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(Publisher’s note, 9:25 p.m., February 20, 2015: No news organization may use any photos in this article without first obtaining independent permission from their original sources).
(VNO) — For Robin Wells Burton, December marked 20 years since she last saw her mother face-to-face. It was Christmas 1994, in southern Illinois.
It was the story of Robin’s life: her mother would disappear, return, disappear again, and reappear every few years. She would stay near or with family for a few months, then leave again.
This became the “norm” for Robin, who was raised by her mothers’ parents; they told the girl her mother reportedly suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia.
Then, Cloudia stopped reappearing. Unaware of her mother’s whereabouts for 11 years, Robin filed an official missing persons’ report in 2006 in Maryville, Illinois.
I was never taught (growing up) to file a report”, Robin told Victims News Online. “But after so many years went by, I knew something wasn’t right”.
Unbeknownst to her, Robin was not the only one worried about her mother. An employee of the YWCA in San Diego, California, also filed a missing person’s report in 1998 when Cloudia did not return from a reported appointment at the local VA hospital. In 2008, Robin discovered her mother was in the *NamUS database, but her first and middle names were inadvertently confused when first entered. Robin was unaware that her mother was in the database or classified as ‘missing’ in California as well as Illinois.
Those who know Cloudia appear to be divided on what happened to her: some believe she walked away from her life for various personal reasons; others believe her reported schizophrenia may be hindering her ability to reach out to her family for help; even some fear she may be deceased.
A friend of mine was surfing the Internet, happened upon that article and photo, and called me”, Robin Wells Burton told VNO. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it. That is my mother”.
The article — originally published in 2013 and updated in 2014 — addresses the decline in Santa Monica’s homeless population.
“Out of every homeless person he (Molina) could have photographed — and out of all the people they could have featured — they chose that photo,” Robin Wells Burton told VNO. “And, it somehow made its way to me, nearly two years later? I am ready to fight harder now than ever before to find her. This is not a coincidence”.
That is my mother in that picture“, she continued. “I don’t care what anyone says; that is my mother, and it’s the first lead we’ve had in 16 years. This is huge”.
Robin believes her mother knows she is looking for her, and believes she wants to be found.
I spoke with the reporter who wrote the article and the photographer who took that picture”, Robin told VNO. “They told me she told them she has been homeless 16 years – the exact number of years since I reported her missing. And she gave them a name that I have had on my list of possible aliases for her for years. There is no doubt in my mind that is my mother in the photo“.
Victims News Online spoke with Genaro Molina, the photographer whose work has unexpectedly re-focused Robin’s search towards Los Angeles’ “Skid Row”, after 16 years.
Since speaking with Robin, I have been showing her (Cloudia’s) photo around, asking people if they recognize her,” Molina told VNO via phone from his home in California. “So far, no one does. It’s been two years since I took that picture; she may not be in this exact area anymore, but I am keeping my eyes out for her”.
Molina has been photographing the homeless population (and elderly homeless) for 34 years, and is aware of the connection between mental health issues, missing persons, and the homeless. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time his work has led to the family of a missing person reaching out to him for help.
While doing a piece on elderly homeless, I photographed an 80-year-old woman with mental health issues who was living in a crack house and climbing through a window to get into it”, Molina said. “I received a call from her son — who saw my photo of her — and they were eventually reunited”.
Unfortunately, that mother-son reunion resulted in a harsh reminder for the photographer, who once slept in a tent on Skid Row to bring awareness to Los Angeles’ homeless crisis. “Her son located her and placed her into housing, but she was back on the streets within a few weeks”, Molina said. “For some, their life is on the streets. They will tell you, ‘It’s who I am’, and some are OK with it. It’s the only life they know”.
However, in the last week, the discovery of Molina’s photo has launched Robin back into ‘urgency mode’. She is now convinced that her mother allowing herself to be photographed in 2013 could be a cry for help to her loved ones to find her.
In addition to Molina’s photo, Robin Wells Burton has also learned her mother has been listing her as an emergency contact at homeless shelters throughout California.
She (my Mom) puts my name as the contact, but says I work overseas, or there is no current phone number”, Robin said. “It’s like she has moments of clarity when she reaches out to me or leaves a paper trail, but then panics if the paranoia sets in”.
In addition to the photo and emergency contact listings, Cloudia Wells’ social security number was suddenly used for the first time in mid-2014. Robin believes it is yet more proof that her mother is gradually putting herself back on the radar to be found.
Robin Wells Burton holds a ‘missing’ flyer featuring an earlier photo of her mother, next to a 2013 composite sketch of what Cloudia Wells may look like today. Permission/Robin Wells Burton
“For the first time in 16 years, my mother used her real social security number”, Robin said. “That is a huge change from her pattern of staying under the radar over the past decade-and-a-half”.
However, Robin’s battle remains an uphill one, as not everyone believes her mother wants to be located; from police to family, many have doubted whether or not she wants to be found.
The issue of voluntary adult disappearance is clear in the United States: anyone over the age of 18 may — voluntarily — choose to leave his or her home, life and family, without notification to anyone. However, Robin remains steadfast in her belief that — in her mother’s situation — a reported mental health issue is the primary cause for her mother’s disappearance.
I believe in my heart she knows I am looking for her,” Robin told VNO. “And I believe with all my heart that some part of her wants to be found”.
A recently-updated flyer by LostNMissing now features Cloudia Wells’ photo next to a homeless woman photographed in 2013.
Still, not everyone agrees; and it is the very issue of an adult’s right to voluntarily disappear that is hindering Robin’s ability for her mother’s case to be managed in the way other missing persons’ cases are handled.
In fact, Robin first contacted Victims News Online for assistance in her mother’s disappearance in 2012. During the course of our initial investigation, we — and she — were informed that her mother had supposedly been located, and did not want to be found. Due to the issue of voluntary adult disappearance, it was unclear at that time if Wells was seeking out her family, or if she left of her own volition. The information caused our team — as well as other advocates — to reexamine Cloudia’s case. If there is a chance her mother does not want to be found, then she has the legal right to refuse help.
However, Robin believes that conversation never transpired, and her mother has most likely been living in California for the last 16 years.
“I was told that my mother has been spotted in that area (Skid Row) numerous times in the last decade”, Robin Wells Burton said. “I do not believe the information provided in 2012″.
Neither did her mother’s former detective. Via phone, then-Detective Catherine Millet of the San Diego PD told VNO she believed Cloudia was in California, and actively worked the case until her retirement in 2013.
I do not believe she was ever located and refused help”, Millet told VNO in 2012. “I believe she has been in California this entire time, and is probably moving between a few different cities”.
Earlier this week, Robin discovered the ‘new’ detective assigned to her mother’s case in San Diego has been gone from the department for over a year. She left several frustrated voice mail messages for the department’s missing persons’ unit, and received a response from a new detective that has generated outrage from the families of the missing. The voice mail message she received from her mother’s new detective was — in Robin’s opinion — “downright rude”.
“It is time for me to find my mother”, Robin Wells told VNO. “I am ready to go the media and do whatever it takes to find her”.
At the time of her disappearance in 1998, Cloudia Leslie Wells was 45 years old; today, she is 61. She is approximately five feet to 5’2″ tall, weighing 145 – 155 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.
Cloudia Wells is known to frequent shelters and areas where the homeless population gather(s). She may be using the names Diane, Diana, Cloudia, Leslie, or other variations (of those names). It is believed she may have as many as 15 – 20 different aliases, if not more.
Earlier this week, a possible sighting of Cloudia Wells was reported by a woman in Pasadena, California. The woman claims to have seen Cloudia near a homeless shelter in Union Station, approximately 25 miles’ northeast of Santa Monica’s “Skid Row”.
The original NamUS* case file provided by the San Diego Police Department indicates “Cloudia Wells left the YWCA where she lived (on or around April 10, 1998) in order to go to the VA hospital. She had bus tokens and $2.00. (Wells) did not arrive at VA or return to the YWCA”.
Robin is now determined to fly to California and locate her mother. Through fundraisers and the assistance of VNO, Robin hopes to make a trip to California as soon as possible to search for her mother.
Earlier today, LA Times Photographer Genaro Molina also offered his support in covering Robin’s search efforts in Santa Monica.
I want to bring awareness to what it’s like for a loved one to search for a missing person amongst the homeless”, Molina said.
A fundraising page has been set up to assist Robin Wells Burton with the expenses related to fliers for distribution in California, and for potential travel to reunite with her mother. For more information regarding Cloudia’s disappearance, you may view her Facebook page here.
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Cloudia Wells is asked to call Detective Maura Mekenas-Parga with the San Diego Police Department at 619-561-2277. Please reference case number 98-024254.
(*National Missing and Unidentified Persons System)
(Editor’s note: “Skid Row” was erroneously identified as being in Santa Monica, CA, while it is in Los Angeles. The LA Times’ photographer’s name was also misspelled at the end of our original article. Both have been changed, and we regret any confusion caused by these errors).