GASTONIA, N.C. -- The friends have an unusual bond: a search for two missing women.
The six-woman team is made up of the victims’ family members, people they’d known years earlier and a former forensic detective who is retired from the Gastonia Police Department.
Chasing tips, combing through woods and fields, knocking on doors, they’re out to find the missing persons, dead or alive.
The quest takes them to what one of the women described as “places we probably shouldn’t go.” Often, they turn up nothing. But occasionally they discover information that’s worth passing along to police. So far, though, there’s been no break in the cases.
Jamie Fraley was 22 when she disappeared from her apartment near Gastonia on April 9, 2008.
On May 6 of that year, police found the borrowed BMW that 42-year-old Jennifer Ramsey Rivkin of Kings Mountain was driving, near a bar in west Gastonia. She was last seen May 4.
As the fifth anniversary of the disappearances approaches, the six women spoke with a reporter in hopes of reviving public interest. The women are Janet Garvey, Rivkin’s sister; Tesla Rush, Fraley’s sister; Kim Fraley, Fraley’s mother; Rheta Conley, a retired detective; Lisa Thompson, a friend of Garvey’s; and Stacey Dennis, Fraley’s aunt.
It’s the first time Rivkin’s family has gone into much detail about her life. “Five years is a long time for any family,” said Garvey, 46, of Bessemer City. “It’s too long. The not knowing is the hardest part.”
The Fraley family has been looking for their missing loved one since she disappeared in 2008, even enlisting help from private investigators.
The search took on new momentum a little more than two years ago, when Conley, a Gastonia police officer for 21 years, volunteered her services.
Gaston police say the Fraley case, which initially drew national attention, is still active.
Jamie Fraley, who was bipolar and suffered from other health issues, didn’t drive and lived in an apartment complex on Lowell-Bethesda Road outside Gastonia. Authorities said they found her apartment locked, with everything in place and no signs of violence. Early on, police began to suspect Ricky Dale Simonds Sr., 49, in Fraley’s disappearance. He lived in the same apartment complex and had served prison time for killing a woman in the 1980s, police said. And Fraley had been dating Simonds’ son, Ricky Jr., who wasn’t considered a suspect because he was in prison when Fraley disappeared.
But in June, 2008, Simonds Sr. was found dead in the trunk of his ex-girlfriend’s car.
“The main suspect in this case is deceased,” said Assistant Gaston County Police Chief Joe Ramey. “We have no other leads that point in any other direction.”
Still, police continued to search for clues about what happened to Fraley. Ramey said new evidence in the Fraley case was recently tested, but it didn’t help investigators.
Fraley was a student at Gaston College and planned a career as a drug counselor, family members say. She wasn’t a user and disapproved of drugs, they said, but she wanted to help addicts.
Fraley’s disappearance was the first of three high-profile Gaston County mysteries in spring 2008.
On May 5, UNC Charlotte student Irina “Ira” Yarmolenko, 20, was found strangled on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly.
In 2011, a Gaston County jury convicted a Mount Holly man in her killing.
Police say the three cases don’t appear to be connected.
As for the self-appointed investigators, Ramey said, “I can understand family members who are always looking for answers. You sympathize with that. They want closure. But we have to have solid, valid information to follow up on. And that’s difficult at this time.”
The searchers say they’re not trying to solve the cases; they’re looking for bodies, while still hoping the women might still be alive.
In the last few months, they’ve found what they consider good information in the Rivkin case and turned it over to Gastonia police.
While not commenting on that specific information, Gastonia Police Sgt. Gene Watson said “we followed up on a lead last week, but it didn’t pan out. Right at this moment, we’re at a dead end.”
Meanwhile, Janet Garvey continues to think of her sister, Jennifer Rivkin, every day.
After graduating from Bessemer City High School in 1983, Rivkin married, had a son and divorced. She studied barbering in Charlotte and opened a hairstyling business called Jennifer & Co. in her hometown. Things went well, but Garvey said her sister also dreamed of a songwriting career.
Rivkin traveled back and forth to Nashville and finally moved there. While cutting the hair of country music stars, she wrote songs and managed an up-and-coming singer.
Then she married again, eloping to Key West, Fla., with David Rivkin – also known as “David Z.” He’s a songwriter, manager, producer, and mixer who has worked with Prince, Etta James, Billy Idol and other major artists.
Garvey said the couple lived in Nashville’s upscale Brentwood suburb, near such celebrities as country star Waylon Jennings. They visited Gaston County frequently.
Garvey doesn’t know what happened to her sister in Nashville, except that somewhere along the way “she took the wrong path.”
The second marriage didn’t last, Garvey said. In 2004, Rivkin returned to Bessemer City.
“She needed to be home,” Garvey said. “She had an addiction problem.”
For the next four years, her sister struggled. Garvey said she and her father traveled all over North Carolina, repeatedly getting Rivkin out of jail. She often landed behind bars on drug and shoplifting charges.
“Despite her addictions, she was still very close to her family,” Garvey said. “She never brought drugs around her family or came around her family high. That was something she kept to herself. She protected us from that part of her life.”
Garvey saw her sister for the last time on May 1, 2008. They met in Garvey’s office at the family’s electric motor service business in Dallas, N.C. It was a warm spring day, and as they looked out the window, Rivkin spoke of going back to Nashville and writing songs again.
But she was afraid the old crowd there would make fun of her because she no longer wore $500 shoes or expensive designer outfits. Garvey noticed the worn-out sandals Rivkin was wearing and wondered if they’d been shoplifted from Kmart.
“She asked me if I thought she was good enough for anything,” Garvey said. “I told her there was never a time she wasn’t good enough.”
After about two hours, Rivkin got up to leave.
“She said she loved me,” Garvey said. “We hugged. And then she was gone.”
Rivkin visited her parents on May 4, and her abandoned car was found two days later.
For Garvey, her sister’s face is a haunting image. She spots it in grocery store checkout lines and passing cars or on sidewalks. Garvey and her fellow searchers follow every tip that comes their way.
Like the Fraley family, she says she plans to stick with the quest for as long as it takes.
“If I didn’t continue searching, how could I go to sleep at night?” Garvey said. “I could say, ‘OK, Jennifer’s gone. I’ve got to get on with my life.’ But no, I can’t do that. Everything reminds me of Jennifer. She was a drug addict, but she’s still human. We all make mistakes. I’m never going to give up. Never, never, never.”