HAYWARD -- An annual vigil Monday at the south Hayward grocery store where Michaela Garecht was kidnapped 24 years ago took on new meaning this year as the family waits to learn whether an unearthed bone fragment belongs to the girl who was 9 years old when she disappeared.
Elizabeth Garecht, who was 3 when her sister was kidnapped, said she wished they had known the test results before the vigil.
"I have always remembered Michaela as missing. This year is different," she said, struggling to find words. "Usually we talk about holding out the hope that Michaela would be found. I'm not sure how to feel."
The 3-inch bone fragment was found with other remains in a San Joaquin County well, which is believed to hold victims of the so-called "Speed Freak Killers." The fragment, which investigators said belonged to a child between the ages of 5 and 13, has been sent to an Arizona lab for testing and then Virginia for further analysis. It could be weeks before results are known.
At Monday's vigil, Michaela's mother, Sharon Murch, and others handed out fliers titled "Still Missing" and with a passage from "Winnie the Pooh" that was more of a tribute to her daughter than a typical missing-person notice.
"As time goes by, the purpose is less to get information from the public but to keep Michaela's memory alive," Murch said.
"I've wondered if this is the last time" family and supporters gather, she said. "Regardless of the results,
Hayward police Capt. Darryl McAllister was a beat cop when the girl was taken on Nov. 19, 1988, from the parking lot of the Mission Boulevard corner grocery, where she and a friend had ridden their scooters mere blocks from her home.
"When an innocent child is snatched from a market in broad daylight with people around, that hits you," he said. "We will not let this case rest until we get it resolved. We have pursued thousands of leads over the years."
Michaela's father, Rodney Garecht, hung back at the edge of the crowd. "I'm surviving," he said quietly. "We've been through a lot." He walked up to a tree on the side of the market and added a yellow bow to the large mass of ribbons and bows that had been tied to the tree.
Monday's gathering of 50 to 75 included many longtime family friends.
Chuck Lienhard, whose ex-wife and daughters were at the Garechts' house the night before the kidnapping, described Michaela as a typical, fun-loving, young girl. "She was real friendly, real playful. I can't believe it's been 24 years."
Robbie Garecht was an infant when his sister disappeared. "It has been important for my mom to keep Michaela's memory alive," he said. "I don't think that will change."
Murch said she was not quite ready to learn the results of testing on the bone fragment.
"It's been very, very difficult to be the mother of a missing child. To find out she died would be ..." Murch trailed off. "I don't know what it would be like. It's a place I've never been.
"This is a large part of my life. I don't know what it would be like to not keep hoping. We've been living this way for 24 years."