She opens up Google and types out the words she’s searched nearly every day for eight years:
“Human. Remains. Bones. Atlantic Ocean. Found.”
When nothing comes up, Frances “Mia” Casteing is at once relieved and anguished.
In 2013, a news story got her attention: A fisherman found a severed foot inside a shoe when it washed ashore at Corson’s Inlet State Park in Ocean City.
Even before DNA confirmation, Frances knew. The skeletal remains belonged to her 22-year-old sister, who had vanished more than a year earlier.
How the family had teased Franchesca Alvarado, whom they called Cheka, about those size 5½ Adidas high-top sneakers before she traveled from Philadelphia to Atlantic City with a friend in March 2012.
The friend, Tracy Williams, returned. Franchesca did not. He told Philadelphia police that Franchesca said she would find her own way back to her Hunting Park neighborhood.
The family shared the grim news on Facebook.
It was a gruesome end to a heartbreaking story — or so I believed.
“A lot of people thought that once we found the foot, that was the end of it,” Frances said. “People need to know about the aftermath.”
“We were grateful because other people are never found at all,” said sister Christina “Tina” Ray. “Now it’s a matter of who’s responsible.”
Several months ago, I received a long email from Frances, desperate to keep her sister’s memory alive as the family continues to seek justice in Franchesca’s death.
“She may no longer be breaking news, but our hearts are still breaking,” Frances wrote.
The files on her disappearance sit in the New Jersey state police’s cold case unit.
“The leads have been exhausted,” said Detective Sgt. Joseph Itri.
Franchesca’s daughter, Janiah, 3 when her mother disappeared, is now being raised by Ray, 43, who also raised Frances and Franchesca after their mother died.
But it was the image of Frances, 35, compulsively scouring the internet for any clue nearly 10 years after her sister disappeared, that stuck with me.
“At nighttime or during the day, I’m just looking for stuff,” Frances said. “I don’t want to find her this way, but every other route led me to a dead end.”
The family is tight-knit, but Frances and Franchesca were especially close as they were among the youngest of eight siblings. They lived together for a time. They had raised their daughters together.
“She was my partner in everything,” Frances said.
From the moment Franchesca went missing, the family plastered the Atlantic City Boardwalk with missing fliers. They organized rallies. Every Thanksgiving, family and friends go to New Jersey to feed and clothe the needy. It’s a way to honor Franchesca during her favorite time of year, to feel close to her in the last place she was seen alive. But it also represents a fading hope that their presence might soften someone’s heart and unlock the truth.
When Frances comes across news stories about human remains found, a few times near where Franchesca went missing, she calls medical examiners.
She asks: Do they belong to my sister?
On occasion, they have.
A few months after Franchesca’s foot was found, the family said, her femur was discovered in the same waters.
In 2015, her tibia.
“It’s so bittersweet,” Frances said. “I get this sense of joy, like a spiritual joy, that Franchesca is like spiritually cheering me on, ‘Yes, girl, yes.’”
But then she calls her sister Tina, her voice a mix of grief and worry.
“Every time I tell her that I think I found something, she thinks that I’m going backwards, like getting sick, or getting into a depression,” Frances said, conceding that she was inconsolable after Franchesca went missing. “I don’t want [Tina] to be worried for me. I’m just so determined to bring Franchesca home.”
For a while, Franchesca’s bones were kept at a funeral home owned by another sister in the hopes that one day they could bring all of her home.
But when leads dried up and ongoing Google searches went nowhere, the family decided it was time.
On April 4, 2016, Franchesca’s family buried her bones at Greenmount Cemetery, above their mother, who died of liver disease when Franchesca was 9. Her remains were wrapped in purple silk — Franchesca’s favorite color — and buried in a baby casket also painted purple.
Franchesca’s daughter, Janiah, is 12 now — old enough to know that the story Tia Tina told about her mother being a mermaid was a fairy tale meant to spare heartache for as long as possible.
Janiah tells her aunt that when she’s older, she’s going to find out what happened to her mother.
“Don’t worry, Tia,” she says.
Until then, Frances isn’t ready to give up on her little sister.
“This can’t be the end of her story.”