The search for Kristen Modafferi: 20 years later

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Twenty years ago this month, a young woman from Charlotte disappeared in San Francisco.

The Kristen Modafferi case sparked national media attention as her family desperately searched for answers.

Watch the top video for a special web extra on Kristen Modafferi's case

Channel 9 began investigating the case again in recent months and reported police in California are pursuing new leads into Modafferi's disappearance.

Channel 9 partnered with our ABC affiliate in San Francisco to press investigators for answers and discovered there are fresh clues being looked at thanks to the tireless efforts of the Modafferi family.

Modafferi's family has never stopped searching for her and agreed to speak with Channel 9 on this somber anniversary.

Their feelings and emotions are just as strong 20 years later.

"It's hard to believe 20 years has gone by. It was just as painful when I was 15 as it is today," her sister, Lauren Modafferi, said.

Lauren Modafferi is 35 and continues to live in Charlotte.

"It's part of us. It's woven into the fabric of who we are," said the missing woman's older sister Allison Modafferi, 40.

"There's no process for grieving in this way. Because it's not like she was here yesterday and then she's gone and so we have a funeral," said the younger sister, Meghan Modafferi, 27. "We haven't had her for 20 years."

"It's been 20 years and well past the time that we should be able to bring our daughter home," Kristen Modafferi's mom, Debbie Modafferi, said.

The family told investigative reporter Paul Boyd that in many ways they feel robbed of having Kristen Modafferi miss out on the experiences and milestones in their lives.

Who was Kristen Modafferi?

Kristen Modafferi grew up with her three sisters in south Charlotte.

"She never made me feel like I was the young, silly little sister. She was always trying to teach me and include me," Lauren Modafferi said.

Kristen Modafferi had a love of music, art and photography.

(Part 1: The search for Kristen Modafferi: 20 years later)

"She would invite me downstairs to paint with her. She was really talented. So she would paint these beautiful portraits and draw too and sometimes sculptures,"  Meghan Modafferi said.

Kristen Modafferi was already an acclaimed scholar after her first year at North Carolina State University.

"She was really, really smart. So though I was older, she taught me as much as I taught her of course," Allison Modafferi said.

Kristen Modafferi disappears

Kristen Modafferi traveled to San Francisco in June 1997. She planned to spend the summer working, studying and exploring.

"She brought her camera to San Francisco for her summer trip in 1997 with the idea of doing a lot of sight-seeing and just taking pictures of the beautiful city," her father, Bob Modafferi, said.

Kristen Modafferi had just turned 18 when she disappeared on June 23, 1997, but her family wasn't alerted until three days later.

"We wound up calling the house where Kristen was renting a room and found out that she had been missing, and nobody had bothered to call us to let us know,” her father said.

Cellphone calls and text messaging was not option all those years ago.

Kristen Modafferi's parents boarded the next plane to California.

"But even at that time, we were thinking that, there must be some kind of misunderstanding here," her father said.

Kristen Modafferi's family quickly realized their daughter was indeed missing without a trace.

They followed up with police and hired a private investigator.

"I knew there was something terribly wrong," her mother told Channel 9.

"We just got very active as far as just walking the city. Printing and handing out posters. Posting flyers on buildings, telephone poles, whatever we could do. And just talking to everybody we could meet looking for possible leads," Bob Modafferi said.

The family traveled to San Francisco half a dozen times that first year.

"She wasn't trying to disappear," Allison Modafferi said. "And that was frustrating to all of us at that time, because we felt like we were shouting, 'No. No. This. This. There's something wrong here. She didn't make this happen.'"

Channel 9 flew to California to investigate several times as well and followed the family as they searched for Kristen Modafferi.

The family said people showed them a lot of concern and empathy, particularly when they saw Meghan Modafferi, who was 7 years old during this time, searching for her sister.

"I expected we would find her," Meghan Modafferi said. "And I expected it was just going up to enough people with the flyers on the street and then someone would say, 'Yes, of course, I have seen her.' And together, we would go and find her."

The search for Kristen

So what happened to Kristen Modafferi 20 years ago?

She was living in a house on Jayne Avenue in Oakland, California, with several roommates and walked to the subway the morning she disappeared.

(Part 2: The search for Kristen Modafferi: 20 years later)

Kristen Modafferi spent the day working at an Oakland coffee shop and told coworkers of plans to visit a beach later that day.

Investigators at the time said blood hounds picked up Kristen Modafferi's scent at a beach but led to nothing.

In 1997, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco received an anonymous phone tip about Kristen Modafferi.

A man named Jon Onuma eventually admitted to making that phone call. He told police it was a prank, but he quickly became the focus of the investigation.

Onuma moved to Hawaii shortly after Kristen Modafferi disappeared.

He declined an on-camera interview for this story and denied any role in Kristen Modafferi's disappearance.

The FBI told Channel 9 they cleared Onuma as a suspect.

His girlfriend at the time, Jill Lampo, stayed in San Francisco.

The Modafferi family has also speculated she knows more than she is saying.

Lampo spoke with a reporter from the ABC station and denied any knowledge of what happened to Kristen Modafferi. Lampo went out of her way to say she was at the library around the time Kristen Modafferi disappeared and showed a library card in an effort to prove where she was that day 20 years ago.

"I can only prove my own whereabouts," Lampo said. "And I've been accused constantly for just being near (Jon Onuma)."

"The fact that your camera crew was able to approach her and get her talking about this case after 20 years is quite surprising," said Bob Modafferi.

Investigation continues

The day Kristen Modafferi disappeared, she was seen after work walking with a blonde woman. That person has never been identified.

"We've heard that often times a predator will use a woman to lure another woman," said Bob Modafferi

"If someone out there knows anything we would implore them to come forward and let us know," said Meghan Modafferi.

Kristen Modafferi's family also wonders if her roommates at the time may have more information.

New DNA evidence being investigated

The Modafferi family recently provided their DNA to a respected forensics scientist from Tennessee.

Dr. Arpad Vass said he's developed a remarkable new technology that can detect human decomposition chemicals in soil even after decades have gone past.

"No other law enforcement agency has technology that can do what this technology can do," said Bob Modafferi.

Vass has volunteered his time and expertise to help the Modafferis. He told the family his team found human decomposition chemicals next to the home Kristen Modafferi was renting on Jayne Avenue.

The Modafferi family said Vass told them the DNA they were finding within these human decomposition chemicals was a match to Kristen Modafferi.

That doesn't mean Kristen Modafferi's body is there, but it may have been there all those years ago.

This is all new information to Oakland police investigating the case.

"We are working with our lab and contacting the people that the Modafferi family had do the work, so we can get a better understanding of how they did it," said Rodger Haley, who's leading the investigation.

He wants to know exactly what science is involved in order to move forward.

Channel 9 reported Vass recently contacted Oakland police and gave them a specific set of directives that should closely match the results he achieved with his technology.

"It's certainly a list of action items that the Oakland police can take and should take to move the investigation forward," said Bob Modafferi.

Oakland police said they are certainly hoping for a breakthrough in the case.

"I would love to be able to give the parent's some answers," said Haley.

The Modafferi family believes this new technology could help solve the case.

"We're so close. We feel like we're getting really close to resolving this case and having some closure," said Bob Modafferi. "And we certainly don't want the ball dropped now. We want answers now."

20 years of prayers

Kristen Modafferi's family said all along they have felt incredible love and support from people following their tragedy.

"The city of Charlotte has (been) wonderful support for us," said Debbie Modafferi. "Our friends at work and our friends at school and our church and just people. Strangers, coming up and giving us hugs many years later and reminding us that we still remember. We still remember, and we still pray for your family."

The family said to this day, people will recognize their last name and ask about Kristen Modafferi.

"I tell people often, ‘Don't feel bad bringing her up. We love talking about Kristen,’" said Allison Modafferi.

"I just want to say thank you for keeping us in your prayers and in your thoughts. We have felt it over the years," said Meghan Modafferi.

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