It's one of the most exciting times of a young adult's life: starting college and moving out of mom and dad's nest to a place of one's own. But too often for young people, particularly young women, that newfound independence is coupled with dangerous vulnerability.
Figures gathered by the FBI say there are more than 21,500 active missing person cases involving people between the ages of 18 and 29. Brooke Wilberger and Maura Murray are two young women included in that tragic statistic. Their stories powerfully illustrate how communities can rally and families' faith and hope get tested when a loved one has vanished.
Brooke and Maura's stories are similar in many ways. Both were smart, beautiful young women with loving friends and family. They were active in their communities. They had boyfriends who adored them. They were on the verge of very bright futures. Then they disappeared.
The story of Brooke Wilberger's disappearance begins on the afternoon of May 24, 2004. The 19-year-old Brigham Young University student was home in Oregon visiting her family, and helping out her sister and brother-in-law at an apartment complex they manage in the town of Corvallis.
Corvallis is a picturesque Oregon city of about 54,000 people. It's a place most people would consider ideal for raising a family. But even idyllic places can be visited by crime. "The city of Corvallis is really safe, but we're also in the real world," said Lt. Ron Noble of the Corvallis Police Department.
Brooke was in the parking lot of the complex cleaning lamp posts. When Brooke didn't show up for lunch, her sister, Stephani Hansen, began to worry.
Brooke's car keys and purse were in their apartment. Her car was in the lot. Her flip-flops were found, but Brooke was gone.
"I got very nervous ... we had exhausted every possibility, we had searched all the apartments that she could possibly be working in. We looked everywhere -- then we called the police," her sister recalled.
Noble remembers receiving the call about the case. "Normally, we would wait. Because adults can come and go as they please and we would normally wait to see if she showed up maybe the next day," he said. But police officials agreed with Brooke's sister; they sensed Brooke was not the sort of young woman to disappear on her own.
"It was amazing to us that they acted that fast, and I think one of the reasons was when they immediately did a quick check, [they saw] Brooke was a great kid," said her mom, Cammy Wilberger.
As their search began, police eliminated one usual suspect in similar cases -- the boyfriend.
The man in Brooke's life, Justin Blake, who had dated Brooke since high school, was doing Morman missionary work in Venezuela.
Marriage was on the horizon for the couple, he said. "I was gonna propose. We just both sort of knew what was gonna happen when I got back from my mission," he said.
His parents called him in Venezuela to deliver the news that would shatter those plans. "They just started crying when they heard my voice and so I just started crying," he recalled.
In Corvallis, a community-wide search effort had been organized with unusual speed.
"The community of Corvallis was wonderful. That first night they had hundreds of people helping search," Brooke's mother recalled. "Our church organized it, but everyone in the community filled in," she said.