Exactly seven years ago, on Feb. 10, 2009, HaLeigh Ann-Marie Cummings was reported missing from her father’s Putnam County home.
HaLeigh would be 12, and her family now has a better idea of what she would look like thanks to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which released its newest age-progressed photo in January.
HaLeigh went missing that Tuesday morning — or the night before — from Ronald Cummings’ residence in the Hermits Cove area of Satsuma, Florida. She was 5.
At the time of her disappearance, she was under the care of Cummings’ then 17-year-old girlfriend, Misty Jeanette Croslin.
Law enforcement from local to federal participated in the search, and deputies and agents spent thousands of hours investigating. They traveled to Tennessee, Wyoming and elsewhere to follow the thousands of incoming leads.
Though HaLeigh was last seen in Putnam County, it’s not just the sheriff’s office there that’s looking for her, said Capt. Dominic Piscitello, chief of detectives at the sheriff’s office. Instead, the ongoing, multi-jurisdictional case is still being pursued by law enforcement at all levels.
“Our goal is to bring this child back to her family,” Piscitello said, adding that the case isn’t just any other case. “She becomes like part of your own family.”
Piscitello said he personally evaluates the leads that come in. “I know the case pretty well. I look at it every day.”
When something like the anniversary of the day she went missing happens, leads come in more frequently, Piscitello said.
No arrests have been made in the case.
Meanwhile, Cummings is serving 15 years and Croslin 25 for drug-trafficking charges from 2010, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
“We believe that Misty [Croslin] holds the key to telling us what happened to HaLeigh that night,” Piscitello said.
Croslin hasn’t always been quite honest, he said.
The case points to HaLeigh probably being taken by someone she knew, Piscitello said, but there’s no evidence to support that.
“We believe that it’s a homicide investigation, but until we find any remains, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to take a chance if she is still alive,” he said.
After HaLeigh went missing, investigators talked with locals, including people who had been to the Cummings’ house and a group Croslin had been hanging out with, Piscitello said. After HaLeigh went missing, investigators checked cameras in convenience stores to see if she had been there.
Investigators also looked into area sex offenders to see if someone had taken her, Piscitello said. There is no evidence to suggest that, he added, but in such cases, it’s important to look outside the box and consider any possible theories.
For HaLeigh’s maternal grandmother, Nancy Marie Griffis, life has been hard, but she said she’s just learned to deal with it, day in and day out.
“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that she’s not on your mind, wondering if she’s out there, if she’s still alive, if somebody’s taking care of her,” Griffis said. “On the twist side, you’re hoping that if she’s not being taken care of that she isn’t here on this earth anymore.”
A couple days after HaLeigh went missing, Texas EquuSearch, a search and recovery organization, offered to help look for her. The nonprofit formed search parties and sent searchers to different locations, said KristiDarren Judd, a friend of the family who helped in the searches.
The search parties were comprised of groups of about 13 to 15 people, Judd said. They continued for about three weeks to a month, and about 1,000 people participated.
“One minute, you could smile. The next minute, you lost it,” Judd said. “The next minute, you’re OK.”
Judd called HaLeigh Putnam County’s baby. The community hasn’t forgotten about the girl, she said, and there are still signs in local stores and emblems on people’s cars.
Jackie Middleton, another family friend and searcher, said she used ATVs to search every day for months. Others searched by foot and on horseback. Search dogs were brought in, and dive teams looked in bodies of water.
“We live in a small county,” Middleton said. “Everybody knows everybody’s business around here, but they pulled together and helped look for this child.”
People converged on Putnam County “from far and beyond” to aid in the search, said Jennifer Anne Townson, who was once the stepmother of HaLeigh’s biological mom, Crystal Sheffield.
“It was like an army of people came out to aid in the search for her,” she said. “It was phenomenal how the community all pulled together to search for this baby.”
After the disappearance, Sheffield and Griffis, HaLeigh’s grandmother, created the HaLeigh Bug Center. The nonprofit raises money to help find HaLeigh and share information about her with the community, Townson said.
The ultimate goal was to keep the center going to help others in need, Townson said, but it dwindled away after the searches for HaLeigh stopped.
HaLeigh was born with Turner syndrome, an illness that affects only women. It leaves people partially or completely lacking a second sex chromosome, which can keep the female body from maturing naturally, according to the Turner Syndrome Society of the United States.
Though outward signs vary, the syndrome can cause the individual to be shorter than normal and have a webbed neck, droopy eyes, a broad chest and ears that protrude outward.
As the police investigation continues, HaLeigh’s family hasn’t forgotten her or given up hope. HaLeigh’s great-grandmother keeps a room at her house for her great-granddaughter, said Teresa Neves, HaLeigh’s grandmother. It’s full of Easter baskets, Christmas presents and stuffed animals.
“For every holiday that we get something for the other grandchildren,” Neves said, “we always get something for HaLeigh.”
If HaLeigh comes home, Neves said, she will have “one huge Christmas” because it would take her hours to open all the gifts.
Griffis said it’s important that the Putnam County community knows that HaLeigh was never found.
“All it could take is to have that one person with a tidbit of information to come forward and just tell somebody, ‘Hey, I know this,'” she said. “Tell it, please. HaLeigh deserves justice and to be brought home, one way or another, to get her family closure.”