This report airs Tuesday, May 8 on Dateline NBC.
Tallahassee, Fla. — Ali Gilmore was many things. She was charming, warm and above all, a planner.
Attallah, Ali's sister: She stuck by those plans. She didn’t play when it came to her plans.
Born to working class parents, Ali set her sights on college. She landed a good job at Florida’s Department of Health and with the help of a second job at a supermarket, soon achieved a third goal—buying a house.
Ali fell in love, got married, and in November 2005, became pregnant—another dream. What’s more, she accomplished all this by the age of 30, just as she’d promised herself.
What was not in Ali’s plans, was to disappear.
Lawrvetta McLawrence, Ali's mother: [To her, I would say] I love you so much. I just pray and ask God to bring you to us darling. I just pray, all I want is my Ali.
This is the story of an ever-spiraling riddle, and the big-league efforts of a determined family to make the invisible visible—to find their beloved Ali and bring her home.
On Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006, Ali Gilmore left her night job at a supermarket in Tallahassee and drove home. When she failed to show up for her day job on Friday, then again on Monday, her friend and co-worker, Karen Freeman, knew that something had to be wrong.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: And had she ever not shown up for work?
Karen Freeman, co-worker: No.
Karen drove to her friend’s home, where she found Ali’s car, but not Ali. Karen called the police, who found nothing amiss—no sign of a struggle. Ali’s supermarket clothes lay on the bed, indicating she’d made it home from work. But that was as far as authorities could track her.
Lawrvetta McLawrence: Unbelievable. I didn’t believe it.
400 hundred miles south in Riviera Beach, Fla., Ali’s parents Carl and Lawrvetta McLawrence and sisters Tracey and Attallah were asleep when they got the news.
Tracey, sister: I’m like, "Missing? What do you mean, missing?" How does an adult become missing?
At first police thought that Ali, like so many missing persons, might have run off. In fact, the last few months had been tough for Ali: Just days before learning she was pregnant, she and her husband of five years had split up. And adding to the stress, the woman known for her careful planning feared she was heading toward a financial crisis.
Freeman: I knew she had been having financial struggles.
Karen says that Ali called her from her supermarket job on the night she went missing — anxious over an unexpected increase in her property taxes.
Freeman: She was upset about it and didn’t know what she was going to do.
That desperate phone call makes Karen wonder if her friend might have done something completely out of character.
Karen: I’m hoping ‘cause of that stress, she just decided she couldn’t take it and just left.
But that’s a scenario Ali’s family says is simply out of the question.
Sara James: Do you think that there is any chance that your daughter just got fed up with things, and left?
Carl McLawrence, father: No way. No way in the world.
Sara James: And where does that confidence come from?
Carl McLawrence: It comes from knowing her.
So far, there is little evidence that Ali ran off. No one spotted her anywhere, and police say their constant monitoring of her bank and credit card accounts showed no activity since she disappeared.
With Ali’s trail stone cold, investigators inevitably centered on the darkest of possibilities: that she’d been kidnapped or killed. Ali’s mother says her daughter wouldn’t have gone quietly.
Lawrvetta McLawrence, mother: If anybody did harm to her, you better believe they had some kind of mark left on them.
Police combed for blood, hair, DNA, went door to door, and used a helicopter and bloodhounds to scour local streets and the surrounding woods.
“Canines picks up certain scents,” says the police department’s public information officer John Newland.
Sara James: And you didn’t find anything in the canine search?
John Newland, police department public information: No.
Sara James: And you didn’t find anything in the door-to-door search? Nobody had seen anything?
What had happened to Ali?
As fear turned to frustration, Ali’s family canvassed the region— handing out “Ali Gilmore” flyers, T-shirts, pens, buttons and business cards. There were billboards, even a Web site providing updates and that counts the time Ali has been missing—down to the second.
Ali’s cousin Michael Brown, mayor of Riviera Beach, says if this sounds like a full-fledged campaign, it is fueled by Ali’s mother’s experience managing his election bid.
Sara James: Right down to the yard signs, this is politics at the grassroots level. But in this case, the politics is Ali - finding Ali.
Lawrvetta McLawrence: That’s right.
Police are talking to several “people of interest” including Ali’s estranged husband, James Gilmore. Shortly after her disappearance, he moved back into the house they’d once shared.
James Gilmore, estranged husband: I want everybody to know and understand how much I love and miss Ali.
James acknowledges that his relationship with Ali had been rocky in the months before she disappeared and that the couple often fought about money—especially when the part-time college student, who worked as a supermarket stockman, failed to get a better paying job he’d applied for.
Sara James: She was putting pressure on you?
James Gilmore, estranged husband: Yeah, putting pressure on me to whatever, to…
Sara James: Step it up?
James Gilmore: Yeah, exactly.
But James says that despite their troubles, he and Ali were trying to work things out—especially now that they had a baby on the way.
James Gilmore: I was happy. I mean, I was ready to see what it was going to be and what we were going to name it.
In fact, the couple had just begun marriage counseling. Their second appointment was scheduled for February 3 — the very morning Ali disappeared. Not only did she miss the appointment, so did James.
James Gilmore: I was just up late that previous night and I just overslept.
James maintains he was at his brother’s home the night Ali vanished, but concedes the timing of the missed appointment has raised questions.
Sara James: Do you know where Ali is?
James Gilmore: I have no idea where Ali is?
Sara James: Would you ever hurt her?
James Gilmore: I’d never hurt my wife.
Sara James: Did you kill Ali?
James Gilmore: I - I can’t even believe you’re even asking me that question. Wow. No, I didn’t kill Ali, but I can’t even believe you’re asking me a question like that.
Sara James: Why?
James Gilmore: That’s my wife, man. I mean…
Sara James: People have killed their wives before.
James Gilmore: Anybody who knows me—anybody who’s known me for all of a couple of weeks would know that I am not the kind of person that would render harm to any living soul whatsoever.
As for police...
Officer Newland: We’ve checked into everything that he has told us.
Officer Newland says James has been totally cooperative, answering questions, even agreeing to a voice-stress test similar to a polygraph. They say a preliminary analysis shows he’s telling the truth.
Newland: He voluntarily did that, and there was no deception on his part in that. Of course that, along with some other files did get sent off.
Sara James: To the FBI?
Newland: To the FBI to let them look into the case.
With no clear-cut evidence to lead to anyone’s arrest, younger sister Attallah says sometimes she tries to turn back time—by calling Ali’s office to hear her sister’s voice.
Attallah: And you’ll just hear this chipper voice. “Hi. You’ve reached Ali Gilmore.”
In July 2006, around Ali’s due date, police planted a tree and later neighbors planted flowers - in honor of Ali and her baby.
Attallah: She was so excited about her baby. That’s all she talked about.
It’s been more than a year since Ali’s disappearance. While no one wants to give up, Ali’s mother confesses how hard it’s become to hold on to hope.
Lawrvetta McLawrence: I feel like my daughter’s gone. That’s my feeling. And if I’m wrong, God forgive me. It’s been too long, too long. That’s my feeling.
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