For years after the disappearance of her daughter in 2002, Sheila Thomas had learned to deal with her loss. But after a similar incident occurred in the city this spring, it brought back a lot of those emotions – as well as a renewed optimism the family finally would get some answers.
“I never lost faith something will happen one day, and we’ve arrived at that point,” Thomas said. “I’m still optimistic something will happen with my daughter.”
Thomas’ daughter, Sierra Thomas, was last seen Nov. 21, 2002, in the city’s Back Maryland neighborhood. Her family tried unsuccessfully to find her.
“For years, I didn’t think that child will ever be found. I hated to think like that,” Thomas said. “She left two things behind that she loved: Her two daughters and her sister.”
But Thomas’ story received renewed attention after city resident Nadirah Ruffin was taken from a Back Maryland home March 26. Both missing women were 19-year-old mothers at the time of their disappearances, and both were last seen on the 800 block of North Maryland Avenue.
Ruffin’s abduction garnered a lot of attention from the community and law enforcement – including a $20,000 reward offered by the FBI. Ruffin’s body was found April 19 in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. Authorities charged six suspects with the crime last week. They allege the suspects tried to rob Ruffin and kidnapped her after she recognized them.
“I was very ecstatic,” Sheila Thomas said of the arrests. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. I felt for the mother. I understood how she felt.”
Thomas’ family received considerably less exposure when Sierra Thomas went missing. But when Sheila Thomas came forward with her daughter’s story, the residents that were searching for Ruffin, holding vigils and marches through neighborhoods, included Thomas’ disappearance as well.
“People didn’t even know this happened. They were shocked,” she said. “People are still helping. It’s better late than never.”
Thomas said she has noticed a difference in the search by local authorities.
“They didn’t tell us anything (in the beginning). It was a cold blow,” she said. “Now, we call them and they check it out.”
Sgt. Monica McMenamin, the Atlantic City Police Department’s public-information officer, said the missing-person case of Sierra Thomas still is an open and active investigation but the department did not have any updates. McMenamin encouraged residents to come forward if they have information.
Thomas said the family soon will establish the “Sierra Sahara Thomas Missing Child Fund” that would raise money for families of missing children. Thomas said she wants to provide for private detectives and other resources for families in a similar situation.
“We need answers to this thing. We need to take care of our own,” she said. “Next time – I don’t care who’s loved one it is – I hope we will be able to help them with whatever they need. This is ridiculous.”
City resident Taiwa Ukawabutu was one of the residents involved in the movement following Ruffin’s disappearance that asked residents to speak up if they had any information.
“It put a dent in the community when it happened,” he said. “This could have been anyone’s daughter.”
Ukawabutu said the residents will continue with their work for the Thomas family, including raising money for the new foundation.
“No question, we aren’t leaving until we get some kind of closure or results (for the Thomas family),” he said. “We’re trying to make something happen out here.”
A television camera crew is in the city this week filming a documentary on the case, Thomas said. The crew said the company Towers Productions declined comment on the project because details are not finalized on an air date.
“We’re hoping this will spark some things up and show people we are serious,” Ukawabutu said. “We have a brotherhood out there. And we are not going anywhere.”