LAURINBURG — Anna Bethea tries not to think, or speak, about her son.
When she does, her already high blood pressure soars and her head starts swimming with worry.
When she does, it’s in the past tense. Her son has been gone so long she doesn’t know what else to think.
Ricky Bethea, her 6-foot-2-inch tall college graduate with a lively demeanor and friendly personality, has been missing since July 23, 2007. He would have, or has, turned 51 this year — but Anna doesn’t know which verb to use.
“It’s rough,” she said with a shake of her head. “It’s rough not knowing.”
Anna was one of several family members who on Thursday sat resting near a table bearing colorful balloons, red candles and a frame that held a photo of her son’s face. His is among 102 missing person cases and six unsolved murders that are going on the road as part of an eight-state tour held by Community United Effort, or CUE, an organization that is working to find him and others that have disappeared long and not-so-long ago.
The tour made its first stop in Laurinburg — Bethea’s hometown.
“Don’t give up,” CUE Founder Monica Caison told families gathered outside the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. “Until there’s a body there’s still hope.”
Caison began the nonprofit in 1994, after coming into contact several times with families of missing people, life experiences she still won’t speak of. The effort is funded entirely by donations, and staffed with volunteers who aim to comfort and support families like Ricky’s — and like Delwin Locklear’s.
Locklear, a Maxton native, went missing on July 7, 2004. His two children, a boy and a girl, are now 11 and 15 years old.
“He was a kind person,” his mother Nina said. “He was so good to everyone that people took advantage of him. If he could help you he would. People might say a mother is going to say that about her child, but that was really the kind of person he was.”
Nina holds no hope for her son’s return. If he were alive, he would have at least called, or come to visit. If he were alive, his children would have seen his face.
“I just hope that one day we will be able to bring all this to a close,” she said with a sigh, “even if it means finding his remains. I just want to know for sure.”
Anna, too, doesn’t hold out much hope for the return of her son, who in his later years suffered from schizophrenia and battled drug addiction. She says the family tried everything, but nothing was working, and so they turned to Caison and her team.
The Scotland County Sheriff’s Office, too, is working with the organization to find another Laurinburg native, this one missing for nine years, since the age of 16. Kimberly Thrower was last seen walking towards her bus stop for Scotland County High School on April 29, 2004. She never made it to class.
“We constantly get leads,” said Gyivan Jackson, an investigator for the sheriff’s office. “The last one was a sighting at a truck stop in Robeson County. “
Jackson said investigators continue to work with the information they have as well as adding to it by collecting DNA, photographs and personal items. Kimberly’s photo is in gas stations, churches and businesses surrounding the Laurinburg area.
“We’re still staying abreast, and hoping for a safe return,” she said.
Caison and her team hope for the same.
“People give up after the first few weeks but we want you to be sure that we are working … we are doing all that we can do every single day.”
For information about missing people or to report a sighting, visit ncmissingpersons.org.