Courtesy of Deana Hebert

The 19-Year Search For Bianca Lozano And The Nightmare Of Child Abduction Cases

As if losing a child to kidnapping wasn’t horrifying enough, ineffective law enforcement agencies and predatory private investigators only add to the confusion and pain. Deana Hebert’s long, maddening search for her daughter — and the ex-husband who took her — may be the rule, not the exception.

We’re sitting in a rented Kia minivan, watching a house. We’ve been at it for hours, just staring, and nothing has happened. No one has come in or out, nobody has even walked by. It’s amazing how little can transpire on a sunny Sunday in January on a suburban cul-de-sac in San Bernardino County, California. When the rare car turns down the street, I hold my breath before it inevitably turns into a neighboring driveway.

Private investigator Monique Lessan in her home office Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

I’m sitting alongside Monique Lessan, a private investigator hired to find Bianca Lozano, a 21-year-old woman who was abducted by her father, Juan Lozano, 19 years ago. The house we’ve been ogling is an otherwise unremarkable, well-tended beige two-story in a neighborhood of similar-looking dwellings in Fontana, a parched, charmless city 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It belongs to Juan’s cousin “Pablo” (his name has been changed to maintain the integrity of the investigation), whose identity Lozano has been using for years as he’s eluded detection, living in Mexico with Bianca. Lessan’s theory — or one of her many theories — is that Juan and/or Bianca could be in the house today. As she told me yesterday, “It’s my feeling these two have crossed the border and are back in the U.S.”

At the moment, though, there’s no sign of anyone. Three cars are parked in front and Lessan has jotted down the corresponding license plate numbers, but none have moved in the three hours since we got here. We’re in the backseat, partially obscured by the tinted windows — “If we sit in front, it looks suspicious,” Lessan says — studying photos of Lozano and Bianca so we’ll be able to recognize them should we spot them.

That’s all Lessan is hoping for today. She’s considered simply knocking on the door, but ultimately decided doing so could “burn” her — if Lozano isn’t there, Pablo might tip him off, and then Lozano would go even deeper underground.

Lessan has been a licensed investigator for 21 years but hardly fits the traditional gumshoe profile. She’s a woman in a field dominated by men and has never worked in law enforcement or the military. From the minute I meet her, she’s warm and chatty. She’s slender, with long black hair, and today is wearing a black T-shirt, tight jeans, and sunglasses. Her words tend to tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness rush, and she’s prone to darting from subject to subject. Often these digressions slingshot the conversation back to Lessan’s favorite subjects: She hosts a weekly internet radio show devoted to discussing UFO sightings, the Illuminati, weather modification, and the like. On the ride out to Fontana, she casually, almost dismissively, explained how a small group of families, including the Rothschilds, the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Windsors, run the world, and that Dwight Eisenhower shook hands with aliens in 1954.

Deana and Bianca Courtesy of Deana Hebert

Lessan has been working on this case since August 2013, and she represents something of a Hail Mary in this nearly two-decade-long search. Bianca’s mother, Deana Hebert, whose Twitter handle is @missingbianca, has exhausted all of her resources and enlisted anyone and everyone she can — the police, the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the DA’s office, the Mexican Consulate, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, her congressman, multiple private investigators, several lawyers, family members, friends, volunteers — to look for her daughter. That they’ve all failed says as much about the slapdash, numbingly bureaucratic — if well-intentioned — system we have in this country for finding long-term missing children as it does about anything else. As Hebert put it, “Nobody wants to be responsible for anything in this case. Nobody wants to be in charge. It’s just me pushing and pushing.”

If you were a parent whose daughter was abducted, how much would you pay for her safe return? Even the most well-meaning PIs must navigate the murky moral quandary of what is appropriate to charge a desperate parent to deliver the very thing in the universe they hold most dear. A friend of Hebert’s paid to hire Lessan — the third PI who’s been on the case — and right now this house in Fontana is her only viable lead. If we see either Lozano or Bianca today, the plan is to call Hebert so she can fly out from Texas to meet the fully grown woman she hasn’t seen since she was her 20-month-old toddler, and to contact Lessan’s friend who works as an investigator for Homeland Security, who could arrest Lozano.

As morning turns to afternoon, Lessan’s getting antsy. She begins to consider going against her original instinct and knocking on that front door — there’s a yearning to do something, anything, to make the time spent feel like it wasn’t a total waste. Just as she’s on the verge of going to the door and potentially ruining six months of investigation, she catches a break: Girl Scouts. Walking down the street are two young girls and a mother, pulling a wagon behind them, going door to door selling cookies.

We duck down in the van’s backseat as the Girl Scouts pass by. They ring Pablo’s doorbell, wait, then begin to walk away, when the door opens. A little girl, about 6 or 7 years old, stands in the doorway. Soon after, a woman who looks to be her mother comes out. Then a third woman emerges, and walks out onto the driveway to inspect the wagon. The third woman has dyed, red-tinged hair and looks to be in her late teens or early twenties.

Lessan crawls toward the front of the minivan and snaps photos of the unfolding scene. From our vantage point, about 20 yards away, this third woman bears a resemblance to some of the photos of Bianca that have been found over the years on various social networking sites.

“Could that be her?” I ask Lessan.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe.”

Images of Bianca, including two digital simulations by the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children Courtesy of Deana Hebert and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Every year, 200,000 children in the United States are abducted by a family member. Or maybe it’s 350,000. Or 2,000. In truth, no one really knows. The last year a study was done by the Justice Department was 1999. It claimed an estimated 1.3 million kids went missing that year and that 203,900 of those were taken by a family member. Those stats have been regurgitated for 15 years, and while there are significant questions as to how accurate they were back then, they’re certainly next to useless a decade and a half later. (A Justice Department spokesperson says there is a new report in the works, but it’s not expected to be published for at least a year.)

The FBI tracks annual crime statistics and reported that in 2013, 462,567 children went missing. Of those, 2,310 were abducted by a noncustodial parent. This is a number that, according to FBI statistics, has remained relatively static going back to at least 2007. It’s also a number rendered mostly worthless by the methodology behind it: When missing persons reports are filed by law enforcement, specifying the cause of the disappearance is optional.

“Missing person entries are made primarily by the local law enforcement agency shortly after the missing person report is made,” Stephen Fischer Jr., chief of multimedia productions in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, explains in an email. “Having the correct name, date of birth and basic physical description is the primary concern. While the circumstances surrounding the incident will be collected as the investigation moves forward, the missing person entry will often not reflect this data.”

This partially accounts for the enormous discrepancy between the FBI’s count and the Justice Department’s 1999 research. Still, nearly half those 2013 missing child reports did specify a cause, so following that logic, the number of children abducted by a family member each year falls somewhere between 4,620 and 203,900. Maybe. Robert L. Snow, a retired captain with the Indianapolis police who has written multiple books about kidnapping, thinks even the DOJ’s study undercounts parental abductions.

“People don’t realize that a lot of abductions, particularly family abductions, are never reported,” he says. “People don’t want to air their dirty laundry. I have found research that says it could be as high as 350,000 parental abductions a year. … That’s why there’s so much apathy. No one realizes how big a problem this is.”

Elizabeth Smart Getty Images

Jaycee Dugard Carl Probyn / AP Photo

This is pretty much how it goes when it comes to missing children in America. Despite huge amounts of sensationalistic coverage lavished on a few rare cases — Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, etc. — for the most part, hardly anyone is paying attention. This is especially true of parental abductions, which everyone agrees — terrible stat-keeping notwithstanding — are far more common than the classic “stranger-danger” kidnapping most parents live in mortal fear of. (The 1999 DOJ study counted a grand total of 115 of these so-called “stereotypical kidnappings” that year.)

According to Snow, most parental abductions tend to get resolved pretty quickly. In a percentage of these cases — again, who knows exactly what percentage — the parent is merely a few hours late returning with the child. In others, a call from the police or a lawyer threatening harsh consequences resolves the situation. Sometimes, the abductor has the intent to stay gone but no real plan, and authorities track him or her down in a matter of hours or days. It’s when days become weeks, months, and even years that whatever systems we have in place seem to break down completely.

When the abductor leaves the country, the situation grows even more complicated. The Hague Abduction Convention, a 1980 treaty that has been agreed to by 92 countries, including the U.S. and Mexico, sets guidelines for the return of children kidnapped across international borders, but, in reality, even many countries that have signed it don’t comply with it.

“When you go to a foreign country, an American warrant doesn’t mean much,” says Snow. “A lot of times you can’t get the local authorities to cooperate. A lot of countries are of the opinion that children are better off being raised in their country than in the United States. The U.S. can try to put pressure, but they don’t have much leverage. They’re not going to cut off aid or start a war over one child.”

Courtesy of Deana Hebert

Deana Hebert was worried the minute her then-husband walked out the door with their daughter. The couple were in midst of an ugly divorce, and Lozano had arrived on a Friday in April in 1995 to pick up Bianca for the weekend. Hebert was living with her parents in a small house in Baytown, a Houston suburb, and their custody arrangement meant Bianca spent most of the time with her. Lozano had her on Wednesdays and every other weekend.

Hebert was born and raised in Baytown, and Lozano had moved there from Monterrey, Mexico, when he was a child. They were an odd couple: He was 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds; she was 5-foot-5, 100 pounds, and five years younger. These days, with all that’s happened, Hebert has trouble remembering what first drew them together. “I guess he made me laugh,” she says. They dated for about two years and married a month before Bianca was born, when Hebert was just 21. Lozano lost his job, leaving Hebert the family’s sole breadwinner. He grew moody and eventually abusive toward Hebert.

“He was so scary,” she says. “He’s like Jekyll and Hyde. He can be so sweet and then so extreme opposite. If I’d stayed I would’ve ended up dead.” She and Bianca moved into her parents’ house, and she filed for divorce.

Every time Lozano came to pick up Bianca, it was an ordeal. One Wednesday in January, Lozano got rough and dragged Hebert outside. She called the cops and filed charges for assault, but their custody arrangement remained unaltered.

That Friday in April, Hebert sensed something was wrong. With Lozano scheduled to appear in court for the assault, their already troubled relationship was near its lowest point. Although Lozano and Bianca weren’t due to return until Sunday evening, Hebert was on edge the whole weekend. When he didn’t show up at 6 p.m., as agreed to, she was sure they weren’t coming back. Her mother tried to reassure her.

“My mom goes, ‘You know how they run late. He’s playing games. He’s probably going to tell you he had to change her diaper.’” She sighs. “I said, ‘No. They’re gone.’ And I was right.”

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

It’s two days after the Fontana stakeout, and Lessan and I are driving, talking about the case — specifically why and how Bianca and Juan Lozano would be in the U.S. at the moment. Lessan had texted the photo of the red-haired woman outside the house to Hebert, who couldn’t say definitively whether it was her daughter or not but seemed inclined to think it wasn’t. Lessan suddenly gasps so loudly that I’m sure she’s stumbled upon a case-breaking revelation.

“Chemtrails!” she says, pointing out the front windshield.

She motions toward the lines of airplane exhaust crisscrossing the blue sky, and launches into a conspiracy-laced diatribe about their nefarious origins. Part of me wonders if her willingness to question conventional wisdom makes her a good detective — she says she first got the idea to start searching Southern California for Lozano after a psychic told her he was in Los Angeles. Then she found Lozano’s cousin in Fontana.

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

At the moment, we’re on our way to Burbank, where she has an appointment at a production company that’s looking to make a reality show about a private investigator who finds missing children. In a shockingly bright lime-green office, a producer shoots video of Lessan on his iPhone while asking questions like, “What’s your daily schedule like?” and “Do you carry a gun?”

The reality of Lessan’s daily routine involves phone calls, database searches, and sitting for hours on end in parked cars more than it does high-speed chases or knocking down doors. Her rate normally ranges from around $3,000 up front for a local abduction case to a minimum of $10,000 for an international one, not including expenses. As a case progresses, costs escalate. She tries to cut her rates as much as she can in order to accommodate a client’s financial situation but has to be careful not to get into a position where she can’t even cover her own costs.

“On this trip, I’m making very little money,” she tells me. “They don’t have any more to pay me.” But having come as far as she has, she wants to see it through. “I told them I have to do these last parts. I can’t quit now. I feel like I’m really getting somewhere, but I also feel like it’s just like water falling through my fingers.”

Hebert made all the calls you’d expect her to in the hours and days after her daughter’s 1995 kidnapping. Lozano’s parents. Her lawyer. The police. The FBI. As the weeks turned to months and eventually years, a dizzying number of government agencies got involved: Besides the Baytown Police Department and the FBI, an incomplete list includes the U.S. Marshals Service, the Harris County district attorney’s office, the State Department, the Mexican Consulate, and the Department of Homeland Security.

“What I found is that the agencies don’t communicate with each other,” she says. “So any information I got, I’d make sure I sent it to the DA’s detective, Baytown police, FBI, the congressman’s office. I was the hub.”

Managing the investigation into her daughter’s abduction while simultaneously trying to mourn the loss was not ideal, but during the first year or two she was grateful in some ways to have something to do. For a while, she clung to the belief that the man she once married would eventually come to his senses and bring Bianca back. “I still remember feeling like, Oh, this is going to blow over,” she says.

It didn’t. Her divorce was finalized. After a year or so, the trail was cold. Soon, Hebert was out of money, out of ideas, and trying to figure out how to go on living when her main reason for doing so had been replaced by a giant, unfathomable void.

“I was so busy at first, involved in everything, and then all of a sudden everything just stopped,” she says. “I didn’t know how to grieve. I just put everything in a compartment in my head and kind of left it there.” But she eventually realized if she didn’t want to live out her days as the empty shell she felt like, she had to start filling them with something. “Being in my twenties and being single, it was hard when you’d meet somebody and they’d say, ‘Oh, do you have kids?’ Sometimes it was easier just to say no, because when you tell some people that your child was kidnapped, they say, ‘Oh, OK,’ and just go on with the conversation. Then some people freak out and start crying like you’ve dropped a bomb on them.”

Eventually she met someone else and got remarried in 1999. She had another child, a boy, two years later.

Hebert with her son. Courtesy of Deana Hebert

“My son, he’s 12 now, but when he was 4, we decided to tell him he had a sister that was missing,” she says. “I remember our son saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?’” She laughs. “I’m thinking, You wanted me to tell you when you were 2?

Through it all, Hebert kept searching, mostly on her own, for Bianca. She scoured the internet for any signs of her or Lozano. The month after Bianca disappeared, she had sued Lozano’s parents, who she believes have been helping him, and at one point won a $2.2 million judgment, though after several years and various appeals, a retrial was ordered and Hebert, her parents, and her attorney made the decision not to go forward. Years later, she tried to repair relations with his family in the hopes that they could facilitate Bianca’s return. Nothing worked.

“There’s two different parts of me,” she says. “There’s one part that’s Bianca’s mom, searching and doing all these things, and there’s the other part that goes on with life and tries to do normal things. But nothing has ever replaced her.”

In 2009, 14 years after Bianca’s initial disappearance, Hebert turned to her congressman, Pete Olson, for help, and met Kimberli Reed, who was Olson’s director of casework at the time. They forged an immediate bond: In 2002, Reed had had her own children literally snatched from her in a parking lot by her estranged husband. It took five months for her to track them down, and a year before she was granted full custody.

“I know what I went through for five measly months,” says Reed. “I have no idea what it would be like to go through this for all this time. It’s amazing she hasn’t gone insane.”

By the time Reed met Hebert, the investigation into Bianca’s whereabouts had deteriorated to the point where it could hardly even be called an investigation.

“It was dead,” says Reed. “There were probably seven or eight years in there that no one was doing anything, except for Deana. Baytown PD had totally written it off. Harris County district attorney’s office had washed its hands of it. The State Department had closed the case. There wasn’t a notice or a flag put into Homeland Security for Juan. Mexico knew nothing about the case.”

Reed took up the cause, and “for the next four years,” she says, “I literally spent every day searching for Bianca.” She tried to use her clout at the congressman’s office to knock heads together at various government agencies. In 2009, she helped convene a roundtable meeting that included representatives of the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Harris County DA, the Mexican Consulate, and the Mexican attorney general’s office, with a representative from the State Department conferenced in on the phone. She asked if anyone could contact and question Lozano’s family.

“All of them looked at Deana and me and said, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” Reed recalls. The Mexican representatives told her they did not consider Lozano a criminal because Bianca is his daughter. The FBI said that its hands were tied because it had no jurisdiction in Mexico. The State Department staffer said it couldn’t do anything and made clear that once Bianca turned 18 and was no longer a missing child but a missing adult, the department wouldn’t work the case at all.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘We can’t do anything until we locate her, and we can’t locate her so we can’t do anything,’” says Reed. Even if it did manage to find Lozano, the Harris County DA wasn’t even sure if it would extradite him.

A warrant for Lozano’s arrest was eventually issued in the U.S., and a few years ago Interpol, which tracks fugitives across international borders, put him on a watch list. At one point, Hebert discovered that if she could pinpoint Lozano in Mexico, U.S. marshals were authorized to bring him back to the U.S. and arrest him. But the Marshals Office told her it wouldn’t, “because the original warrant was filed by the FBI, and the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Office [wouldn’t] work together,” Hebert tells me.

“There were certain detectives in certain agencies that have been very dedicated,” she continues. “Other times, I try to get in touch about something and don’t hear from them for months. I know they’re busy, they’re on other things, this is an old case, but it’s just frustrating. It would be nice to have one central agency that only worked on missing children’s cases.”

According to Snow, this is a key failing of the current system. “No one really takes responsibility for abducted children,” he says. “It’s a criminal offense, but there’s no specific agency meant to take these cases.” Even within the agencies that end up saddled with kidnapping cases, there’s a distinct lack of expertise. “In Indianapolis, we’ve got a huge police department, 1,500 officers,” says Snow. “We’ve got no abduction unit. Very few police departments have a unit specifically trained for this. It just goes to a general officer and he handles this like he handles other cases. So that officer has very little experience and training in it.”

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

The Department of Homeland Security’s San Diego office is in a modern downtown office building a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Lessan is there to meet with her friend, Maurice Wrighten, who works as an investigator in the cybercrimes division. Lessan has known him for 15 years, and he seems willing to help but isn’t certain exactly how. From a manila folder, she pulls out a copy of a Mexican ID card: It’s Lozano’s picture but Pablo’s name and information, and Lozano used it to get a job in Mexico a few years ago. She then pulls out two birth certificates. One is a copy of Bianca’s legitimate American one; the other is a Mexican one that Lessan has uncovered, with an alias, “Fabiola Suarez Elizondo,” a birth date of more than a year earlier, and Pablo listed as the father.

Wrighten studies the documents. One of the many complications of Bianca’s case is that although she was abducted as a child, she’s now 21. Technically, she’s an adult, making her own decisions. Since Bianca’s broken no laws herself, Wrighten can’t really investigate her.

Lozano is a different story. Wrighten says the identity fraud is a way in, but “if he’s using a fake Mexican ID in Mexico, that has nothing to do with us. He’s not breaking any U.S. laws.” As long as he’s in Mexico, he’s beyond the reach of Homeland Security. He looks again through the manila file.

“There might be a way I can do this, but I can’t tell you how right now,” he says. He promises to be back in touch. As Wrighten walks us to the door, Lessan thanks him and asks, almost pleadingly, “What do you think?”

He nods. “There’s hope.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is the one entity that seems best positioned to step into the breach and bring order to all this chaos. Although the NCMEC is ostensibly an independent nonprofit, it gets considerable funding — $67 million in 2014 — from the federal government. Opinions on its effectiveness vary wildly. Reed says that the NCMEC is “completely inept.”

“All they do is run a website, create fliers, and that’s it,” she says. And when newer photos of Bianca were found, getting it to update the fliers proved an ordeal. “The entire time I was with the congressman’s office, they essentially did nothing. ‘She’s on our website,’ ‘We have flyers out there,’ was all they’d do.” (A recent check of Bianca Lozano’s profile on the NCMEC website had an updated photo, but in one spot it misstates the date of her disappearance by 17 years.)

On its website, the NCMEC claims to have helped recover over 199,000 children since its founding in 1984, with a recovery rate of 97%. When I spoke to Bob Lowery, vice president of the NCMEC’s Missing Children Division, he said the actual number now is closer to 98% or 99%. Some question these figures, noting that the NCMEC takes credit for “helping” to recover children in cases it had virtually no involvement in. In some cases, these children were never actually missing (merely reported so by a panicky parent), or were returned by a noncustodial parent within hours of being reported. Critics of the NCMEC say it overstates its usefulness to justify its federal funding, and in doing so distorts public perception about the nature of the problem.

When I spoke to Marc Klaas, who founded the KlaasKids Foundation to aid in the recovery of missing children after his own daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered back in 1993, he launched, unprompted, into a bitter condemnation of the NCMEC.

“I’ve got a real beef with these characters,” he says. “They don’t really go in the field. They don’t really get involved in any except the high-profile cases. They’ve done more to harm the missing child — I don’t want to call it an industry, but missing child nonprofit organizations — than any other single entity out there. They work very hard to make sure every dollar involved in missing children goes directly to them. They don’t share any resources whatsoever, and I can tell you from personal experience they’ll go out of their way to undermine anybody that might threaten their position. … They’re just guys in the middle vacuuming up money. I loathe the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and think missing kids would be better served if they didn’t exist.”

Lowery, not surprisingly, takes issue with these portrayals.

“Those are misinformed impressions about the National Center’s work,” he says. “The work here in the Missing Children’s Division is much more comprehensive than simply creating a poster and distributing it. … All our teams are former law enforcement or social services with a great deal of experience in finding children. We do extensive case analysis work, we work social media, we have law enforcement partners in our building working side by side with us, so when leads come in that need law enforcement activity right away, we’re getting it.”

There are dozens of other nonprofits that focus on recovering missing children, though sorting the merely well-intentioned from those actually well-equipped to help can be tricky (never mind the ones devoted mostly to collecting donations, including the Committee for Missing Children, Operation Lookout National Center for Missing Youth, and Find the Children, three of the 50 worst charities in the country, according to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting).

A few years after Bianca went missing, Hebert met with Mark Miller, founder of the American Association for Lost Children, a nonprofit that, according to its website, conducts “hands-on investigations, while traveling in and outside the country performing surveillance and undercover work searching for and rescuing missing children.” Hebert says Miller convinced another mother whose own children were missing to date one of Lozano’s cousins in order to try to get information on Lozano’s whereabouts.

“After a few dates, in the throes of whatever they were in the middle of, she confessed that she was working for Miller and the whole thing blew up in her face,” Hebert says. Later, when Hebert was organizing a concert to raise money for her continuing search efforts, she got into a dispute with Miller over what percentage of the proceeds would go to his organization. In the end, she says, “I don’t really know a lot of what he did or didn’t do working on Bianca’s case.”

(When contacted, Miller says that he encourages all parents to “be on our team,” and help out with cases other than their own. He contends that although the other mother blew their cover, she did help procure useful information. He also insists that the money he wanted Hebert to donate to his charity was going to directly fund her case. According to Miller, the foundation spent thousands of dollars on Hebert’s case and she “never donated one penny to the charity.”)

With both government agencies and nonprofits often creating more confusion than they alleviate, many parents turn to private investigators. Unfortunately, the world of PIs is possibly even more opaque. Licensing varies from state to state, and in most cases doesn’t seem particularly rigorous. According to Lessan, the main advantage a licensed investigator has over an unlicensed one is a badge. “To be honest,” she says, “people don’t know that there’s no difference.”

Given this landscape, it’s not surprising that nightmare stories of PIs ripping off parents are legion. In 2009, an investigator in Arizona was indicted on five counts of wire fraud relating to charges that he created a fake abducted child recovery company, Delta International, which collected huge fees from parents and delivered virtually nothing in return. Gus Zamora, an ex–Army Ranger whose renown for recovering children abducted internationally has garnered him features on Dateline and in The Atlantic, has also been accused, multiple times, of defrauding parents.

Hebert first hired a PI based in Houston a few months after Lozano absconded with Bianca. She says she traveled to Mexico four times with this investigator, who insisted he’d seen Bianca while doing surveillance down there for her.

“We were going to go down there again, rent a plane, hire these guys with guns, kidnap my daughter, and bring her back,” says Hebert. But she wasn’t too confident in this plan, and was running out of money. Around the same time, she met Don Feeney, an ex–Delta Force commando working in private security consulting, who’d helped retrieve kidnapped children before. She decided to spend the last $10,000 she could get her hands on — money that her mother had to borrow from Hebert’s grandparents — to pay Feeney to follow up on the earlier investigator’s information. “They came back and said, ‘This is not your daughter and not your ex-husband. You would’ve been in a world of trouble if you’d kidnapped that girl and tried to come back here with her.’ It was crazy.”

In April 2013, Hebert finally caught a break. A man got in touch via a Facebook page she’d set up, telling her that his sister Norma had had a baby with Lozano, whom she knew as “Pablo.” She had lived with him and Bianca — whom she knew as “Nina” — in Monterrey, Mexico, but Lozano was abusive, and now Norma was on the run from him. She’d begun to grow suspicious about his past, and after finding the Facebook page Hebert had set up, was concerned Lozano would kidnap her own son, so she took the boy and went into hiding.

In a series of conversations Hebert and a Spanish-speaking friend had with Norma’s brother and father, Hebert began hearing the first details of her daughter’s life, most of them heartbreaking: Bianca had been told that her mother died during childbirth. She lived in fear of her father. She had no idea she was a U.S. citizen and didn’t even know her real name. She was diabetic, played the guitar, and although she had no formal education, took classes at a music school in Monterrey.

“I desperately wanted to talk to Norma because she’s the only person I know that knows my daughter,” says Hebert. But Norma’s family kept her hidden, fearing for her and her son’s safety. Still, working off these leads, Hebert and Reed found a Russian pen pal of Bianca’s named Natalia, who told them they thought Lozano monitored all of Bianca’s online communication. Around this time, Hebert was also directed to some short YouTube clips of her daughter playing guitar.

“That was when I saw her for the first time in 18 years,” says Hebert. “I knew it was her. I’ve seen thousands of pictures of other girls and people would say, ‘Don’t you think this looks like her?’ And I’d say, ‘No. I know it’s not.’ Then I saw this girl and I knew it was her.”

Bianca’s music school friends told Hebert that Bianca had abruptly withdrawn from the school earlier in the year and left town with her father. Nobody had heard from her since. Still, this new information provided the investigation with a momentum it had been lacking for years.

By this time, Reed no longer worked in the congressman’s office, but as she puts it, “I still couldn’t let it go.” She approached a few staffers in other congressional offices, “people I’d known for years, and asked them point blank, ‘Can you please help us?’ No one would help.”

Hebert and Reed made calls, and tried to get any of the various federal, state, and local agencies they’d been working with to take this new information and renew the investigation with vigor.

“It was out of sheer frustration that my husband and I decided we were going to hire our own PI with our own money,” says Reed. “That’s what led us to Monique.”

Photograph by Chris Tuite for BuzzFeed

Two days after our visit to the Homeland Security office in San Diego, Lessan and I are back in Fontana, staring at that house once again. Hebert has mostly dismissed the possibility that the red-haired woman we saw here days earlier could be her daughter but believes if we talk to Pablo, he might have some clues as to where Lozano and Bianca might be. Lessan wanted to wait to see what Wrighten came up with, and still worries that if she confronts Pablo, he’ll immediately call Lozano with the information. But as Hebert put it during a three-way call with Reed and Lessan the night before, “What’s he going to tell Juan? That I have an investigator? I think he knows that from what we’ve put on Facebook. We’re not going to be any worse off than we are now.”

It’s late afternoon and the plan is to wait until Pablo gets home from work, then knock on the door. If he doesn’t slam it in our faces, Hebert has given us a letter for him that explains her plight. So we wait. And wait. One of the women we saw the other day — short, ponytail, late thirties or early forties — arrives home and goes inside. We wait some more. It’s now almost 7 p.m. and getting dark outside. Where is Pablo? We discuss the possibilities. Maybe he works from home. Maybe he’s unemployed. Maybe he’s out with friends. Time isn’t on our side. Waiting any longer as it gets darker is going to make an already tense doorway confrontation all the more unsettling. Lessan decides it’s time.

She knocks on the door and a female voice from the other side asks, “Who is it?”

“This is Monique. I just wanted to show you something.”

The door opens to reveal the woman with the ponytail, presumably Pablo’s wife. Lessan flashes her private investigator license and explains that we are looking for Pablo, but refuses to explain why. Pablo’s not home, we’re told, but will be soon. The woman asks if Lessan would like to leave a message for him.

“I can just wait,” says Lessan. “I prefer to talk to him, actually.”

“OK,” the woman says warily. “I’ll let him know.” Then she closes the door.

So the wait continues, now on the sidewalk in front of the house. We debate whether Pablo will ever come home tonight, what he’ll say if he does, and how long we can stand around out here on a Wednesday night before someone calls the cops.

By the time Pablo pulls up it’s past 8 p.m. We walk toward him in his driveway, just as his wife comes out the front door again. Lessan introduces herself and asks if we can come inside to show him some information. He looks at us the way you would look at any two strangers who just accosted you in your driveway on a dark Wednesday night insisting, somewhat frantically, that they wanted to come into your house. Lessan presses the case, asking again if we can just come inside for a minute. Pablo and his wife don’t look wary anymore, they look downright scared.

Lessan changes tack and tries to hand Pablo the letter Hebert wrote for him. He recoils from the envelope as if it was radioactive, and mumbles something about not knowing what legal implications might come with accepting the letter. I offer to read it aloud. Nobody objects, so I do.

The letter explains Hebert’s entire agonizing, Kafkaesque, two-decade-long ordeal — the kidnapping, the identity theft, the fruitless searching, the pain of not knowing. It seems to settle the moment. Pablo and his wife look stunned. Lessan asks if she can show them some documentation right here in the driveway. We move under an outdoor floodlight and she lays out the same documents she showed Wrighten on the hood of the family’s car, building the case, piece by piece.

When she’s done, Pablo shakes his head. He hasn’t seen his cousin Juan Lozano since they were kids. He doesn’t know anything about the kidnapping. He didn’t even know he had been married or had kids. He saw Lozano’s parents last year when they came to California for a funeral, but other than that, he’s had hardly any contact with that branch of the family in decades. He expresses a willingness to help find out where his cousin is, but quite sensibly, seems most concerned with the fact that Lozano — an international fugitive — is running around using his identity.

It’s possible that Pablo is lying about all this, and that Lozano and Bianca are hiding in the house right behind us, but I don’t think so. Standing here in the driveway, he and his wife don’t look like accessories to an international abduction. They look like shell-shocked parents. Lessan thanks them for their time, and Pablo promises to get in touch once he’s talked to some of his family.

Back in the minivan, Lessan phones Hebert and Reed. As she drives and talks, she’s emotional, buzzing with adrenaline. She offers a blow-by-blow account of the evening, pausing every few seconds to take a deep breath, and concludes that it went very well.

“He wants to help,” she says, exhaling deeply. “He was very concerned. He wouldn’t give us his phone number but said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to make some calls and get in touch with you.’ I’m glad at his response. Hopefully something will come out of it.”

For a long time, nothing does. For months, there’s no word from Pablo, nothing of note from Wrighten, and after the momentary excitement in Fontana, the investigation has settled back into low gear. There’s no more money for Lessan. All the leads from Norma have been chased down and come to nothing.

In late March, I call Hebert and ask how she’s feeling about the state of the search. “It’s the same old thing — another dead end,” she says. “We spent all this money, and yeah, we made contact with the cousin, but he hasn’t done anything. I don’t know if he’s ever interested in helping.” She sighs. “Everything I do turns up nothing, so I don’t know what to think anymore. I don’t let myself get too excited about anything because honestly I can’t handle it anymore. I’m at the point where — I’m not done, but it’s getting to be too much.”

Then in May, Pablo calls. He’s apologetic for not getting in touch sooner, but as Hebert puts it, “He was shocked and felt kind of violated. … He has had to process it on his own.” He suggests the outlines of a possible deal: If Hebert drops the charges against her ex-husband, maybe Lozano would allow Bianca to return to the U.S. and be reunited with her. Hebert immediately agrees. Pablo says they’d need the agreement in writing.

Hebert emails the Harris County assistant district attorney, who makes clear this isn’t something they normally do — “She said, ‘We don’t negotiate with felons. This is not justice’” — but they’ll make an exception. Hebert sends the letter to Pablo, and for the first time in a very long time, she allows herself a measure of optimism.

“Who knows what this is going to turn into, but I have a little hope this is going to work out,” she says. I tell her that it seems like a smart move for Lozano. Whatever his situation in Mexico might be right now, having to keep hawkish watch over a 21-year-old woman is hardly the same as doing so with a young girl. That can’t be much of a life for him. Perhaps he wants out.

“That’s what I think,” she says. “Everybody I’ve talked to says, ‘He’s stupid if he doesn’t do this. He’ll be free.’” She’s thought a lot about what a reunion with her daughter might actually be like. They haven’t seen each other in nearly 20 years. Her daughter has no memory of her. They’d effectively be strangers. Would Bianca move in? Would she call her “Mom”? Who knows, but if nothing else, she’d know the truth.

“Her friends [at music school] told me her dream was to be an American citizen and play music here,” she says. “Everything in her life is a lie: her name, her birthday, her dad’s name, where he came from. … It’s got to be a terrible life. She could have so much if she came here.”

For the next few days, there are droplets of news. An uncle of Lozano’s believes the deal is a good idea and will try to talk to his sister — Lozano’s mom — about it. Other family members apparently agree.

Then for a month, there’s little word at all. Finally, Pablo calls Lozano’s mom himself but can’t reach her. He sends a letter to Lozano’s sister that goes unanswered. When I speak to Hebert in mid-June, she’s frustrated.

“I don’t know why they’re dragging their feet,” she says. “Maybe they don’t want to tell Bianca. I’m not sure how you tell someone their entire life is a lie.”

Two more months pass and I call to get an update. Hebert sighs deeply. “I haven’t heard from them at all,” she says. “I think it’s going to fizzle out.”

She sounds as low as I’ve heard her. After all this — not just these recent events, but years of struggle with cops, private detectives, federal agencies, a congressman, Mexican authorities, nonprofits, volunteers, friends, family, acquaintances, and yes, journalists, with those who were helpful and those who weren’t, dealing with a system seemingly incapable of marshaling its best resources to grapple with a problem that should be solvable — Hebert finds herself no closer to getting her daughter back than she was in 1995. She hasn’t exactly lost hope, but having been through so much with so many people, at the moment, she’s feeling very much alone.

“The thing is about stories like this, people will see it, read it, maybe post it on Facebook, but then they move on with their lives,” she says. “And I’m sitting back here waiting for my daughter to show up.”

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