SEARCH FOR ADJI DESIR
Adji Desir has been missing from Immokalee since Saturday evening, Jan. 10, 2009.
- INTERACTIVE MAP: Help edit map and add your suggestions to the search for Adji Desir
- INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Timeline of events of the search for Adji Desir
- VIDEO: RAW VIDEO: Officials search water for Adji
- VIDEO: Interview with Adji Desir's parents
- VIDEO: CCSO gives update about Adji search
- VIDEO: CCSO's morning update on Adji
- VIDEO: CCSO Search Update: Adji Desir
- VIDEO: Search for Adji Desir Continues
- PHOTO GALLERY: Day 6: Officials search waters of Lake Traffor
- PHOTO GALLERY: Day 4: Search for Adji Desir continues
- PHOTO GALLERY: Day 3: Search for Adji Desir continues
- PHOTO GALLERY: Day 2: Search for 6-year-old Adji Desir
- AUDIO: Kevin Rambosk gives update about missing child (.mp3)
- AUDIO: Jamie Mosbach with the Collier County Sheriff's Office gives an update on the search for Adji Desir (.mp3)
- AUDIO: Lt. Smith with the Collier County Sheriff's Office on the search for Adji Desir (.mp3)
- AUDIO: Karie Partington talks about how people can help distribute flyers (.wma)
- AUDIO: Karie Partington talks about expanding search area (.wma)
- AUDIO: Kevin Rambosk holds press conference about missing child (.wma)
- DOCUMENT: Read transcript of Daily News editor discussing Adji’s disappearance on CNN Tuesday night
- DOCUMENT: Read transcript of Collier Sheriff's Office discussing missing child case on CNN Monday night
- POLL: Do you have an identification kit for your child?
- STORIES: Read stories about the search for 6-year-old Adji Desir
- COMPLETE COVERAGE: Special section about the search for Adji Desir
IMMOKALEE — The picture of the smiling boy hangs prominently in Marie Neida and Antal Elant’s Immokalee home.
It’s one of the many daily reminders of what they’ve lost and pray to someday regain.
“I feel that they will find him one day,” said Elant, 42. “Everyday I go out and I think I will get the call that they’ve found Adji... we must have patience.”
On Sunday, it will have been a year since the now 7-year-old Adji Desir was last seen playing outside his grandmother’s house in Farm Workers Village in Immokalee on Jan. 10, 2009, while his mother was at work.
What followed was a week-long intensive search by thousands of area residents, and roughly 300 statewide law enforcement officials — 100 of which were Collier County deputies — with ATV’s, bloodhounds and boats. No one found the developmentally-challenged boy, or even a trace of him.
Since then, Collier County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Ken Becker said his agency and FBI agents have continued to follow-up on any tips as to boy’s whereabouts.
For the family, the day Adji went missing started like any other weekend.
Adji spent most of that Saturday with his grandmother Jesula Thebaud, 56, who lived off Grace Court in Farm Workers Village.
The youngster went in and out of her house several times, playing with neighborhood friends and eating lunch with his grandmother.
However, it wasn’t until Elant, the boy’s stepfather, arrived to pick up Adji around 5 p.m. that afternoon that the family realized he was missing.
Neida, 37, didn’t learn her son was missing until she came home from work at midnight and found her family members in tears.
“I’m always on my bed crying, and I pray. I don’t know what more I can ask the Lord,” said Neida in her Immokalee home Wednesday. “Give me a chance. Give me my son back.”
But like many missing children’s cases, after the initial influx of between 400 and 500 tips, the number of leads soon after Adji’s disappearance began to wane.
Never really the same
On Wednesday, Farm Workers Village residents recalled the emotions they felt when they learned one of their own had gone missing a year ago.
“I don’t let him play outside anymore,” said 8-year village resident Oralia Mendez, 29, referring to her 7-year-old son. “It’s different.”
Mendez said she remembered the feeling of dread when she found out Adji was missing. Her son, Alejandro, who was friends with Adji, remains scared of being snatched himself.
Changes have been subtle over the past year, said Roberta Peña, but the biggest difference in the community has been that parents have stepped up their vigilance.
“Parents are more cautious,” said Peña, returning from walking her 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter to Village Oaks Elementary.
She said Adji’s disappearance made her reconsider when and where her kids could play, because her home is near the main road that leads “in and out” of Farm Workers Village.
“It’s scary because a car could stop, take a child and be gone before you realized which car took your kid,” Peña said.
Peña said her initial reaction was utter disbelief when she heard a child in her neighborhood was missing last year.
“To this day we can’t believe it,” she said. “You know evil exists, but you don’t expect it near home. You say to yourself, ‘In our calm community? Where our kids played and could go anywhere while still feeling safe?’”
It’s not like that anymore.
“Kids don’t go out on their own anymore,” said Peña. “You don’t even see kids walking on their own to school. They walk in groups.”
In addition to changing the village, Adji’s disappearance also garnered national attention and was featured on America’s Most Wanted in January, February and most recently on Dec. 5.
He was also one of six missing children appearing on the cover of People magazine’s “Vanished Without a Trace: Heartbreak & Hope,” issue in November, which featured the stories of young people who disappeared in 2009.
In addition with the help of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Adji’s photo was featured on national direct-mail advertising fliers distributed to 75 million homes across the United States from Nov. 8 through Dec. 13.
Law enforcement officials said that thanks to the mailing campaign and the People magazine article, 40 to 50 tips came in, but none led to Adji.
With fliers containing Adji’s information still hanging across many businesses in Collier County and nationwide, Becker said he believes the one tip that will lead to Adji is still out there.
“We need people to come forward and let those facts be known,” he said. “I have to believe someone in the community knows something.”
A family copes
Mornings at Adji’s home are busy these days.
Eight months ago, Neida and Elant welcomed a baby girl, who they named Adjiani in honor of her missing brother.
Elant takes care of rambunctious Adjiani, while Neida works as a certified nursing assistant during the day in Naples. They trade off in the afternoon, when Elant heads to work at a Naples eatery.
The continued support from the community and law enforcement officials has been very appreciated by the family.
But the disappearance has taken an immense emotional and physical toll on everyone, Neida said.
Thebaud no longer lives in Farm Workers Village, and has recently moved into the couple’s home after spending 12 days in the hospital with kidney problems.
As for herself, Neida said depression and stress plagued her for months, but that she is working through it for her family.
“Everyday, every night, every second I dream and think of where I can find Adji,” said Neida. “Now the Lord gave me Adjiani. I have to take care of her and keep her safe.”
However, the pain of her missing first-born has not dulled.
“My pain over Adji is never, never gone,” she said.
Although Adji is still missing, Elant said hope is not gone.
It’s a wish fervently shared by his wife.
“I hope that he will come back,” she said.
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Connect with Elysa Batista at www.naplesnews.com/staff/elysa_batista