(TRENTON, N.J.) -- Melissa Diane McGuinn was just 7 months old when she disappeared from her home in Trenton 26 years ago, but her mother remains convinced that her only daughter is out there somewhere.
"I've always felt in my heart that she is out there," Becky McGuinn House said. "It's not just a whimsy feeling. It's a strong feeling. I feel she is alive."
In March 1988, House and her husband Robert McGuinn shared a row house in Trenton with another couple -- Wanda Reed and her partner -- who had an infant son. The two young mothers grew close. They shared housekeeping chores and fell into a routine of watching each other's babies.
"Every morning [Wanda] would come in my room," House said. "She would get Melissa, and she would take her downstairs and play with her in the living room."
So House was not concerned on the morning of March 6, 1988, when Wanda took baby Melissa downstairs while House got dressed. But minutes later, when House said she heard a commotion downstairs, she became alarmed. According to Trenton police reports, a neighbor came running up the stairs and asked where Melissa was. House says she felt, "like somebody had ripped my heart out."
Trenton Police began an extensive search but could find no sign of the missing baby. They arrested Reed on kidnapping charges but asserted that questioning her proved fruitless because her story about what happened kept changing.
"She was 30 years old, but she had the mind capacity of a 5-, 6-year-old," House said.
According to New Jersey State Police detectives and Trenton police reports, at first Reed told detectives she gave baby Melissa to a man in a car. But when pressed for details, her description of the car changed. Next Reed claimed to have thrown the baby in the nearby Delaware River just blocks from their home. Police dragged the river but found nothing to suggest that story was true. Baby Melissa had simply vanished.
In the end, the charges against Reed were dropped because a judge determined she was mentally unfit to stand trial and the case was dismissed.
After several years Trenton Police closed the case and the trail for baby Melissa went cold.
After Melissa's disappearance, House and her husband Robert McGuinn moved to Arkansas. They had more children -- all boys -- but House said she has never stopped agonizing over what happened to her little girl.
"The hardest part is not knowing," she said. "Knowing that there's a beautiful young lady out there somewhere that is mine. And I don't know: dead, alive, mistreated, happy?"
House said she had almost given up hope. Her husband died in 2008. That same year House received a call from Sgt. Wanda Stajanov with the New Jersey State Police. Stajanov had been contacted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on the 20th anniversary of Melissa's disappearance with a new lead in the case. Something about Melissa's case touched Stajanov.
"I have children of my own," Stajanov said. "After talking to Becky, I can't imagine what she's going through."
Though the first lead didn't pan out, Stajanov and Det. Paul Sciortino have been pouring over old police reports and re-interviewing witnesses.
In a stroke of luck, the investigators actually have a sample of Melissa's DNA: the hospital where she was born kept her newborn blood sample. So if they find Melissa, there will be no problem confirming her real identity.
So far four women in their mid-20s matching Melissa's description have been tested. Three of them were not a match. Detectives are awaiting DNA results on the fourth. House waits patiently for news of her daughter and never stops searching.
"There's not a young lady that I've walked past that I don't look and wonder," she said. "I feel one of these days, I'm going to walk up and actually look at myself, just younger. And it's going to be her."
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