to protect their families. Megan’s legacy is Megan’s Law.

 

In 2005, little Jessica Lunsford was sexually abused and murdered by a level 3 sex offender neighbor in rural Florida. Her father Mark began touring State Capitols lobbying for legislation that would classify lewd or lascivious molestation on a person under the age of 12 as a life felony, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and lifetime electronic monitoring of adults convicted of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim less than 12 years old. Jessica’s Law has been enacted in more than 40-states and Jessica Lunsford’s legacy will protect children for decades to come.

 

Legacy can be manifested in many forms. Every time that Michael Le and Krystine Dinh volunteer at the Sierra Search Center they add to their beloved sister and cousin Michelle Le’s legacy. Like so many others who volunteer with the KlaasKids Foundation or the Sierra Search Center, they have found a way to pay their loss forward through legacy building. You can create a movement that will change the world; you can conduct your life in a way that will honor the memory of the child, brother, sister, mother or father who inspires thoughts of legacy; or you can do any and all things in between. One is no more important than the other. What is important is that you honor the memory of loss in a way that soothes your mind and allows you to sleep at night knowing that you have created meaning out of death.

 

While Polly’s years were few, her stature diminutive and her experience was limited, her legacy is as vast as her courage. She inspired us to be bigger, better and more than we otherwise would have been. Through the work of the KlaasKids Foundation her final act has reverberated from the family kitchen table to the president’s cabinet table.

Proposition 35 and Human Sex Traffickers

Murdered Pimp Calvin Sneed

The crosshairs of Proposition 35 are correctly focused on human traffickers, otherwise known as pimps. Until we acknowledge that domestic sex traffic is America’s new dirty little secret, countless American children will continue to be exploited by the cruel manipulations of pimps. To date, these sex traffickers have been given a free pass, if not outright encouragement, to engage in the most exploitive of criminal behavior.

 

In the United States we have it backward. The girls involved in underage prostitution are often portrayed as criminals, drug addled crack whores who are incarcerated rather than assisted once law enforcement brings them in off of the street. On the other hand the pimp culture is glamorized through the music and video industry. We create pimp celebrities and legitimize them in mainstream media. We celebrate their exploits as media covers Players Balls that glorify the pimp lifestyle. Pimps are human traffickers and human traffickers are heinous criminals.

 

Pimping involves a complex relationship between a male pimp and one or more women and/or girls. The pimp wields complete control and induces commercial sex acts in order to make money. The pimp attains total control and obedience through intense manipulation that begins during the grooming process. Manipulations include feigned affection, brutal violence, and verbal, psychological, and/or emotional abuse. This breaking-down phase takes a girl from healthy adolescent sexual boundaries to commercial sex with strangers. This process has been widely-documented and replicated by pimps nationwide. In the trafficking paradigm, this process involves force, fraud, and coercion.  Seasoning often involves:

  • Beating/Slapping/Whipping; with hands, fists, and kicking, as well as with objects such as bats, tools, chains, and cords;
  • Burning; of personal items to foster hopelessness and demoralization or directly burning women and girls using cigarette/cigar butts;
  • Sexual assault; rape or gang rape;
  • Confinement; lock women and girls in closets, trunks of cars, or rooms for indeterminate amounts of time;
  • Other torture techniques; such as food or water deprivation, or various forms of bondage such as chaining individuals to items or tying them up;
  • Emotional abuse; direct verbal insults, name-calling, threats, mind control, brainwashing, cognitive re-programming;
  • Re-naming; offering “nicknames” both for endearment and to erase former identity;
  • Creating dependencies; by instructing how to walk, how to talk, what to wear, when to eat, when to sleep, and where to sleep;
  • Removal from familiarity and support structures; by transporting a woman or minor to a new location where she knows no one;
  • Document confiscation; of identification documents (ID, birth certificate, SS number);
  • Forced sexual education; inducement of viewing pornography to learn to have sex.

Advertising the Players Ball

It is well-documented that pimps establish mandatory monetary quotas that typically range from $500 – $1,000. The women and girls under their control must fulfill their quota in order to end each night of commercial sex. Quotas are strictly enforced, and the punishment for failing to meet a quota is severe physical retaliation from the pimp. In pimp-controlled situations, the women and girls keep zero of this money and turn 100-percent of the profits over to the pimp. Pimp-controlled commercial sexual exploitation of children is linked to escort and massage services, private dancing, drink and photographic clubs, major sporting and recreational events, major cultural events, conventions and tourist destination.

Right now “It’s Not So Hard Out There For A Pimp”, but it will be as soon as we pass Proposition 35.