With a dream job at Bryn Mawr Hospital, hopes of a wedding, and a slew of gold medals from the Special Olympics, Dawn Mozino could not have been happier.

Born with a learning disability, Dawn was proving at age 23 that she could take care of herself. At just 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds, she was a scrappy athlete who loved competing in track. And she and her boyfriend were happily planning a future together.

"She loved her job. She had her own bank account, her own phone. Dawn was in a place where, if she said she wanted to move out into her own apartment, she was ready," said her mother, Diane Mozino, who lived with her two daughters in Wayne.

Dawn never got a chance to show the world how independent she had become.

On May 22, 1989, the upbeat young woman left work at 3:30 p.m. as usual, eager to get to track practice at the Upper Main Line YMCA. She walked two blocks to Lancaster and Bryn Mawr Avenues to catch the bus.

And then she disappeared.

Dawn always let her family know her whereabouts, even if she was visiting a friend's house across the street.

"If she said she was going to be home by 5, she was home by 5," said her younger sister, Cathy Mozino-Miesen, 39, a teacher who has two children, 7 and 8, and lives in Wayne.

After graduating from Devereux Day School and Marple Newtown Vo-Tech, Dawn got a job delivering meals to patients at Paoli Memorial Hospital. In 1986, her sister nearly lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and Dawn quit her job to help take care of her.

"We had a typical sister relationship, love-hate. We'd scratch and fight and then get along beautifully," said Mozino-Miesen.

At the same time, Dawn was racking up medals as a long-distance runner in the Special Olympics. Twice a year she would compete at events at Pennsylvania State University and Villanova University.

"She had so many medals. That was her pride and joy," recalled her father, Andrew Mozino, a retired real estate consultant who is divorced from Dawn's mother and lives in Bryn Mawr.

Her difficulties with memory and attention didn't stop her from reading and writing poetry and memorizing the local bus and train schedules.

"If you were having a conversation with her, you wouldn't know she had a learning disability," said her father.

It was through Special Olympics that Dawn met Dan Kolb, who also had developmental problems. After dating for about four years, they were inching toward living together and even attended marriage counseling at United Methodist Church in Wayne, said her mother.

"They would have been fine," she said, "but they had to take things slow."

With her sister on the mend, Dawn landed a job as a dietary aide at Bryn Mawr Hospital in 1987. Her supervisors said she was a model employee who loved chatting with patients, according to her family.

"She was never late, never missed a day. She was up before the sun came out and out the door," said her sister.

On the day Dawn vanished, her mother sat on the front porch waiting to see her curly haired, red-headed daughter come home from work. After a while she asked Cathy if she knew where Dawn was.

They went to her room and checked her answering machine. That's when panic set in - Dawn's boyfriend had left several messages asking why she wasn't at track practice.

"If she wasn't with us, she was with Dan," said Diane Mozino.

The two women drove to Bryn Mawr Hospital to look for her, but the guards and other employees hadn't seen her leave that day. Shortly afterward, they called police.

Mozino doesn't remember much about those frantic days.

"The bottom dropped out of my whole life," she said.

She quit her job at a party store and stayed home to wait for a call or tip about her missing daughter. Meanwhile, friends distributed pictures while investigators searched ponds and parks.

Weeks later, police got what seemed like a break: A coworker said she saw Dawn get into someone's car at the bus stop that day.

The driver was Thomas Hawkins, 27 at the time, a convicted murderer who served six years of a 15-year sentence for the 1980 murder of Karen Stubbs, 15, of Reading, who was found strangled and stabbed in the throat in her dormitory room at Pine Forge Academy in Berks County.

Hawkins had worked with Dawn at Paoli Hospital. Diane Mozino remembers him coming to her house once to take Dawn to work but says they weren't really friends. Mozino knew nothing of his criminal background.

However, police later told her that Hawkins had given her daughter rides before, sometimes picking her up at bus stops.

Hawkins denied giving Dawn a ride that day. Police found some fibers in his car that may have come from her uniform, but there was nothing else to link him to the case, said Bruce L. Castor Jr., the former Montgomery County district attorney.

"Just seeing them together absent any other evidence is not enough," especially without a body, he said.

On June 4, two weeks after Dawn vanished, Hawkins sexually assaulted and killed his niece, Andrea Thomas, at his parents' home in West Pottsgrove Township. He was convicted in 1990, but the state Supreme Court reversed the judgment on the grounds that he was inadequately represented at the trial and the judge's charges to the jury were inappropriate.

In 1994, he was retried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He is now on death row in Graterford Prison.

Castor, who tried both cases with Dawn's mother in the audience, is convinced Hawkins killed Dawn.

"Since he murdered someone else, the likelihood that it is a coincidence that he was the last person seen with Dawn is remote," he said.

At the time, Castor offered to rescind Hawkins' death sentence if he agreed to tell authorities what he knew about Mozino's disappearance, a deal the current district attorney, Risa Vetri Ferman, said was still on the table.

Hawkins rejected the offer and has denied any role in the case.

"Ultimately I think when they have him strapped on the table with tubes running in him, then he'll want to deal," Castor, now a Montgomery County commissioner, said.

But that is unlikely, since the only executions in Pennsylvania since 1962 have been voluntary.

"I do think the person responsible for her disappearance and probable death is on death row, so I take some measure of comfort in that," he said.

It's harder for Dawn's family.

On May 22, relatives gathered at a weeping cherry tree planted in her memory at the Willows Park in Villanova, as they do for her birthday and other milestones.

She is present in their lives, in the pictures scattered through their homes and the stories they tell. And Kolb, who works at the YMCA, still calls Diane Mozino every night.

"He's gotten beyond it, but a part of him never left us," she said.

For her to move forward, she needs to find her daughter and to give her a proper burial.

"Like anybody else, she deserves respect. If [Hawkins] gets the death penalty, his family has the respect of burying him," she said. "And we're left with nothing."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.