VENTURA — The family of a missing teenager is complaining that the Police Department is dragging its heels in its search for Jenniffer Rose Vernals, but detectives insist they are doing all they can.
The 15-year-old Anacapa Middle School eighth-grader was last seen by her family March 30 before she went shopping at Trueblood Thrift Shop on East Main Street in Ventura.
Although police first classified her as a missing person, they now view her as a runaway, Lt. Don Arth said.
"She's been seen in Ventura in the company of other runaways who have since returned home," Arth said. "We've verified this."
Arth added that Jenniffer recently contacted a relative out of state by telephone.
But Jenniffer's mother, Lois Bowens, insists that her daughter is not a runaway and that Jenniffer never contacted relatives in Indiana.
"Nobody has been contacted," Bowens said. "Not friends, not relatives."
Jenniffer's classification as a runaway caused the television show "America's Most Wanted" to shy away from the case, said Jenniffer's stepfather, Richard Bowens.
"They were interested until the police told them Jenniffer was a runaway," he said.
Jenniffer's mother maintains that police have her daughter confused with another runaway who closely resembles her daughter.
"They say she's a runaway because she's 15 and disappeared during spring break," Lois Bowens said. "But my daughter was a good kid. She didn't do drugs . . . and she'd always call me even if she was only going to be an hour late."
Lois Bowens also said there was no argument nor any other catalyst before Jenniffer's disappearance.
"We were very close," her mother said. In addition, she said Jenniffer was looking forward to a family vacation to San Francisco and Yosemite as well as a family Easter celebration.
The morning she disappeared, nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Lois Bowens said. Jenniffer washed the dog and cleaned her room for her $10 allowance, then went thrift shopping and wasn't heard from again.
Although the family maintains the police are too quick to classify missing teenagers as runaways, managing director Julie Grosse of the Polly Klaas Foundation said that usually is not the case.
"It depends from police department to police department, but very few seem to just write off a case," Grosse said.
But the Bowenses are not the first residents to complain about the Ventura Police Department writing off a missing person case as a runaway.
"They kept saying my daughter was a runaway," said Margaret Garcia, whose daughter Tyra Maria, 15, disappeared in 1985. "Nine days later they found her body in Moorpark. They wouldn't listen to me."
Arth insists that the classification of Jenniffer's disappearance is irrelevant and that his detectives are still working hard on the case.
"We're doing the best job we can," Arth said. "The case in not closed. We're still investigating leads."