Trying to warm a cold case

1983 missing child case led to changes

Above is Tony Franko as a boy. The image on the below is an “age progression” produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It shows what the boy might have looked like in 2008, at age 36.

Above is Tony Franko as a boy. The image on the below is an “age progression” produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It shows what the boy might have looked like in 2008, at age 36.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is trying to revive interest in an old Nevada case as its 30th anniversary approaches.

Ten-year-old Tony Franko disappeared on May 8, 1983.

“It’s our oldest unsolved missing child case,” said KOLO News reporter Ed Pearce, a longtime leader in the Secret Witness crime tip line program. “It’s an instructive case in this regard: If you see what we do now in the case of a missing child as opposed to what we did then, we move in a much more responsive direction.”

Pearce said that before the Franko disappearance, if was common for law enforcement to wait 24 hours before mounting a major effort. In the Franko case, that procedure was followed in part because there was a previous instance of the child running away.

“Tony left for school one morning,” Pearce said. “He never arrived at school. For a long time this was part of the narrative, and it affected how they responded—he had run away before. It was just for a couple of hours. He made himself a couple of sandwiches and left, then he came back home after a couple of hours. But [with that history,] they didn’t do anything right away.”

Because of that previous incident, local law enforcement had a mistaken view of the boy as troubled. Actually, Pearce said, the household was relatively stable and happy.

“He and his mother had a pretty good relationship, he was active in 4-H, he was excited about a show where he won a ribbon for showing his pony. They didn’t do the kind of things we do today, and the trail went cold. He was never found. … And the case led to changes in the way missing children cases were handled in the Truckee Meadows.”

Hanging on to hope

Tony Franko was old enough to get himself to school. On that date, his mother left for work and then he headed to Lemmon Valley Elementary School. He never reached it.

He had a slight gap between his front teeth, small birthmarks above his left eyebrow and on the right side of his neck, two light moles across his cheek and nose, and a light scar under his lower lip. When he disappeared, he was wearing a red 49ers T-shirt, blue jeans, and a blue hooded jacket. His full name: Anthony Bernard Franko.

His mother, Lisa Ackerman-Stewart, eventually left Lemmon Valley, lived in Verdi for a time, then settled in Fallon.

“It’s hard at times because, you know, you see other things in the newspaper about people being found not alive, but I still have a feeling he might be alive,” she said this week. “Where, I don’t know. You see cases where people might have been right around the corner.”

The remarkable and highly publicized survival cases of Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard have led to greater hope and effort in the cases of missing children, but also may have increased the pain of dashed hopes, because those survivals remain exceptions to the norm.

“I was happy for them being found,” Ackerman-Stewart said. “It gave me more hope that Tony might be found one of these days after so many years. I was really happy for them. I hope and pray sometimes that that would happen. I still have hope. … If he is out there, oh, maybe I’m a grandmother or something. I think I would recognize him if I were to see him. I could identify him. I’d probably still treat him as if he were 10. I still think of him [as] little.”

Tragic litany

Faster response did not, of course, always change outcomes. There was a major and rapid response in the disappearance of 8-years-olds Charles and Jennifer Chia from the Timber Hills apartment complex on Oct. 18, 1989. Their remains were found the following July. The killer or killers have not been found.

While procedures changed in the Truckee Meadows, other nearby jurisdictions had different practices. In the case of Jaycee Dugard, Pearce said, “They spent several days up there wondering, ’Well, it could have been her stepdad.’”

Such cases litter local history—Monica Da Silva, Lisa Bonham, Jennifer Martin. Martin, who lived a few blocks from Tony Franko, disappeared on June 28, 1987. She was 11.

Bonham, age 6, was kidnapped on Sept. 3, 1977, then raped and strangled. Her body was found in Dog Valley. The case was solved by advancing technology—DNA testing 23 years after her death identified her killer.

The sleeping 7-year-old Monica Da Silva was taken from her bedroom in an Idlewild Drive home in the middle of the night on Sept. 24, 1990. Her remains were later found in a canyon west of Lagomarsino Canyon east of Sparks, but were not identified as Da Silva until a year later. Indeed, there was a period when it was thought the remains might be those of Dugard, sending a chill of fear through her family members.

At one point, parallels in a Las Vegas case to the Da Silva case raised hopes the crime would be solved.

Two years ago, Da Silva’s mother Julie Crain—now a Wisconsin resident—told a reporter in Appleton, “We still want answers.”

Pearce said that some police officers who “took to the case, took it to heart,” continue working some of these cases even after they retire.

Former Reno police officer Ron Dreher said most of these cases still occupy him.

“I do believe that there are people out there who know what happened to Tony,” Dreher said. He hopes they will still come forward. In the Chia case, he said, a woman whose husband had information about the case told her to stay silent. She finally contacted police after her husband died. Dreher said the people who worked the Franko case most diligently were Mike Haley and Tim Yardic of the Washoe Sheriff’s Department. Yardic is retired.

“They did an awesome job on that case,” Dreher said.

Asked how he feels about the case after three decades, Haley—now sheriff—said, “Unsatisfied. During the Franko case, we had other cases leading up to that that were a tragic loss of young children. … Every new detective that comes into the sheriff’s office picks that case up. It’s unfinished business and it’s tragic.”

Ackerman-Stewart posts birthday greetings to Tony online every year. She said this week, “I have my doubts, and I have my hopes.”