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Family clings to hope that daughter is among the living

Jewel Strong, 3, vanished in a Florida boating accident in 2006. But her parents insist she did not drown.

September 23, 2007|Melissa Patterson | Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, FLA. — What some call denial, Ray and Simona Strong call faith.

It's been more than a year since their young daughter disappeared into Panama City, Fla., waters, but they still see her alive in surveillance videos -- some from as far away as South Carolina.

On Sept. 14, the Bay County sheriff's office reiterated what it had always contended: Jewel Strong, who was 3 when she disappeared in May 2006, drowned in a boating accident.

For the Strongs, the announcement changed nothing.

"My daughter is going to be home, and whether they help us or not . . . people are going to start looking for her," Simona Strong said.

People have been looking -- and calling in their findings -- since February, when the girl was reportedly spotted at a gas station in Summerfield, south of Ocala, Fla.

Three sightings since August placed Jewel in Orlando, including one video shot in a Walgreens.

Through subpoenaed records and interviews, deputies said they tracked down the family in the Walgreens video and proved they were not Jewel and her abductors. The family wishes to remain anonymous.

Jewel floated off on a raft with her teenage cousin at a Florida state park on May 28, 2006. The raft capsized in rough waters, witnesses told police, and the cousin was later rescued.

After a two-week search by land, air and sea, the sheriff's office ruled the case a drowning.

But because her body was never recovered, the Strongs think the girl is still alive. They've continued their search through fliers, websites and help from powerful organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Simona Strong said the support of so many allies, along with "prayer and meditation," had allowed her to keep the search alive.

Sheriff's Capt. Jimmy Stanford called the center's involvement "disappointing."

"It's unfortunate that folks are trying to find Jewel Strong and her abductor when we have children out there who are missing and abducted," he said, adding that his agency has pursued every lead out of sympathy for the family.

Deputies said Jewel's body was probably not recovered because they had misjudged how far away it would have resurfaced.

Still, the Strong family thinks its strongest evidence comes from a video shot inside a Jacksonville Golden Corral restaurant in March, where a child resembling Jewel is visible for seven minutes dining with three women.

The girl dances about the room, folds her hands in front of her and walks lackadaisically, often bumping into others, Simona Strong said -- just like her daughter.

"I think any parent who saw their child on video for seven minutes, they would know it's her," she said.

But not everyone agrees that such confident identification is possible from a somewhat fuzzy and distant surveillance tape.

Wendy Zeballos, a behavior analyst in Florida, said that although all kids were different, they could share quirks that might appear unique and predictable to their parents.

"That doesn't mean Maggie in Alabama doesn't have a child that doesn't do that as well," Zeballos said. "Children can have very similar characteristics."

But Simona Strong said you'd have to know her daughter to understand. Jewel has eczema around her elbows, she said, which make her scratch like the girl in the video.

She also chews with her mouth open and tilts her head back when she eats. Her hair, which was always slow to grow, is the same approximate length in the video.

The Strongs were so adamant about the video that they relocated from Atlanta. Despite more recent reported sightings in Orlando, Simona Strong believes her daughter is alive and in Jacksonville.

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