Lilly Aramburo and Christen Pacheco were hanging out in the living room of a first-floor condominium in Kendall shortly before 2 a.m. June 1, 2007. Empty bottles of Budweiser beer, Patrón tequila, and Belvedere vodka littered the kitchen counter and living room table. Cockroaches and flies swarmed rotting food, and garbage littered the grimy floor.
Lilly was a Lilliputian young woman — just shy of five feet tall and a featherweight 100 pounds. Yet the 24-year-old had a voracious appetite for hard liquor and harder drugs. As she plopped onto the sofa and took a hit from a glass pipe, her sleepy brown eyes glazed over and strands of long, silky, straight black hair covered her face.
She handed the pipe to 31-year-old Christen, an athletic, 168-pound, five-foot eight-inch tall ex-Marine. He took a long toke and blasted off into the same netherworld.
A few minutes later, the couple began arguing. Lilly accused Christen of being cruel to her and then stormed out. He went to sleep, woke up around 10 a.m., and discovered she hadn't returned. He waited 24 hours to tell police she had left, wearing a long nightgown and holding "two bungee cords and no other property." She "has a history of attempted suicide and is diagnosed schizophrenic and suffers from depression," he added.
No one knows what happened to Lilly, though a sighting was recently reported in downtown Miami. Her disappearance and the intense efforts of bloggers to find her speak volumes about new ways of tracking down the missing in the Internet age. It also suggests police indifference to such cases when they involve the less fortunate or drug addicted.
Although there are hints that Christen knows more than he told the cops, and that the argument between the two might be an important clue, the case remains unsolved.
"The police aren't doing anything," says Janet Forte, a blogger who has spent months searching for Lilly. "She has been my priority for more than a year. For me, she was a special human being."
Lucely Zalvidar sits at a table inside Barnes & Noble near Stirling Road and I-95. An olive-skinned 41-year-old with straight brown hair, she speaks in a low, tender voice. "Lilly wasn't the kind of girl who was into dolls," she recalls. "She liked to be outdoors, playing with insects. She was also very creative. She'd make her own clothes by ripping one piece of clothing and sewing it onto another."
On November 16, 1983, Lucely gave birth to Lilly in San Francisco. Soon they moved to Miami and Lucely split from Lilly's father. "He's never had any communication with Lilly since we divorced," Lucely says.
Lilly attended Shenandoah Elementary, Riviera Day School in Coral Gables, and Ponce de Leon Middle School. Lucely supported herself and her daughter by selling flowers at traffic intersections.
Growing up, Lilly loved classic rock bands such as the Beatles and the Doors, Lucely says, noting that her daughter read rock biographies and kept a journal. She was a gregarious, earthy girl who loved flowers and playing outdoors.
In the summer of 1997, they moved to Hollywood and opened a flower shop on Stirling Road. Problems began to crop up when Lilly started her freshman year at Hollywood Hills High School. "She didn't have her father around," Lucely says. "She didn't want to be in Broward because all her friends were in Miami. And those kids didn't really have any parental supervision. So it was easy for them to start using drugs."
Soon Lilly was smoking marijuana. She would hang out with her Miami friends until the wee hours of the morning. Around the same time, Lucely recollects, her daughter was diagnosed with depression. "The school psychologist told me it was due to a chemical imbalance," Lucely says.
By the time Lilly turned 16, things worsened. She dropped out and began experimenting with Ecstasy, ketamine, and other designer drugs. "She'd go hang out with her friends from Coconut Grove," Lucely says. "She would sleep in the streets, in a park, at the beach. I'd go out looking for her in all these places until I would find her."
Kelly Rae Starling is a 22-year-old unemployed vagabond who has known Lilly since they were classmates at Ponce de Leon. A slender girl with short, wavy hair and a ring through her septum, Starling says she and Lilly sampled drugs daily. "We enjoyed just being out in the streets doing whatever we wanted to do," Starling says. "Lilly was the closest girlfriend I ever had. At one point, me and her were living inside a Toyota. We had a pet bunny too."
The two girls would crash at friends' pads, squat inside vacant houses, or sleep in open spaces such as the park or the beach. Lilly stayed in touch with her mother but would go home only when she wanted to sober up. "It was very tough for me," Lucely says. "I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't concentrate on my business."
In 2003, when she was 20 years old, Lilly met heroin addict David Lamaso. They began dating and taking the drug. Soon they moved in together, and Lilly did not contact her mother for a month, the longest she had ever gone without communication.
A panicked Lucely combed Miami Beach's sandy shores and the Grove's Peacock Park. She finally found Lilly one morning at a bus stop, propped next to Lamaso. "They had been doing heroin," Lucely says. "She looked very bad."
She sent her daughter to a rehabilitation center, but after only a week, Lilly escaped and returned to Lamaso. She relapsed. "Their relationship was never a healthy one," says Marta Godoy, Lamaso's mother, adding that her son is now in Puerto Rico studying to be a Buddhist monk.
By 2004, Lilly and Lamaso added crack cocaine to their drug diet. "I noticed she became angrier," Lucely says, "more irritable."
Lilly didn't like herself when she was high, her mom says. She tried to get clean, at one point taking an interest in Buddhism. But then she was again diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. "She was paranoid and having hallucinations," Lucely says.
In January 2006, Lilly became pregnant by Lamaso and really tried to clean up. She gave up drugs and earned her GED. In September, she gave birth to a son, Palden.
One of the people who helped her through the pregnancy was Internet media strategist Janet Forte, who met Lilly four years ago while taking Buddhism courses. "Lilly was sweet, kind, and compassionate," Forte recalls. "[Around the time she became pregnant], her perspective changed. She was making an effort to do the right things and set herself up in a positive way."
The friendship has sparked Forte's mission to find her missing "hippie-pixie" buddy. It combines old-fashioned research with digital-age information gathering.
More than 40,000 unidentified bodies are reported across the nation each year, according to federal law enforcement records. And there are more than 100,000 reports of missing persons. Some of them are children. Others are elderly people who have simply disappeared. South Florida, because of its high proportion of senior citizens — and good weather that allows people to be outside often — is a particular mecca.
The Miami-Dade County Police Department receives a monthly average of 400 to 600 reports of people gone missing, says Capt. Janna Bolinger-Heller, head of the domestic crimes bureau. In 2007, there were 5,000 people reported vanished — at least temporarily — in unincorporated Miami-Dade. This year, to date, there are 3,500 active missing-persons cases.
"We are talking about runaways to elderly folks who walk away from a nursing home," Bolinger-Heller says. "And with adults, they can go missing on purpose too." Ninety percent of missing-persons cases are closed within a year, she adds.
Methods of searching for missing people have come a long way since kids' faces were stamped on milk cartons. DNA sampling has helped. So have all the techniques showcased on the nationally syndicated show Missing, which documents authorities' attempts to find missing persons. As of August 29, producers boast of having found 460 people.
But the Internet is probably the most important tool. It has helped create a subculture of amateur sleuths hell-bent on solving cold cases throughout the nation.
Locally, the Boca Raton Police Department launched a MySpace page and posted a video on YouTube to garner leads in the murders of 47-year-old Nancy Bochicchio and her seven-year-old daughter Joey, whose bodies were discovered last December 13 outside Boca's Town Center mall.
When 16-year-old Jordan Mentore of Port St. Lucie went missing this past July 6, her parents posted a video of the teen on YouTube to reach out for help. She was found six weeks later with three other teens inside a vacant house under foreclosure.
Websites such as SomeoneIsMissing.com and Find-missing-children.org create, at no charge, individual websites of disappeared people that serve as online posters. Find-missing-children.org, operated by the Brandon, Florida-based Child Protection Education of America, has an online form that people can use to report sightings.
But committed individuals such as Janet Forte need to drive the Internet machine. A rail-thin woman with probing hazel eyes and an eclectic hairstyle that combines elements of a bob and a mullet, Forte lives and works in a small Little Haiti apartment. There, along with husband Manuel Marrero, she runs a company called Subliminal Pixels Lab, which helps companies drive traffic to their websites. The walls are lined with photographs of Lilly, usually sporting a wide smile. In one picture, she cradles her baby. In another, she sits cross-legged before a Buddhist altar.
Ten months ago, Forte created a MySpace homepage (www.myspace.com/missinglillyaramburo) as well as "Group" and "Causes" pages, where people who join can read about Lilly's disappearance and how to help. She also posted photos of Lilly on Flickr.com and MyMilkCarton.org, a site that allows people to post information and pictures of missing loved ones. And then there's a blog called justiceinmiami.blogspot.com. Every day Forte updates it all, often criticizing the Miami-Dade Police Department's handling of the investigation.
Between March and June this year, blogs such as JurorThirteen.com — which bills itself as the place "where curbside lawyers, penal pundits, and gallery gadflies can meet in a court of public opinion" — have profiled Lilly's case. Other blogs disseminating Lilly's story include HelpFindTheMissing.org, WebSleuths.com, Current.com, and ZeroGossip.com, "a place for people's stories, not stories about people."
"The Internet is the only medium I have," Forte explains. "Sometimes I put in a 12-hour day between my own job and working on Lilly's disappearance."
So far she hasn't had much success. But that could change.
The kitchen window of the Villages of Dadeland condo where Lilly vanished was open during a recent evening visit. The place was desolate and trashed. Someone had ripped out the refrigerator and the dishwasher. Garbage lay all over the floor and the countertops. Empty bottles of beer and hard liquor sat on a table.
Another place Christen owns, a three-bedroom house at 16030 SW 101st Ave., also appeared abandoned. The front yard was overgrown with grass and weeds. The living room had no furniture except a torn-up sofa. The back yard was a complete wreck, with bicycle parts strewn over the ground. Empty Busch beer cans filled a shopping cart, and an empty ice cooler floated in the murky green swimming pool.
Christen, who has moved to Florida City, adamantly refutes Forte's accusations. "I'm only guilty of loving that girl," he says. "To have someone blatantly accuse me of harming her is horrible."
Alicia Garcia, a short, plump woman who lives next door to the Kendall condo, was walking three miniature Dobermans nearby on a recent day. She said Christen hasn't been around since this past June. "Chris went downhill after Lilly disappeared," she said. "When I last spoke to him, he said he was just going to let his unit go into foreclosure."
He acknowledges he has abandoned both of his properties. "Those places have such bad memories," he says. "I just don't want them anymore."
Christen graduated from Bishop O'Reilly High School in Kingston, Pennsylvania, in 1992. He enlisted with the Marines and spent the next nine years becoming an expert computer systems engineer and rifleman. He moved to Miami in 2001, when he was hired as a technology director for the local office of the global consulting firm Sapient. The same year, according to Miami-Dade criminal court files, he was arrested on a battery charge. The case was dismissed and no details are available.
In early 2004, Christen met Lilly and her friends Lamaso and Starling. They began hanging out together. Starling alleges the former Marine began doing crack cocaine then. "He never did drugs until he joined the crew," she remembers. "He had never been exposed to our lifestyle. He thought it was cool that we would squat in a house and be out in the streets."
Christen's descent into drugs began just as his career ascent was peaking. Just a year earlier, he had purchased the house at 16030 SW 101st Ave. for $168,000. In 2005, he bought the Dadeland condo for $150,000. He rode around in a 2006 black Cadillac Escalade and a $30,000 motorcycle, his neighbor Garcia says.
Starling contends Christen let his druggie pals crash at his Dadeland pad. "His place was the address I was using on my driver's license," Starling says. "Christen would do so much for us. He thought we were the coolest kids in the world."
After Lilly and Lamaso broke up in late 2006, Christen began courting her. "He would take Lilly out to eat," Lucely says. "When they really got serious, I remember him telling me that he always loved her."
She moved into the Dadeland condo in late January 2007. The couple even got an application for a marriage license and discussed relocating to Arizona, recalls Lilly's mother, who noticed a change in her daughter's personality. "She seemed more vulnerable," Lucely says. But things weren't perfect. Lilly began using crack again, and "Christen would insult her constantly. She took a lot from him."
The couple often argued and constantly had visitors over for late-night parties. "On a few occasions, she would ask me to watch her baby for her," Garcia recalls. "But it got a little too much for me. She would leave him with me until 3, 4 o'clock in the morning."
Starling, who was living with Christen and Lilly at the time, also witnessed the couple's volatility. "Lilly is one of those people who can sit there and poke you until you just snap," Starling recalls. "Christen didn't know how to control his temper. After he did drugs, he would blow up."
One day — Starling cannot remember the exact date — Lilly made a comment about cheating on him and "he lunged at her and shook her," Starling says. "I had to pull him off her and remind him that there was no excuse for going at her like that."
Indeed police were called at least twice to break up brawls. On February 19, 2007, Christen told cops about an argument. He complained to a 911 operator that Lilly was talking about an ex-boyfriend. When officers arrived, "both parties were calm," according to the incident report. Christen said he would sleep on the sofa for the night.
A month later, on March 23, county patrolmen again responded after a report about "the couple's dispute over their living conditions." According to the incident report, Christen's place was "in disarray as there was broken glass, old food, garbage, and dead insects scattered throughout the home." One of the two officers contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families. The couple was "in no condition to currently care" for six-month-old Palden.
Lilly told the cops she "suffered from several medical conditions and that her medications were not working." They took her to Jackson South, the public hospital in South Miami-Dade. Meanwhile, DCF took her baby into custody until she completed rehab. In April, Lilly was accepted at Saint Luke's Addiction Recovery Center in Liberty City, where she stayed until May 29. She was kicked out after failing a court-ordered drug test, and returned to Christen's condo. Lucely was granted custody of Palden the same day. In the midafternoon of May 31, 2007, Garcia ran into Lilly in the parking lot outside Christen's condo. "She was really down on herself," Garcia recalls. "She complained that everyone in Christen's apartment was smoking crack, and she blamed him for making her smoke too. That was the last time I saw her."
Janet Forte met Lilly in 2004. During the first two years of their acquaintance, they would read books together at Borders in Coconut Grove. "We took our friendship to another level when she got pregnant," Forte says. "She would sleep over at my place, and we would meditate and practice dharma together. She would write poems and loved giving people flowers. She was like a child herself."
Christen knows far more than he has said about the disappearance, Forte alleges, citing the following evidence:
• During a visit one week after the disappearance, "Christen was acting aloof," she says. "He wouldn't make eye contact with us. He told us that she had walked out with no shoes, no money, and no cell phone, to pick flowers."
• Christen's criminal record: Since June 1, 2007, he has been arrested for trespassing, cocaine possession (twice), petty theft, and carrying drug paraphernalia. Two charges have been dismissed and the rest are pending. This past August 8, Miami Police busted him after he was caught holding two needles with heroin residue in Overtown.
• Forte received a tip on her blog that within days of Lilly's disappearance, Christen had driven his Escalade to North Carolina, where he had the vehicle destroyed at a wrecking yard.
This should be enough to spur a more serious investigation, she says. So for the past year, she has lashed out on the Internet against lead Det. Aaron Mancha and his bosses at the domestic crimes bureau. "It's been months and months of nothing," Forte says.
Mancha did not return six phone messages left on his office voicemail and four e-mails seeking comment.
From the beginning, the probe was marred by mistakes and bureaucratic hurdles. After Christen reported Lilly missing, the case sat on Mancha's desk for two weeks until he returned from vacation. Around that time, K-9 units swept the grounds of the Village of Dadeland condo complex but never searched the interior, Forte says.
Police didn't call in Starling — who was asleep at Christen's condo the night Lilly vanished — for questioning, though Mancha visited her mother's house and left word that she should contact him. (New Times tracked Starling down and met with her August 12.) She says she has left the detective several voice messages, but he's never returned the calls. "No one has been trying to do anything," Starling says. "I've been wanting to talk to the detective all this time."
Nor has Christen been interviewed, though Mancha and another detective visited the Dadeland condo last December 5. "They just knocked on the door," says Forte, who accompanied the cops. "When no one answered, they left their card." (Christen says he has spoken to a detective only once, by phone, since filing the initial report.)
Forte says Mancha is also responsible for sending inaccurate information about Lilly — such as listing her height as five feet eleven inches tall — to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's missing persons website. "Dealing with the Miami-Dade Police is like hitting a brick wall," she grouses. "Even the simplest thing like getting [Lilly] listed on the Crime Stoppers website was an issue." (Cops must give the crime-fighting agency their authorization.)
Forte recently appeared twice on the Internet-based radio show War on Crime (available on blogtalkradio.com). HelpFindTheMissing.org posted Lilly's information, her picture, and how to contact Mancha for information about her whereabouts this past March 2. The author wrote, "There has been nothing at all done on this young woman's case to help find her. Her case has been virtually ignored since the beginning."
This past April 21, ZeroGossip.com posted a picture of Christen and the address to his condo with the following text: "Ten months missing without a clue and leaving behind an infant, a mother, friends, and a man she said she was to marry." In a May post, the anonymous author of JurorThirteen.com wrote, "This case has a lot of questions that need to be answered."
The campaign also inspired Susan Murphy-Milano, a battered-women's advocate, to blog (murphymilanojournal.blogspot.com) about Lilly's disappearance 11 times since May. Several posts blast Miami-Dade Police for ignoring leads that could implicate Christen. "The Internet is bringing life to these cold cases when there was no hope," Murphy-Milano says. "It is helping identify people who wouldn't otherwise be identified or who are not considered special enough to look for, like Lilly."
All the Internet attention has amazed Lucely. "[Janet Forte] has knocked down barriers in her mission to find information," she says. "And Janet has found out things that convinced her that something happened to Lilly."
Forte recently got some police response after she received an anonymous call stating Lilly's body was buried on a three-acre lot at 24550 SW 127th Ave. in Homestead. Detective Mancha had the property searched and then sent her an e-mail saying the search had yielded "no hits for Lilly."
Captain Bollinger-Heller defends Mancha, noting that her bureau has only four other detectives to handle the hundreds of missing-persons reports filed with the county police. "Lilly Aramburo has been a high priority," she says. "But we handle many more cases at the same time."
Every detective under Bollinger-Heller's command has put in hours trying to find Lilly. "We have followed up on every lead on her," the captain continues, adding that the domestic crimes bureau has received tips regarding sightings of Lilly alive.
In fact, just this past February, a shelter manager at Camillus House called to report seeing Lilly inside the downtown Miami homeless assistance facility. Of course, when cops arrived, they couldn't find her. Was Lilly a victim of foul play? "We haven't ruled out any possibility," Bollinger-Heller says. "But at this point, we have no proof of criminal wrongdoing in this case, so we can't just pick someone up and arrest them."
Lilly's mother lends little credence to the Camillus House sighting. "I put up posters there shortly after she disappeared with my phone number on it," Lucely says. "No one ever contacted me." Officers have recently made more effort because of the bloggers, especially Forte, Lucely says. "If it wasn't for Janet, the police would not be doing anything."
Christen Pacheco sinks into a reading chair at Starbucks in Florida City when music by synthpop group the Magnetic Fields begins playing. "This is so weird," he says. "This is Lilly's favorite band."
He looks over at his new girlfriend, who sits silently next to him as he recounts his tale of drug abuse with Lilly.
"Part of me wanted to save her," Christen explains. "But it turned out I really wasn't the right person to help her out because we both were so messed up on drugs."
Before he called police to report Lilly missing on June 2, 2007, Christen says, he spent the entire morning searching for her. "I looked in the Grove. I went to a couple of different dope holes were she would cop drugs."
Regarding the Escalade, Christen says he wrecked the SUV last July, a full month after Lilly vanished, on his way back to Miami from his grandmother's funeral in Kingston, Pennsylvania. "The accident happened in Yemassee, South Carolina," he says. "I fell asleep at the wheel, went down an embankment, and the truck flipped over."
Christen says he binged on heroin for weeks after Lilly went away. "I was at home wallowing in self-pity, banging up my veins," he says, caressing the track marks on his arm. "Anyone who knew me and Lilly saw how hurt I was about her disappearance."
Then, he says, in early August of last year, he ran into two friends who claimed they had seen Lilly in Overtown. "One of them went up to her and tried talking to her," Christen says, "but Lilly just kept walking."
For the past six months, Christen says, he's been trying to rebuild his life. His recent bust for holding the heroin-tinged needles was a one-time relapse, he says. "I was going to a party with some old friends," Christen admits. "Before it even started, the cops roped me off."