Excavation began Thursday in the Kern County desert as authorities conducted a search for remains in connection with the disappearance of a Long Beach woman 16 years ago.
Diana Rojas, 27, was last seen Oct. 20, 2000, at an apartment in the 5500 block of Ackerfield Avenue, where she lived with her 2-year-old daughter, according to the Long Beach Police Department. She is believed to have been murdered.
"We are here today looking for closure for my family and most importantly for my sister Diana," the victim's brother Solomon Cortez said Wednesday.
Rojas missed an appointment she had scheduled for Oct. 21, 2000, police said. Her family called police the next day when they were unable to find her or her black 1992 Nissan pickup.
"At the time of Diana's disappearance, her daughter was in the care of a family member at another residence. By all accounts, it was uncharacteristic for Diana to leave her child without warning," police said.
After collecting evidence from her apartment and interviewing relatives and friends, the trail went cold, police said.
Her pickup was never found. It was a 1992 Nissan Extended Cab pickup, black with white pinstripes, with Texas license number BY3242. Police circulated her photo and listed her description as being of Filipino and Hispanic descent, 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighing 115 pounds, with brown hair and eyes.
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After 16 years, Long Beach police got a call.
"We received an anonymous tip and a location where Diana could be found," said Long Beach Sgt. Megan Zabel.
The investigation led police to Ridgecrest, more than 100 miles from Long Beach, where detectives believe the woman's remains may be buried.
"Utilizing satellite images of Ridgecrest, (investigators) pinpointed areas where there were inconsistencies to the topography," police said.
Detectives used specially trained cadaver dogs from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to search the area, and the dogs "showed interest in one of the areas," police said.
On Thursday, Long Beach police detectives, along with the Ridgecrest Police Department, Kern County Sheriff's Department and a "NecroSearch" team, will excavate the area in Ridgecrest.
Ground-penetrating radar will be used to help search the desert-like terrain.
NecroSearch is a multidisciplinary team of scientists and investigators who assist law enforcement in the location of clandestine graves and the recovery of evidence.
The two NecroSearch scientists who will be assisting in the search are a forensic geologist and a forensic geophysicist with more than 70 years of combined experience in locating clandestine graves.
"She was diligent, sweet, quiet, kind," said pastor Al Howard.
Al and Judy Howard run His Nesting Place Ministries where Rojas worked with women and victims of domestic violence.
Rojas was last seen by the Howard's son, who was Rojas' boyfriend, at her apartment. When she didn't turn up at an appointment or to pick up her then 2-year-old daughter, family and friends became worried.
"When she came up missing, we spent months looking everywhere putting flyers all over our community," Judy said.
Two years ago, the Howards say police came to their church after another anonymous call claimed Rojas was buried there.
"They wanted permission to excavate it and of course I said yes," Al said.
Nothing was found, and at the time of the young mother's disappearance, their son was questioned. He is not a suspect.
Police said while there was evidence of foul play from the apartment 16 years ago, they had nothing to move the case forward until now.
"We are asking the community if there is anyone out there with any information, anything, please help me and my family find closure by contacting the Long Beach Police Department," Cortez said.
The Howards add that Rojas was scared of her husband who she was trying to divorce and said he once slashed her tires. Police confirm the couple was estranged and also say that he was interviewed at the time, but was not identified as a suspect.
Police also say that even if Rojas' remains are not found Thursday, the case will remain open.
Anyone with information to help solve the crime was urged to call homicide Detectives Mark Bigel and Todd Johnson at (562) 570-7244, or Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-TIPS.
City News Service contributed to this report.