The first thing you see when you enter the small, spotless living room of Patricia Stevenson's Dundalk rowhouse is a framed color photograph of her youngest child.
That picture is almost all that remains of Bernadette Marie Stevenson Caruso. On Sept. 27, 1986, the 23-year-old woman walked out of Eastpoint Mall and vanished without a trace. No body, no bones, no car, no clothes have been found.
But her family has never stopped looking.
"We just couldn't think of letting go -- and my children feel the same way. We owe this to Bernadette," Stevenson, 62, says. "They say something like this will either ruin a family or bring it closer. It's really brought us closer and made us appreciate each other."
Year after year, she and her children have kept up the search. They have printed new fliers, followed up leads, stayed in touch with police regularly -- so regularly that one of Bernadette's sisters is now married to a detective once on the case.
They have organized an annual Mass for the missing in Dundalk. They have set up a World Wide Web site. Stevenson formed a support group for families with missing adults.
Family members have mailed fliers with Bernadette's picture to trucking companies, tucked them into their utility bills, put them on light poles and store windows, taken them to local festivals. They have consulted psychics. They have offered a reward.
They have done everything imaginable -- except given up or succeeded.
The case of Bernadette Caruso, contained in a police file almost a foot thick, is one of about two dozen missing-persons mysteries in Baltimore County.
Two similarly protracted cases of missing people finally came to closure when bodies were found. The body of Jamie Griffin, 17, of Cockeysville was recovered in 1990 after eight years, and his killer was sentenced to life in prison. The body of Susan Hurley Harrison, 52, of Ruxton was found last year after two years, although her slaying remains unsolved.
So where is Bernadette Caruso?
"Give me an answer," says Bernadette's sister Susan Bowerman, pounding a table with her open hand. "Just tell me where she is. I'd rather just know, so I can put Bernadette to rest."
Bowerman's frustration is echoed by the police, who have had no new leads for months.
"I can tell you, the cops here would love to solve that case," says Maj. Allan J. Webster of the Criminal Investigation Division. "There's got to be somebody out there that knows about it."
No one has come forward.
When Bernadette Caruso walked out of Shaw's Jewelers in Eastpoint Mall at 5 p.m. Sept. 27, 1986, an atypically free Saturday night awaited her.
She and her husband, Paul Michael Caruso, had filed for divorce. Although court records document a lengthy, nasty battle over custody arrangements for their only child, there was no dispute about that weekend: Nicole, then 3, was spending it with her father.
Bernadette had planned to spend the evening with Jill Kelley, another Shaw's employee and a close friend since high school.
"We had made plans to go out," Kelley remembers. "I worked until 9: 30. I tried to call her several times, but I couldn't get an answer."
Bernadette's disappearance went otherwise unnoticed until Sunday evening, when her husband brought Nicole to the small brick-and-wood rowhouse in Chase where Bernadette lived. No one answered the door. He called Stevenson to say Bernadette wasn't around and he would keep Nicole until she turned up.
"I knew right away something was wrong," Stevenson recalls. Like everyone else who was close to Bernadette, her mother is adamant on this point: Bernadette would never willingly abandon Nicole, the center of her life.
Stevenson summoned Bernadette's six siblings to her Dundalk rowhouse, and the search began.
"We immediately called police. We started looking for her that night. We spent hours walking through Chase and Essex," remembers Darlene Huntsman, another of Bernadette's sisters.
The next day they did it all again, looking for Bernadette and the gray-green Chevrolet Cavalier she had driven to work. "We backpacked babies. We rode around, searching woods, putting up fliers."
They kept up the frantic search for months. Her mother stayed home by the telephone day and night, hoping for some word.
Rituals and remembrance
Eleven years later, faith, hope and the photograph are all that Bernadette's mother has.
Bernadette's husband was granted a divorce and remarried. Nicole, now 14, has grown up with her father and a stepmother -- and little contact with her mother's family.
Caruso declined to comment on his former wife's disappearance or his daughter, saying only, "I feel for the Stevenson family."
The rest of Bernadette's relatives have marked each year with rituals and remembrance.
At Christmas, Huntsman decorates two trees -- one for her own family, then a second one for the woman her children refer to as "Aunt Bibi."