June 24, 2005 — -- The aunt of Tamika Huston has tried -- in vain -- to bring sustained national media attention to the search for her niece for more than a year. And at this point, she and her family just want closure, no matter the outcome.
"I never thought that it would go on this long," said Rebkah Howard, a Florida-based public relations executive. "This has been incredibly difficult. Months ago, if you had told me that this would still be going on now, I would have thought you were crazy."
Huston, 24 at the time of her disappearance, was last seen June 2, 2004, at a friend's house in South Carolina. Because she lived alone, relatives did not realize she was missing until June 14.
"America's Most Wanted" and local media in Spartanburg, S.C., have covered the case. In the past month, Huston has become a symbol of missing person cases that are largely ignored by the national media as nationwide coverage of the disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway continues.
Relatives and investigators searching for Huston appreciate any help. But Howard concedes the recent attention has been bittersweet.
"Law enforcements officials have received new clues recently and anyone in law enforcement will tell that that any media attention generates new clues," Howard said. "But it's also frustrating. You can't help but think that maybe if we'd received this kind of attention earlier, it might have helped."
Howard said she does not begrudge the attention Holloway's case has received, but she has been stung by the way some national media outlets have chosen to cover -- or in some cases, not cover -- her niece's disappearance.
"We've received calls from reporters in rounds," Huston said. "It's like, maybe it's a hot topic for a week. Recently, I was booked on one national news morning program and they told me, 'Well, since you've already appeared on this other program and that program, we're going to decide to pass.' I told them that Natalee Holloway's family didn't seem to run into that kind of problem, that kind of competition, because they've been on everywhere. This has spoken volumes to me on how some of these networks view Tamika and the amount of importance they place on her case."
Spartanburg Public Safety Department officials say they have received new leads from the recent coverage of Huston's case.
"It continues to be an active investigation that we have officers working on every day," said Lt. Steve Lamb.
Police say they have a person of interest in custody but they do not have enough evidence to charge him. The potential suspect -- whose name they have not released -- met and started dating Huston shortly before her disappearance, Lamb said.
Investigators had talked to the acquaintance throughout their investigation and began considering him a person of interest when they uncovered blood matching Huston's DNA at the man's former residence in January. The acquaintance is being held by authorities for an unrelated federal probation violation and could be released in August.
"We're continuing to work several multiple leads. The person of interest is someone we had talked to, but we can't discuss charges at this point." Lamb said. "The family has been a great asset to the investigation in generating media attention locally and nationally."
It took some time for family members to realize Huston was missing because she was single, lived alone and had recently quit her job as a waitress. Police found Huston's cell phone, three uncashed checks and her driver's license when they searched her home. Her pregnant pet pit bull Macy -- who friends and relatives say Huston treated like a child -- had given birth and eaten most of her puppies. Huston's car was found a week after she was reported missing, parked at an apartment complex.
Huston's relatives have said she was happy before she disappeared and would not have just run away. They said it wasn't unusual for her to spontaneously visit relatives and extended family in Florida and along the East Coast, but she would always tell someone where she was going.
Howard said she and her family have been discouraged by the blood evidence and the amount of time Huston has been missing. She indicated that they have resigned themselves to the worst outcome.
"At some point, you sort of lose hope," Howard said. "You don't expect anything good coming out of it. If they find Tamika, we just want to lay her to rest respectfully and with dignity. You have to hope that whoever did this to Tamika is held responsible and brought to justice."
Huston's family and friends have offered a $30,000 reward for any information that leads to her whereabouts. The Spartanburg Department of Public Safety asks that anyone who has information regarding Huston's disappearance contact investigators at (864) 596-2035 or CrimeStoppers at (864) 58-CRIME. More information about the search for Huston can be found at www.tamikahuston.com, a Web site set up by her friends and relatives.
Howard said she will continue to help in the search for her niece. Though she would prefer that Huston not become a symbol for unequal coverage of missing persons cases, she hopes her story can bring attention to the debate.
"It's like Tamika's story has become like a test case," Howard said. "But if it helps bring attention when another young black woman goes missing, I will continue speaking out on this issue.