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Girls Disappearance Remains Mystery

December 16, 1997

WILLINGBORO, N.J. (AP) _ Celina Janette Mays was 12 years old and nine months pregnant when she disappeared without a trace two weeks before the baby was due.

On the first anniversary of her disappearance _ and despite an intense nationwide search _ authorities remain as baffled as they were then.

``We haven’t given up on it yet,″ police spokesman Lt. Dennis DePew said Monday.

Relatives in New Jersey, Michigan and Florida are also searching for Celina, who was the subject of a bitter custody battle between her father and family members of her mother, who died in 1994. Some relatives on both sides have even accused the other of keeping Celina in hiding for the past year.

As each day passes, the glimmer of hope fades, but relatives are still optimistic that Celina will be found alive. Police are treating her disappearance as a missing persons case.

``It’s been a long year. I think about it every day, but you can’t dwell on it,″ said Celina’s half-brother, Bob Benaglio of Dryden, Mich. ``I’m going to think positive until it’s proven negative.″

Her uncle, Richard Carrow of Warren, Mich., is more cautious when asked if he believes Celina is safe.

``We sure hope so, but after a year it’s kinda tough to hold up your vigil,″ said Carrow. ``Reality after a while does set in.″

Celina, who was home-schooled, was last seen by family members on Dec. 15, 1996, in the Willingboro home where she lived with her father, stepmother and numerous relatives. She left behind her prenatal vitamins, purse and a treasured compact disc.

The next morning, pillows were found stuffed under blankets on her bed and her father, C.J. Mays, reported her missing. Mays became embroiled in controversy amid revelations about the strict, church upbringing Celina received.

``Celina had planned this,″ Mays told the Burlington County Times in an interview published Sunday. ``She had a desire to leave.″

Mays, an accountant and bookkeeper at the Gospel of Christ Ministries Inc. in Mount Holly, did not return telephone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment. Mays’ sister, who heads the church, also did not return several messages left there.

The church was involved in a series of conflicts with neighbors and with relatives of members who believe the church brainwashes its members.

Celina was due to give birth last Dec. 29. Family members said she never revealed who fathered the baby she conceived when she was 11 years old.

Mays speculated that his daughter left to avoid revealing the father’s identity. He insists her disappearance had nothing to do with the church, where Celina sang in the choir.

``She’s a strong-willed girl,″ said Mays. ``She just decided to leave. The church didn’t have anything to do with this.

``I want my daughter to be happy,″ Mays told the newspaper. ``I would love for her to want to come back and be a family. But if Celina is big and grown ... I’m behind her in whatever decision she makes.″

Celina has been featured on ``America’s Most Wanted″ and on 73 million cards distributed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A $5,000 reward has been posted.

DePew said investigators have received more than 100 reported sightings from as far away as Sacramento, Calif.

``They’ve all checked out to be someone that might resemble her, but it’s not her,″ he said.