One morning in September 2019, Jessica Nuñez’s 14-year-old daughter asked if she could stay home from school as she was feeling anxious.
Ms Nuñez thought little of it: the girl was only weeks into her first term at a prestigious private school in Phoenix, Arizona, and her autism meant she struggled with classroom environments to begin with.
The following morning, she entered her daughter’s bedroom to wake her up and brush her hair – a daily ritual they never missed. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Ms Nuñez’s world fell apart as she read a handwritten note which said: ‘I ran away. I will be back, I swear. I’m sorry. -Alicia.’
The girl, Alicia Navarro, wouldn’t be seen by her mum again until this week, when she turned up – now aged 18 – at a police station near the Canadian border in Montana.
‘She is by all accounts safe, she is by all accounts healthy, and she is by all accounts happy,’ a spokesperson for the local force told a press conference.
After being reunited with her daughter, Ms Nuñez celebrated the discovery as a ‘miracle’.
But it remains unclear to what extent the latest chapter of their story could be described as a happy ending.
Besides her note, various clues suggest Alicia left home willingly.
The back door appeared to have been unlocked from the inside, and chairs left against the inner side of the garden fence suggest she had to scale it unassisted.
As well her phone and laptop, various items were missing from her bedroom which would be of little value to a potential kidnapper, such as cosmetics, body spray and a comic book.
And in a brief snippet of a video call with police from her home town of Glendale, she can be heard insisting ‘nobody hurt me’ during her years away.
But Ms Nuñez and detectives who investigated her disappearance have previouslysaid they suspect she was groomed or lured away by someone she met online.
Alicia lived with her mother and stepfather and had a few friends she hung out with, but found it easier to socialize online, according to Uncovered, the largest crowdsourced database on cold cases in the US.
She often played Minecraft and other online games, using the Discord messaging platform to keep in touch with people she met that way.
An early sign that she may have been coerced was the fact she left most of her clothes, her favourite belongings and her phone and laptop chargers.
Kathleen Winn, director of Project25, a nonprofit dedicated to solving cases of human trafficking, last year told the Arizona Republic that the finds ‘suggests to us that she herself didn’t know she wouldn’t be returning’.
Days after Alicia’s disappearance, Ms Nuñez rushed to a park around 1.5 miles away from the family home after one of the girl’s friends said she had seen her there.
The mother says she spoke to multiple people there who said they had seen a girl who looked like Alicia walking with a man.
Nonetheless, Alicia did not appear to be running from anything when she approached the police.
She told officers she was there because ‘she would like to get her driver’s licence’, The Anti-Predator Project, which has worked with law enforcement on the case since 2021, told The Independent.
Most perplexing of all, perhaps, is how normal the girl seemed to the one person who knew her best when they spent her fateful day off in September 2019 together.
‘I took her to get her eyebrows threaded and then we went to a chocolate factory. I mean she was really happy that day,’ a tearful Ms Nuñez told USA Today. ‘She was laughing, I don’t understand it.’
Alicia turned up to the police station by herself, but this does not rule out the possibility that she escaped someone who was keeping her against her will, police say.
‘From what she stated, this started as a runaway situation. But of course, there are more dynamics at play as we start to put together the puzzle,’ Lieutenant Scott Waite of Glendale’s police department said during a press briefing.
He added: ‘As this investigation unfolds and we get more clarification on what happened to her, that’s certainly a possibility.
‘But I can’t say there’s anything imminent or pending. In any investigation like this, there’s a criminal element – if there’s any criminal intent behind it, certainly not from her, but if others are involved.
‘To us, she is a victim.’
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