Nearly 16 years ago, Patricia Whaley left her Angels Camp home and headed to a doctor's appointment in Lodi. Her car and purse were found several days later in a parking lot, but the 35-year-old woman was never seen again.
The 1990 police file on her case, including handwritten reports and fading photos, were ultimately stored in the depths of the Lodi Police Department. Twice the investigation was reopened and closed when departments in other states thought Whaley matched an unidentified homicide victim.
But things changed when a Calaveras County investigator got a new computer program and learned the truth Monday: Whaley had simply left her husband and three children, got on a bus in Lodi and started a new life in Colorado.
Now 51, Whaley has never again talked to her husband and children - then ages 14, 13 and 5. She knew her father had died, but only learned of her mother's death after speaking Monday to District Attorney Investigator John Crawford.
"She just said that she was having trouble, was depressed," he said. "She drove down to Lodi, got on a Greyhound bus, went to Colorado, picked up a newspaper and got a job two days later."
Whaley, who has used various names in Colorado, doesn't want to talk in public about her story, and she also has no desire to talk to her family "because she's caused them enough pain," Crawford said.
As for her husband, who later filed for divorce, he doesn't want to talk, either, Crawford said.
"He said he's glad to know that she's alive and that the feeling is mutual about not wanting any contact," Crawford said. "He's told his kids the hardest part about all of this was just not knowing what happened.
"It would be one thing if she'd been abducted and they found her body and they knew what happened."
Attempts by the News-Sentinel to reach George Whaley at an Oregon telephone number were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Crawford began investigating in 1995, five years after the case had gone nowhere. He started by looking at old Lodi and Angels Camp police reports.
When Whaley didn't return home April 20, 1990, her husband contacted Lodi Police, who took a report and closed the case pending further leads.
Days later, on May 2, now-retired Officer Jim Mize found her year-old van in the parking lot of the old Safeway, now the defunct Grocery Outlet on East Lodi Avenue.
Inside the van, officers located Whaley's purse containing her driver's license, keys, social security cards and $1.13 in cash. Finding the van, Lodi Police Sgt. Chris Piombo said Tuesday, is what made the case more than just another missing person report.
Whaley, however, had vanished. She was listed in missing persons databases, along with thousands of other missing adults.
The case looked suspicious and officers thought it could be foul play, but they never found more evidence, said Garold Murray, who was a Lodi sergeant at the time and has since retired.
At the time, the bus station was at the corner of Pine and Stockton streets, just a few blocks north of where Whaley's van was found, but Murray said officers never found a witness that had seen the woman.
Two years later, Officer Chuck Fromm, then a detective, got a call from West Virginia State Police about a homicide victim. They thought it could be Whaley, but scars on the body ultimately didn't match, Piombo said.
Local police were contacted again in 2003 when a homicide victim turned up in Albuquerque, N.M. A forensic sketch artist was used in that case and the victim looked like Whaley. But that lead was also ruled out, Piombo said.
In the meantime, Crawford was still investigating old missing persons cases. He'd occasionally run Whaley's name and driver's license number through various state databases, hoping to find something.
And then his department recently got a new computer program called Accurint, a powerful search service that let him run her Social Security number through the program.
The search turned up a Patricia Whaley in Colorado, and Crawford was soon on the phone with law enforcement authorities there. After a few interviews, they found Whaley, who admitted she was the missing woman.
Crawford talked to her by telephone Monday, and she supplied enough details that he knew she was legitimate.
As for what happens next, Crawford said it's "the end of the road." The statute of limitations for child abandonment has long since run out, and the children are over the age of 18 now, anyway.
Angels Camp police had investigated a money theft at the same time, but no charges were ever filed in that case and it's closed, Crawford said.
It's not the first time he's cleared missing persons cases by discovering that the person had later turned up - in 1994 he resolved more than 100 cases in his attempts to identify a woman's body - but certainly the first one involving 16 years and what appears to be a case of someone who decided to start a new life.
In Lodi, it means it's one less case for investigators to dig up.
"I guess I can erase that one from my memory banks," Murray said.