After 26 years, family still wonders... Where is Jie Zhao Li?

After 26 years, family still wonders... where is Jie Zhao Li?
Published: Jan. 31, 2014 at 1:06 AM HST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2014 at 5:46 PM HST
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Jie Zhao Li
Jie Zhao Li
Yan Ruan Li
Yan Ruan Li
Phil Camero
Phil Camero

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - "A day does not go by when she doesn't think of her daughter," says a translator for Yan Ruan Li, mother of Jie Zhao Li.

The 12-year old girl disappeared in 1988 while selling benefit Zippy's chili tickets near Nu'uanu Ave. and Kuakini Street.

It was the afternoon of February 11th. Back then everyone thought Hawaii was safe, immune to the idea of dangerous predators snatching children.

"That's why people remember this case," says Charlene Takeno of the Missing Child Center of Hawaii.

"Parents were even being more cautious about letting children do something as simple as sell tickets out in public," says Phil Camero, a retired Honolulu Police Homicide Detective. Camero now works for NCIS as an investigator but says the Li case still haunts him.

Li's mother says time has not dulled the pain much.  It's been almost 26 years and she still has a difficult time talking about her daughter's disappearance.

"She's kept the same phone number all of these years, so that she would get that phone call," she says through her translator.

The Missing Child Center of Hawaii has done 'age progression' drawings of Li.  Showing what she might look like at 27 years old and again at 38.

"The reality of seeing a photo of what her daughter might look like, she cried for days," says the translator.

In 1992, Mrs. Li became a United States citizen, a long, difficult process.  She speaks English but prefers her native Cantonese and chooses to use a translator for long conversations.

Mrs. Li and her husband are from China.  Back then, families were only allowed one child.  Because the Li's already had a daughter, they kept Jie Zhao and then her younger sister hidden until they could leave the country.  They arrived in Hawaii in 1987.  One year later, their daughter was taken from them.

Mr. Li would walk the streets along Nu'uanu Avenue and Kuakini Street for years, looking for his little girl.

The family is aware of the recent missing persons cases nationwide that have happy endings: Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Duggard, and the three Cleveland women.  But they know, those cases are rare.

"It does give her hope, but she doesn't' want to give herself false hope," her translator says.

At this point, everyone involved says they just want answers.  They want to know what happened to the 4-foot-11, 75-pound girl, with short hair and slightly crooked teeth.  And if someone did something to her, they want to know, why.

Tips came into the HPD Homicide Unit for years after Li vanished.  There were composite sketches, possible getaway vehicles, even sightings.  HPD says they checked out every single tip, but are still no closer to solving the mystery.

"In cold cases, the trail, does get stale over time," says Phil Camero, "but one thing we've learned in cold cases, is that relationships change."  Camero hopes maybe somebody didn't want to come forward back then, but maybe willing to now.

If you have information that could help in this case, call Crimestoppers at 955-8300, or text *Crime from your cell phone.  You can remain anonymous and there is a reward.

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