GASTONIA, N.C. -- No matter how thin the trail, the three searchers follow it.
They comb Gaston County fields and woods, knock on doors and cruise back roads.
The three women are on a mission to solve the mystery of 22-year-old Jamie Fraley, who disappeared from her apartment near Gastonia three years ago, on April 9, 2008.
One is Fraley's aunt; the second is a close family friend, and the third is a retired forensic detective with the Gastonia Police Department.
Several times a week, they put on jeans and boots and gloves. They spend the day interviewing people and passing out fliers. They dig holes, roll over rotten logs and scan the ground with a metal detector. Although they're searching for a body, they hope a clue may turn up that could lead to finding Fraley alive.
Disappointed with police efforts, the women began their own probe about six months ago. They're delving into a strange case - a young woman with no apparent reason to run away, last heard from in the early morning hours of April 9, leaving behind a locked apartment with no sign of a struggle.
We all have unique abilities, Fraley's aunt, Stacy Dennis, says of the investigative trio. God put us together.
All three have expertise in law enforcement.
Dennis, 46, spent 16 years as a sheriff's deputy and police officer. Family friend Linda Roots, 56, of Fayetteville is studying policing online and works as a North Carolina Victims Assistant Service Provider. And Rheta Conley, 51, retired after 20 years with the Gastonia Police Department.
The Fraley family has been looking for their missing loved one since 2008, even enlisting help from private investigators.
When Conley called to volunteer her services, the search took on new momentum. Conley says she was drawn to the case because she has a daughter the same age as Jamie Fraley.
It's hard to think about somebody losing a daughter... she says. I'm still a police officer at heart. And this is one way I can help.
Jamie Fraley's mother, Kim Fraley of Kings Mountain, welcomes the self-appointed investigators who have come to her side: I can't put into words how much they mean to me.
On the third anniversary of her disappearance, Jamie Fraley hasn't been forgotten.
Her photo is on a billboard along Interstate 85 in Gaston County - put there by the Charlotte-based Kristen Foundation. The national nonprofit crusades for relatives of missing adults and is named in honor of Charlotte's Kristen Modafferi who, at 18, disappeared in San Francisco in 1997.
Gaston County Police say the Fraley case that initially drew national attention is still active.
Fraley, who was bi-polar 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. Fraley's purse and door keys were inside.
Police said it looked as though she stepped away, expecting to return.
The day after Fraley disappeared, a utility worker found her cellphone as it rang alongside South New Hope Road, about two miles from the apartment. Jamie's mom and Aunt Stacy were desperately trying to reach her.
Early on, police began to suspect Ricky Dale Simonds Sr., 49, as a person of interest 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. turned up dead in the trunk of his ex-girlfriend's car. Still, police searched for clues about what happened to Fraley.
She 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, her family says, 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.
On May 6, police found the BMW that Jennifer Rivkin, 42, of Kings Mountain was driving near a bar in west Gastonia. Her purse was still inside the car. She was last heard from in a cellphone message she left for a friend on May 4.
Three years later, only the Yarmolenko murder case is closed. A jury last month convicted a Mount Holly man in her killing.
Police say the cases don't appear connected.
They have no leads in Rivkin's case, they say.
As for Fraley, Gaston County Police Capt. Joe Ramey says the department recently reviewed her case to see if they missed anything. They're looking into several questions that arose, he says, but wouldn't give details.
Tip from Hong Kong visit
Police have examined all manner of tips in Fraley's case, Ramey says, including one from a vacationing Connecticut woman who believes she spotted Fraley in Hong Kong last year. While the woman was downtown she saw several women in a group, and one of them mouthed help me before fading in the crowd. Back home, the vacationer searched the Internet for missing persons and thought she recognized Fraley as the woman she had seen in Hong Kong.
We passed along the tip to the FBI, Ramey says. You have to take these things seriously. She (Fraley) could have been abducted and put in the sex trade or other illegal purposes. These things are real possibilities.
He understands the family's frustration. It's good her family keeps the case before the public, he says, so new tips might come in. But he also says citizen-investigators should be cautious about where they search and be sure to get permission.
Ramey, who keeps the Fraley file on his desk, says the case will not fall off our radar. We won't forget.
Her family members say they're unhappy with the initial police investigation. They wonder whether police properly analyzed Fraley's cellphone for clues. When family invited private investigators to help break the case, Stacy Dennis says, police wouldn't work with them.
Now, the family wants help from Fayetteville-based forensic psychologist Maurice Godwin.
A former police officer, Godwin, 53, is a forensic consultant for defense attorneys. He also does reverse geographic profiling as a free service to families in missing person cases. It's a tool, he says, that uses locations identified in police investigations to create a computer model that predicts where a body might be found.
To do that, Godwin says, he needs to see Fraley's case file. But Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell has denied access.
This is an ongoing investigation, and we're not jeopardizing it by making public the information we have, Bell says. We protect our investigation.
Even without the file, Godwin says, I'm still willing to go and see what I can do.
The family's search for answers has evolved over time.
Stacy Dennis moved in with her sister Kim, Jamie Fraley's mother, about two years ago to offer support. Kim Fraley has gone on disability, suffering from the stress of her daughter's disappearance.
Roots joined the pair in 2009 to look after her close friends - and look into Jamie's disappearance. The search intensified last October when Conley joined in.
The women say they have a person of interest - Ricky Dale Simonds Sr. - and their search revolves around his activities before his death. They explore relationships, chase bits and pieces of stray information, one step leading to another.
The more we look, the more we find, Conley says. We're narrowing things.
It's a tough, time-consuming course - with no guarantee of success. But they are committed.
Says Dennis: I've got to bring Jamie home.