Family holds hope to catch teen's killer

October 31, 2009 6:12:30 AM PDT
One Dickinson family will not be celebrating Halloween this weekend.Saturday will mark three years since Terressa Vanegas vanished. The 16-year-old was later found dead, and no suspect has been found.

What happened to the teen is still a mystery, and her family has new hope they may one day find out.

"It's just sickening that somebody would even think about doing that to a little girl," said Terressa's sister, Jackie Metcalf.

Terressa's sisters, Metcalf and Amanda Vanegas, are now preparing for the anniversary of her death.

"Ever since she passed away, I just haven't been the same," Vanegas said.

Terressa was last seen at a party on Halloween night in 2006. When she didn't return home the next morning, her grandmother assumed she was with friends.

"She had a history of running off to some friends' house for a couple days," said grandmother Betty Metcalf.

Three days later, Dickinson police said a man riding a dirt bike found her body lying in a ditch, just yards from her high school.

While police would not confirm the details of her death, Terressa's family said they discovered she had been beaten and strangled with her own belt. Her long brown hair she loved had also been cut short.

"I was devastated," Betty Metcalf said. "It was just like -- I was in shock. I just wished I could go to sleep and never wake up."

Family and friends searched the surrounding field for clues and found Terressa's glasses and hair clip. Police also found some DNA on her body. But that is still the best clue they have.

"All they (the police) ever say is 'We're waiting on DNA,'" Betty Metcalf said. "We don't know anymore. After three years, we don't know any more than we did the day they found her."

Another Dickinson cold case made national news earlier this month, when police announced they had a big break in a 19-year-old case.

Nearly two decades after Jennifer Schuett was raped and left for dead at the age of 8, a DNA hit led investigators to Dennis Bradford. He was living near Little Rock, Arkansas.

It as an arrest that ignited something in Terressa's case -- a new hope that her killer might still be found.

"These kind of cases never really get off your mind," said Dickinson Police Chief Ron Morales.

For three years, Morales said his department has jumped at every lead.

"We at first had quite a few leads to go on," he said. "We ran into dead ends on each and every one of them."

But with a DNA profile in CODIS -- the database used by law enforcement nationwide -- Morales is confident that it is only a matter of time.

"One da, I'm a strong believer in that he will mess up," he said. "When that does happen, we'll have our person."

Since 2001, CODIS has grown steadily and can now identify more than 7 million Americans by their DNA. In Texas, nearly 500,000 people -- or roughly 2 percent of the state -- have been entered into the system, usually after a felony conviction.

That's how Dennis Bradford was caught. Busted for kidnapping in Arkansas, his DNA made it into CODIS, matching a sample retrieved from clothing found near Jennifer Schuett back in 1990.

For the Vanegas family, waiting has become the worst Halloween nightmare of all.

"I'll just be sitting in the living room thinking about her, and then I just -- tears just start coming to my eyes," Betty Metcalf said. "It's like I just can't get past this point that I am now. And, I think I could if I just knew who did it."

"I have hope that one day we will find him," Vanegas said. "I just hope it's sooner than 19 years though."

On Sept. 1, a new law took effect in Texas, closing a loophole to require criminals to submit DNA after all felony convictions, regardless of their sentence. It's part of a trend nationwide, requiring more people to submit DNA for databases.

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