As we await the verdict in the Casey Anthony Trial, I’m reminded of a steamy July afternoon in Orlando shortly after all of this began.  Led by Tim Miller, Texas EquuSearch pulled into town, joined by a variety of organizations—churches and businesses delivering water bottles and food for searchers, rescue specialists, law enforcement personnel—and hundreds of volunteers. I was one of those volunteers.

If you ask me why I decided to do it, I guess I’d have to say that I did it for Jessica. The Caylee case eerily reminded me of a story I’d covered for my school newspaper a few years before. The death of  nine-year old Florida resident Jessica Lunsford haunted me while I researched the case and watched the dirty details unfold right before my tear-filled eyes. We all hoped that Jessica would be found alive, but it was a fate not meant to be. Because of Jessica’s story–kidnapped and murdered by a child molester only steps away from her own  home–I held my daughter closer and to this day still do.

The Jessica Lunsford case left me with an uneasy feeling of helplessness. As parents we always strive to protect our children, and when we fail, it’s personal. When I learned that Caylee was missing, Jessica’s face instantly flashed in my mind. And I thought, maybe this time, the search would be successful and Caylee would come home alive and well. I wanted to be a part of that search, erasing the traces of helplessness while capturing a moment of peace and reaching out to a grieving family, reminiscent of The Lunsfords.  

We met at an office complex parking lot near Orlando International Airport, a group of strangers coming together with a shared goal, finding a little girl, dead or alive. Each volunteer received a photocopied paper with the infamous, now haunting, picture of Caylee Marie Anthony, her tiny hand tucked under her chin, staring up at the camera in a thoughtful pose. I still have that paper.

I volunteered to drive my SUV, accompanied by 3 other volunteers, and took my place within the convoy, a bolt of  energy and purposefulness rushing through my veins. The path was familiar, I’d driven it for work many times, and yet this time the road seemed new and unchartered. Once at our destination, the grounds behind a cemetery off Semoran Boulevard, our leaders instructed us on the proper way to conduct our search. We were given tiny clues . . . a trash bag, toddler clothing, a blanket. And if we discovered a freshly dug grave, alert someone immediately.

I remember one female volunteer, probably a mother and more than likely a grandmother, who asked about how far back we should take our search. Several leaders said to stay close to the starting point, because Casey wouldn’t take the extra steps deep within the woods to expose the body. I remember the silence that followed as we all allowed the depths of that statement to sink into our minds.

Our team never found anything that day. We traveled back to the makeshift search compound, downed a bottle of cold water, participated in idle chat, and then went our separate ways. Part of me felt relieved, a spark of hope ignited. Caylee could be alive. Of course the weeks dragged on as did the escalating madness and eventually we all witnessed the unfolding of a child’s demise.

When the trial date neared, a private investigator called me, asking questions about my participation in the search. I knew I wouldn’t be affiliated with the trial in any form, because our search had not been in the area where Caylee eventually was found. But my brush with the case and Caylee left its impact. Even now as I’m miles away, living in another state, I’m watching bits and pieces of the trial and reading comments on Facebook and Twitter from friends still there. And somewhere deep inside, I recognize a familiar spark of hope. Jessica’s murderer met his fate in court, and we all learned the painful truth of her pointless death at the hand of a twisted, sick monster. But the Caylee case is different. Monsters that lurked under her bed weren’t strangers. Nothing is as it seems and reality may be far from tangible. This time the search is on for an ounce of truth, an explanation, a moment, however brief, of justice for a little girl buried in the woods.