Martha Durkee’s daughter Ashley Higgins vanished from Costa Mesa in 1982.
Martha is still looking for her.
“If it rains, I think, ‘Is she warm? Is she dry? Is she in a safe place?” says Durkee, who is now 80 and walks with a cane. “There are certain dishes I still won’t cook because it was her favorite. It goes on and on.”
Ashley would be 52 years old now — if she is alive. She was 19 when she disappeared without a trace.
“I still want to find my daughter” Durkee said. “Maybe she has children? I haven’t given up hope.”
That’s why she got in her car in Newport Beach Saturday morning and drove to the California Coroner Training Center in Santa Ana.
“What’s happening here today is a miracle,” she says. “It’s going to bring closure for many people.”
What happened was the first ever “Identify the Missing Day” — hosted by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Coroner Division.
It’s part of an effort by several counties in Southern California to solve some of the dozens of nagging missing persons cases.
Families with missing loved ones were urged to bring dental records, driver’s licenses, photographs or X-rays of their kin.
Forensic professionals and law enforcement officers from about 15 agencies throughout Orange County were on hand to open missing persons files, update existing files and perform DNA cheek swabs on family members to put into a national data base.
Durkee and her son, a retired Tustin patrol officer and Ashley’s older brother, gave cheek swabs.
“For years we searched and searched,” said Durkee, wearing a neck brace, a butterfly barrette holding back her white hair. “We hired detectives. I got so desperate I used to run past little blond girls at the shopping malls to see if the face was her.”
Higgins was about 5-foot-2, with blond hair and brown eyes. She weighed about 120 pounds. She had just graduated from Newport Harbor High the year before and had her own apartment in Costa Mesa.
One day in October, 1982, Durkee and her daughter went to a movie together. A few days later her daughter was just gone. Ashley’s pet dog and cockatiel were found alone in her apartment. Police suspected foul play but never had any leads.
Upon checking in on Saturday, Durkee, like the other families who showed up, was assigned a mental health professional to shepherd her through the emotional day.
“Are you here to look for a loved one?” a woman behind the check-in desk asked each person as they signed in.
She asked it 34 times before the day was over. That’s how many families, often with children in tow, showed up hoping to find some answers and some peace. By day’s end, two of the 34 had located their loved ones — and they were alive.
Law enforcement called the day a success and said they hope to repeat it.
But most of all they hope it closes some cases that continue to haunt them and Orange County citizens left in limbo.
Durkee said that for years she awaited the arrival of 2002, holding out hope that her daughter might come walking through the door when it arrived. Before she disappeared, Ashley had been told she would inherit about $100,000 when she turned 40. And she turned 40 in 2002.
But 2002 came and went.
“I want to see my daughter before I die,” Durkee said. “I’m just out of places to look.”