When Karla Rodriguez vanished in 1999, Las Vegas police weren’t notified for more than 12 hours.
The 7-year-old girl often wandered the streets of her central Las Vegas neighborhood without supervision, and relatives assumed she was safe.
“She was a victim waiting to happen,” retired Deputy Chief Al Salinas said recently.
Karla was last seen the evening of Oct. 20, 1999, and as far as the Metropolitan Police Department is aware, no one has seen her since.
The brown-haired girl with a gap-toothed smile disappeared from her neighborhood in the shadow of what was then known as the Stratosphere, near St. Louis Avenue and Maryland Parkway, after she was last seen alone, playing in the area with her bike.
The unsolved case remains open, 20 years later. Six months ago, cold case homicide Detectives Dan Long and Terri Miller took it over and are looking at it with fresh eyes.
“Any tip, no matter how small, is welcome,” Long said, sitting at Metro headquarters on Wednesday with other law enforcement officials who have worked together to find Karla.
Falling ‘through the cracks’
On Oct. 20, 1999, Karla was supposed to go to an English language class at Park Elementary School. Police initially believed that Karla’s mom walked her part of the way to school, but Long said Wednesday that he’s not sure if Karla’s mom walked her there at all.
Whatever happened, Karla didn’t show up for class that day, and her whereabouts for the next 12 hours are unknown.
Karla’s father, Ramon, returned home from work around 5 p.m. His other daughters — all teenagers — said Karla was around somewhere, so he didn’t worry. She was often left alone.
He left the house again and dropped off the family car with Karla’s mother, Elia Zepeda, at her place of work, and rode a bus home. By about 10 p.m., he realized Karla and her bike were gone.
He talked to a neighbor, who said Karla came over to play with his son around 7 p.m. Long said the man told Karla to go home — it was getting too late for a 7-year-old to be out.
Ramon Rodriguez went to bed. He assumed Karla was at a friend’s house, detectives said. When Zepeda came home from work about 3 a.m., he didn’t mention that their daughter was gone. He didn’t want to frighten her.
The next morning, Karla’s mom showed up at Park Elementary School, hoping that her daughter had made it to class. It was the principal who finally called police when the adults realized that Karla was indeed missing.
Police found her bike near the neighbor’s home, more than 12 hours after anyone had seen her.
“Everybody knows the first 6 to 12 hours of a child reported missing, if those resources aren’t pushed out, the chances are the child will become a victim,” said Salinas, who retired in 2015 but was the missing persons sergeant when Karla disappeared.
Over the next week, more than 100 volunteers and officers scoured Karla’s neighborhood multiple times. Metro called out bloodhounds and the mounted unit to cover more ground. Officers contacted parents, knocked on doors and stopped cars, looking for anything.
Two bloodhounds traced Karla’s scent to an apartment complex about a half-mile from her home, but no “items of evidence or value” were found at the complex, Miller told the Review-Journal on Friday.
On Wednesday, Salinas recalled that Karla’s disappearance seemed off from the beginning. Another family was living in the home off of St. Louis Avenue, but even with 10 people inside, no one seemed to look after Karla consistently.
“Dad didn’t call us. Mom didn’t call us. It was the principal of the school that called us. Those kind of situations really give me concern,” Salinas said, later adding that he thought Karla “fell through the cracks.”
‘Needle in a haystack’
Although nothing can be said for sure, and no suspects have been eliminated, police think a stranger took Karla.
No body has been found, so retired and current officers hold out hope that Karla is still alive somewhere. Metro has started searching for Karla in databases through her parents’ DNA, a new process that law enforcement officers across the country have started using.
The FBI has searched for Karla in Mexico multiple times to explore theories that her extended family might have taken her.
“There’s where the hope is that she’s still alive,” Salinas said. “Maybe with the DNA we may be able to find her.”
“Or the abductor, for whatever reason, has kept her alive,” Long added. “We don’t know. There’s never been a resolution.”
Dozens of suspects have been quietly investigated over the years, Long said. He and Miller plan to re-interview family members and send more forensic evidence to be tested, although neither said what that evidence is.
“Cases like Karla’s are such a needle in a haystack,” said Robert Lowery, vice president of the missing children division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
During a phone interview in early October, Lowery said it might have been difficult for Karla’s case to reach a national audience, in part due to the circumstances of her disappearance and the suspicion cast on her parents. He said it’s also harder to get publicity about a Hispanic child’s disappearance.
“We know that these cute little kids that are wearing maybe a dress and have a cute hairstyle seem to get a lot more attention than say, just an average child, or even a minority child,” he said.
Plea for information
During a news conference with Metro on Friday, Rosy Rodriguez stood next to her parents and begged for information about her sister’s whereabouts. She said family members still believe they can be reunited with Karla.
“We miss you, Karla,” the sister, now 35, said. “Please someone who has any clue — please let us know, contact the police.”
Further information about Karla is hard to come by. National news media did not seem to pick up on her story other than a segment that aired on “America’s Most Wanted” three days after her disappearance, the Review-Journal reported in 1999. “The Montel Williams Show” also aired a segment on Karla in the aftermath of her disappearance, Salinas said.
Officials on Wednesday said no substantial leads have come to light in about 10 years.
Salinas said that, as a parent, Karla’s disappearance was one of the cases that stuck with him after his four years in the missing persons unit. But he said he believes “very strongly” that detectives did everything they could to find her.
“From an investigative standpoint, we used every single resource that was available to us,” he said.
Anyone with information about Karla’s disappearance may call the Las Vegas FBI office at 702-385-1281 or Metro homicide detectives at 702-828-3521. Anonymous tips may be left with Crime Stoppers at 702-385-5555.
Supervisory Special Agent Elena Iatarola, with the FBI, said a $5,000 reward is now available for anyone with information that leads to a resolution of the case.
“If there is anyone out there in the public that has even a little something that they’ve been holding onto, if they want to come forward and share that, we’re hoping that an incentive will also help bring that forward,” Iatarola said.