EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series about the disappearance of Norwalk teen Maria Anjiras, who went missing on Feb. 12, 1976.
By STEVE KOBAK
Hour Staff Writer
Maria Anjiras has been missing since 1976, but investigators and nonprofits who work to find missing persons know she can still be found.
The Cold Case Unit of the Norwalk Police Department has been inching closer to finding Maria since reopening the investigation into her disappearance in 2001, but Sgt. Art Weisgerber, head of the cold case unit, still doesn't know if the trail will lead to a dead body, an emotionally distraught person or a happy 48-year-old homemaker.
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On Feb. 12, 1976, Maria, then 14 years old, left home. Police were always a few steps behind her, but her trail went cold in 1978. She was last seen at the headquarters of the Charter Oaks Motorcycle Club in August 1976.
By the time the Cold Case Unit officially reopened the investigation into Maria's disappearance, law enforcement and Maria's family had changed drastically.
Advancements in technology -- such as DNA processing -- and a network of nonprofit and government groups geared toward helping to find missing persons gave investigators new tools to help them solve the case.
Investigators still had to sift through documents and evidence to determine their approach to the case before taking advantage of the new technology.
Maria's parents, Elsie and Constan Anjiras, passed away never knowing what happened to their daughter. Constan Anjiras' 1983 obituary lists Maria as one of his surviving children, although he had not heard from her in more than seven years.
Maria's siblings Carol and Thomas Anjiras told The Hour in 2003 that they had not heard from Maria in the years since her disappearance.
Investigators from the Cold Case Unit confirmed this fact before they commenced to digging -- literally and figuratively -- in 2002.
Constan Anjiras was never a suspect in the case, but investigators wanted to definitively prove that she was not buried near the family's former 2 Midwood Road home. In any investigation, investigators have to disprove as many things as they have to prove, Weisgerber said.
In May 2002, Norwalk Police used ground-penetrating radar to search the property for any voids in the ground. The device is used to determine if the ground has been disturbed.
"If we find a six-foot, three-inch void, that's an area of interest," said Weisgerber. "It could be an old stump, or it could be a body."
Six members of the state police K-9 Unit combed through the Anjiras residence and the surrounding property in June 2002.
Investigators found nothing to indicate any irregularities on the property and eliminated the possibility that Maria's final resting place was in a makeshift grave near her home, Weisgerber said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children developed an age-enhanced photo of Maria in 2002, but investigators received no solid leads after the release of the photo. The photo was updated in 2008 to reflect what Maria would look like as a 47-year-old woman.
Police obtained DNA from Maria's sister, Carol Anjiras, in March 2004. The DNA sample ruled out Maria as the identity of a Jane Doe in Warren County, N.J. Subsequently, Maria would be ruled out as the identity of other Jane Does because her physical features did not match those of the murder victims.
Weisgerber took over the case in May 2004 and started his investigation by examining Maria's connection to the Charter Oaks Motorcycle Club.
In order to follow the trail that leads to Maria's fate, Weisgerber has to find out what happened to Maria after the last reported sightings of her. He has a thick Connecticut State Police document detailing the gang's activities in his file on the Maria Anjiras case.
Norwalk Police gained information that she had been seen on Aug. 27, 1976, at a Danbury bar frequented by Charter Oaks members and gotten into a fight with a girl who hung around the bikers.
Weisgerber dug through a Bethel High School yearbook and found the girl with whom Maria fought. The girl had a common name, and Weisgerber had to look through a plethora of available records to find her, finally locating her in New Jersey by looking through a list of insurance reports.
When he contacted her, the girl had no memory of a girl named Maria or Mia who hung around the Charter Oaks. Weisgerber faxed her a picture of Maria, and the girl said she remember Maria but hadn't known her name. These small pieces of information, Weisgerber said, tell him he is on the right path.
Weisgerber uncovered a curious message from Sept. 1, 1976, that Danbury Police had left for Norwalk detectives, which stated that a girl named Maria was being detained as a suspicious person. He combed through about 19,000 archived police reports in Danbury until he found out the girl mentioned in the September 1976 report was a teenage runaway from a Norwalk halfway house whose name was also Maria.
Many of the people who have been missing for as long as Maria met an unnatural means to an end, according to officials familiar with missing persons cases.
Jerry Nance, a spokesman for NCMEC, estimates about 96 percent of the children that have been listed as missing by the organization were found to be deceased.
Maria could be among the pile of unidentified bodies in the United States, said Todd Matthews.
Matthews, founder of the Doe Network, an organization that works closely with NCMEC and various law enforcement outfits, estimates that tens of thousands of John and Jane Doe cases have not yet been closed. Matthews maintains a database of missing persons and Jane and John Doe cases and helps hook authorities into the resources they need to solve the case.
He currently has people working on nine facial reconstruction projects for unidentified deceased persons whose corpses were found in an advanced state of decomposition or had been decimated by its assailant. The reconstructive sketches are used by police to provide a visual depiction of what the unidentified person may have looked like while alive.
Libba Phillips, founder of Outpost for Hope, a nonprofit group that helps families find people who went "off the grid," said there is a small likelihood that Maria will be found alive.
While searching for her sister in seedy areas of the underworld across the nation, Phillips discovered an entire population of people who were considered missing by their families but not reported as such by authorities.
Networks of people in the United States go "off the grid," a phrase used to describe persons who are difficult to track down because of their transient lifestyle. The homeless, prostitutes and cults are just a few factions of the population that contain persons considered to be missing by their families.
Controlling authoritative figures and mental illnesses often build a wall between these individuals and the people trying to find them, according to Phillips.
Other people living off the grid, Phillips said, simply don't want to be found.
Weisgerber said if this is the case with Maria, a simple phone call or visit to police headquarters could end an investigation that has outlived her parents and the careers of some of the officers who first worked on the case.
"If she calls us up and says 'I'm fine, and I want to move on with my life,' that's fine," said Weisgerber. "We'll move on from there and close out the case."