CALABASAS — Los Angeles County sheriff's officials do not suspect foul play in the disappearance of 16-year-old Catherine "Katie" McGurk, but believe she ran away April 17 because of school problems.
But Katie's mother and friends fear that the Calabasas High School student, whom they describe as shy and trusting, may have met with danger.
"I don't think she ran away," said Katie's mother, Janine Alexander. "She's never run away before. She never goes anywhere without calling."
Katie was last seen by schoolmates Thursday after school walking near the El Camino Shopping Center in Calabasas.
Alexander is worried that her daughter's friendliness toward strangers might have led her into trouble.
"She'll walk right up to homeless people . . . and start talking to them," Alexander said.
But Sgt. Mary Olson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said there is no evidence that Katie was abducted.
"This sounds like a normal runaway," Olson said, adding that deputies are continuing their investigation.
Schoolmates said Katie was brought to tears on the day she disappeared by her photography teacher, who said she had done an assignment improperly. Katie also had a 12-page English paper due Monday.
Sgt. Olson said deputies suspect that Katie's troubles at school could have given her a reason to run away.
Still, Katie's best friend, Lauren Little, 14, found it hard to believe she had run away.
"She would never leave without saying anything," Lauren said. Also, she recalled that when a mutual friend ran away a few weeks ago, Katie said she would never do such a thing. "She said she would never make her mother worry like that."
Katie's younger sister said the missing teenager was a "free spirit" who occasionally accepted rides from strangers.
"She doesn't hitchhike, but she does accept rides," said Erin McGurk, 14. "I can remember her doing that twice."
Family members, friends and concerned strangers have distributed thousands of fliers not only in the Los Angeles area, but also in Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
"The support we've been getting has really been wonderful," said Alexander, mentioning the scores of parents she didn't know who have offered to help search for the teenager.
Katie was last seen wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and baggy jeans, Alexander said. The teenager is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds. She has chin-length brown hair, dark brown eyes and scars under her chin and on her left leg.
She only had $2 with her, her mother said.
Southland Title Insurance, a Santa Monica company where her father is vice president, has offered a $10,000 reward for the safe return of the teenager. Ladas & Parry, the West Los Angeles law firm where Alexander works, has offered an additional $2,500.
Alexander said that she and her daughter were close. "A few days before she disappeared I told her: 'I really like you,' " Alexander said. "That's just the kind of person she is--she's really sweet. She'll talk to anybody and that's what worries me. She assumes everybody is as nice as she is."