‘Black and Missing’ sheds light on black missing persons cases
Executive producer and journalist Soledad O’Brien discusses HBO’s new “Black and Missing” docuseries. The four-part series examines the lack of attention law enforcement and media pay to cases involving people of color, and follows Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson who run the Black & Missing Foundation. (December 3)
The smallest things remind Robert Benaglio of his half-sister.
Whether he’s outside or watching something at home, every time he sees a photo of Barney, the main character of the popular children’s show, he can’t help but smile.
âShe loved singing the Barney song, changing the words to be humorous,â said Begalio, 54, âbecause she thought Barney was stupid. So every time I see Barney it’s what I’m thinking about. “
Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the last time someone saw their sister, Celina Mays. Her disappearance from her home in Willingboro has at times attracted national attention and has been the subject of conspiracies and accusations launched between both sides of her family.
Celina was 12 when she disappeared. She was also nine months pregnant, just two weeks from her due date. After following hundreds of leads that have yet to bear significant fruit, the police are mobilizing their efforts to get people talking about her again.
Celina Mays’ last night at home: ice cream and thanks
“In 1996, we had limited resources to communicate with the public and obtain information on missing persons,” the Willingboro Police Department said in a statement. âIn 2021, social media has evolved a lot and can now quickly reach a wide variety of people through many platforms. We are using social media to spread information about Celina in order to raise awareness of her case. We hope social media will be a beneficial tool in finding new information about Celina Mays’ disappearance. “
The department has worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) since 1996 to track down Celina, who is now said to be 37. Recently, the organization requested media coverage from Walmart, USA Today, Surfer Quest, and FIA in several states. .
Over the years, the matter has been passed on to a handful of officers following retirements. Still, said Willingboro Detective Monica Pogorzelski, the enthusiasm for solving it hasn’t waned.
âIt’s not something that has just been put aside,â she said. “This has been the subject of continuous investigation and whatever leads come up, we follow and go, go, go; and nothing comes up for evidentiary purposes to go any further.”
Celina disappeared on December 16, 1996.
After church that evening, the family returned to their Crestview Drive home and ate ice cream in the kitchen. When Celina finished around 11 p.m., she hugged everyone goodnight and put her dishes in the sink.
Everything was normal until, according to her stepmother Evette Mays, Celina said “thank you for everything”. The family might not have thought about it at the time, but looking back they saw that she was saying goodbye to them.
Celina’s 4-year-old stepsister was sent to wake the teenager for breakfast, but she found only pillows and sheets laid out in a way that looked like she was still in bed. All of Celina’s personal effects, such as her purse and CD player, were left in the room. She looked like she left with nothing but the clothes on her back.
Disappearance conspiracy theories
It didn’t take long after his disappearance was reported for speculations and theories to form.
One of the first angles the police looked at was identifying the father of Celina’s child. Family members have claimed that she never disclosed who got her pregnant. In fact, her father, CJ Mays, said she got angry when she learned that blood tests on the baby could identify the baby’s father. Mays said his daughter told him the father was 16 and not a member of their church.
In order to prevent some rumors from spreading out of control, Mays told police he had had a vasectomy years before. His doctor confirmed it.
Despite Celina’s age, the family opposed an abortion because of her faith. The urgency to find her was magnified by the fact that due to her young age she probably would not have been able to deliver vaginally and would have needed a Caesarean.
Both sides of Celina’s family have been pointing fingers at each other in search of her fate. But this tension existed long before the disappearance.
Celina was born on May 21, 1984 to CJ Mays and Lynn Vitale. The three moved from Miami to Palmyra in 1986. When Vitale died in 1994 of an aneurysm, her maternal family sought custody of Celina citing Mays’ criminal history of domestic violence and drug use. . He said he passed this life after leaving Florida and found religion in New Jersey. Mays eventually got custody and Celina moved in with him to Willingboro.
At the time of the disappearance, Cindy Cram, Celina’s maternal aunt, suggested that Mays’ family was hiding her and suspected foul play. Her family, on the other hand, blamed the maternal side of the family, alleging that they brought her back to Florida or Michigan, where they are from, because they still wanted custody of her. Mays also believed the family didn’t like him because he was black and they were white.
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Although she would like to see her niece again, Cram is not optimistic.
âIt immediately felt like she wasn’t alive,â Cram said. “Sometimes you go with your gut. And I still didn’t feel like she was alive. I think they shut her up.”
Cram highlights concerns and controversies surrounding Mays Church, Gospel of Christ Ministry, which came under scrutiny early in the investigation.
In 1991, Gospel of Christ was abolished as a member church of Christ Gospel Ministries International of Jeffersonville, Indiana, a Pentecostal denomination of over 1,100 members. The deletion came after an investigation into allegations that her pastor, Cerita Smith, CJ Mays’ sister, was running the church in an “authoritarian style.”
Barbara Young, an attorney for the organization, said at the time that they found Smith’s “philosophy on church leadership and its handling of financial matters to be inconsistent with our philosophy and policies.”
The ministry of the gospel of Christ was the focal point of the Mays family. Many adults worked there; the children were home-schooled there; and he dominated their social life. During the initial investigation into Celina’s disappearance, several church members spoke out and claimed that Smith was in control of all aspects of the church and family.
Smith and Mays’ family provided little cooperation with the investigation, police said at the time.
CJ Mays passed away in 2019. The other members of the Mays family could not be reached for comment.
Today, the church property on Washington Street in Mount Holly appears to be abandoned. Residents say the building has not been a place of worship for more than a decade.
One resident, who only gave Tina’s name, said she remembered the time when the whole town could only talk about Celina and the church.
“The kids were playing and I was like, ‘Don’t come down that way,'” Tina said, gesturing towards the old church a few hundred yards away. “Much has been said about the missing girl.”
Initially, Smith claimed that the allegations and suspicions were raised by former members who simply wanted to see the building fail. After speaking during the early stages of the investigation, Smith rarely made any statements to the media or the police and refused police requests to search the house and church.
Officers were denied a search warrant at Mays ‘home as a judge ruled they could be considered victims, citing Mays’ claims that police were biased against the family during questioning .
One of the most promising leads came on January 25, 1997, when the owner of a Sizzler store in Howell told police he saw Celina having dinner with a group. The young girl, who came with a pastor and several others, including a photographer, did not appear to be pregnant, restaurant owner Narain Harpaul told authorities.
Police acted on the report, but ultimately determined that the girl was not Celina.
Police are puzzled, but are still working on the case
The first weeks of the investigation turned into months, then years and now more than two decades. But the case does not bear much fruit.
Two years ago, the Mays moved from their Crestview Drive home, according to a woman who lives across the street from the property. She wasn’t very familiar with the family or the business, but just knew them as well as anyone would know their average neighbor. It is not known where they reside now.
Today, the police are still as puzzled as they were the day she was reported missing; but ever-changing technology can change that. Today, if she is alive and if she has given birth successfully, Celina is a 37 year old mother with a 25 year old child. An age photo has been developed and distributed across the country, and police are hoping someone will recognize it.
Maybe someone will pass one of these flyers and wonder why their friend’s mother is missing; or maybe someone else will recognize her as a coworker, not realizing that they are working the same shifts with someone who is the subject of one of the most high-profile cold cases of the history of the state; or maybe the rumors were true, and the 12-year-old known to be wise beyond her years saw her life tragically cut short after she vanished without a trace.
Ahmad Austin Jr. is a longtime South Jersey resident telling stories within the health and cannabis industries for Burlington County Times, Courier-Post and The Daily Journal. For history advice, contact [email protected].
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