Friday was Jennifer Nicole Smith's ninth birthday.
But instead of celebrating with her daughter, Pamela Smith found herself at a police station news conference, pleading for help in finding Jennifer. Her daughter, along with two other girls and their mother, disappeared May 18 while on a routine outing.
Police believe the woman, Maria Medrano, may have abducted the children.
For Pamela Smith, it was a last, desperate effort after a month of fruitless searching for the girls, first in the South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood they called home, then in the Mexican border town of Mexicali.
Smith was also a foster mother to one of the three missing girls, Bianca Martinez, 9. In May, she agreed to allow Bianca to go on a weekend visit with her sister, Rosa Medrano, 14, and their mother, Maria Medrano.
The two women had known each other for three years and Smith confidently allowed her own daughter to tag along with her two playmates. On at least five previous visits, the three girls had traveled with Medrano to places like Sea World in San Diego and the Los Angeles Zoo. But this time, they did not return.
On the last day that Smith saw the three girls, a Friday, Medrano arrived to pick them up with a boyfriend who had a car.
"This time I wasn't going to let Jennifer go," Smith recalled.
"But (Jennifer) was standing at the doorway going, 'Mom, please let me go, please let me go,' " Smith said.
Medrano had interjected: "You know Jennifer can come. She always comes. Bianca and her have to be together."
As Jennifer stood crying by the doorway of her bedroom, Smith said she gave in. "I said, 'OK, get your change of clothes and behave yourself.' "
When the four had not returned by that Sunday evening, Smith called police.
Detective Mike Lewis said that before her disappearance, Medrano spent much of her time living on the streets around Central Avenue.
"She's a transient-type person," Lewis said. "She doesn't have one place she lives."
Smith began passing out leaflets with pictures of the three girls in the neighborhood around her home near 42nd Place and Central Avenue. She walked nearly 20 blocks of Central Avenue, talking to "street people" who may have heard of Medrano's whereabouts. Eventually, she also distributed leaflets in neighborhoods in Compton and Lynwood.
A week after the disappearance, she visited Mexicali because Medrano has relatives there.
"I don't know what may be going through Maria's head that she can't pick up the phone and call me to let me know my baby is OK," said Smith, 27, a legal secretary.
Lewis said officers had investigated the case with the cooperation of Mexican authorities but "no one (in Mexicali) had seen them or knew where they were."
Bianca had lived with the Smith family for about three years, Pamela Smith said. In recent years, Medrano had apparently overcome a drug problem, Smith said.
"She looked better. She had gained a lot of weight," Smith said. "She dressed like a lady. The girls were always neat and clean when they came back."
Bianca and Rosa were made wards of the court after their mother abandoned them about two years ago, police said.
Lewis said the district attorney's office determined that Medrano could not be prosecuted for taking her own children because she was not present at the custody hearing entrusting them to foster care and may not have been aware of the custody rules.
But the disappearance of Jennifer Smith could justify child-stealing charges, he said.
Jennifer is described as black, with brown hair and brown eyes. She is 5 feet tall and weighs 90 pounds and was wearing the same type clothing as Bianca, a white T-shirt and a denim skirt.
"Jennifer and Bianca like to dress alike," Lewis said. "They are like sisters."
Rosa Medrano was last seen wearing a white blouse and black skirt, police said.
Maria Medrano is 30 years old. She has tattoos on her right arm and shoulders, and a small teardrop-shaped tattoo next to the corner of her left eye.
After the Friday morning news conference, Smith spent some of her time following a transient's tip that Medrano may have taken the three girls to Guatemala.
Friday was a stark contrast to Jennifer's last birthday, which the family celebrated with a slumber party.
"Every year she likes to have a slumber party with five or six little girls," Smith said. "She kind of plans her birthday for us. She tells us what she wants to do."