Kelli Cribbs Abad, right, has been missing since Oct. 26, 2011. Here she is pictured with her Air Force husband, Tech. Sgt. Vince Abad, and their two children, Kyree and Vinnie. (Courtesy of Cribbs family)
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Two years after Air Force wife Kelli Abad disappeared from Kadena Air Base, Japan, the questions persist.
From half a world away at her home in rural Georgia, Kelli’s mother tries each day to chip away at the mystery. Janice Cribbs writes letters and sends emails. She researches missing persons databases and posts questions on the Facebook page set up in the weeks after Kelli, a 27-year-old mother of two, vanished without a trace.
Sometimes, the efforts seem futile. But when hope is hard to come by, it is something.
“I can’t just give up,” Cribbs said as the second anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance came and went. “I’m not going to.”
Cribbs last spoke to her daughter on the morning of Oct. 26, 2011. Sometime that evening, Kelli and her husband, Tech. Sgt. Vince Abad, argued on the telephone. He would later tell authorities Kelli had threatened suicide — a theory Air Force investigators say the evidence supports, although the case remains open and active.
When he arrived home, Abad said, Kelli was gone.
Three days later, her green Toyota SUV turned up at Cape Zanpa, a picturesque peninsula of cliffs and caves and beaches surrounded by turquoise seas some 10 miles north of the base. Inside, police found Kelli’s cellphone, her purse and a short note scrawled in what appeared to be her handwriting.
“Love my kids, love my hubby and parents,” it said. “Bye.”
Authorities can’t say when it was written. Despite sea, air and land searches near the place her vehicle was found, Kelli was never found and no one has come forward to say they saw her at Cape Zanpa that night.
“They didn’t find her shoes, her clothes, they didn’t find her. I don’t quite understand how a person could just vanish,” Cribbs said. “There are too many things that haven’t been answered.”
'A good heart'
Kelli grew up about an hour northwest of Savannah, between Stilson, a hamlet with one store and no post office, and Brooklet, a one-stoplight town of fewer than 1,500.
“It was,” her mother said, “the country.”
Kelli was the only child of Larry and Janice Cribbs, both of whom had children from previous marriages. She’d kept in close contact with her parents after leaving home, moving first across the country and then around the world with her airman husband.
Kelli called her parents every couple of days to check in and give them a chance to get to know their grandchildren despite the distance that separated them.
Kelli, her mother thought, would be the one to take care of her parents when they grew old.
Even as a teenager, Kelli had a soft spot for the elderly and people with disabilities: She’d patiently play board games with a cousin with special needs for hours and take her grandmother to visit older relatives and run errands.
“I think that spoke a lot to her kindness. That didn’t mean she didn’t have a temper or never got angry,” Cribbs said.
Kelli had taken piano lessons for years as a child. She had a pickup truck and liked to go hunting with her dad. She loved the family’s cotton, soybean and peanut farm and thought the country was a better place to raise kids than the city.
Kelli had never lived away from home for any significant amount of time when she married Abad in 2007 and moved with him to California, Cribbs said.
“It was quite a change, but she did pretty well,” her mother said. “That’s where she finished [medical assisting] school. That’s where she had [daughter] Kyree. She was involved in a church out there. She tried to have friends, fix up the house, just the normal-type things.”
In 2008, the Air Force took Abad to Kadena, where he worked as the noncommissioned officer in charge of flight medicine for the 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, according to the service.
Kelli had their second child at Kadena, a son named Vinnie. Both pregnancies had been physically grueling for Kelli, her mother said.
“She always said, ‘If I ever had kids I’m going to have them close together, so they’ll have each other.’ She was a good mother. She made sure they were well taken care of, whether it was making sure they were nice and clean and dressed in neat clothes or taking them for outings. She made sure they had play dates. She took them to church and Sunday school,” Cribbs said. “She wanted them to learn to play outside and play with each other. She didn’t want them to be disrespectful.”
Kelli didn’t like having her kids out of her sight — she wouldn’t let them play in the yard without her — and harbored a fear of losing them, her mother said. This made the circumstances of her disappearance all the more unusual to those who knew her best.
On that last day, Kelli made one of her regular calls home, this time on Skype. It was Tuesday evening in Georgia and Wednesday morning in Japan. Kelli had already dropped Kyree, then 4, off at preschool and was at home with Vinnie, then 22 months. The Cribbs tried to hold Vinnie’s attention in front of the computer screen.
The conversation was scattered and ordinary: Kelli was worried about her car transmission and wanted her dad’s advice. She said Abad might be getting a new assignment soon, maybe to Alaska or Germany, certainly a colder climate, but they would probably know in a month or so. She said the kids would need cold-weather clothes and teased her mom about buying her a pair of new boots.
“We’ll see about that,” Cribbs said with a laugh when Kelli told her how much the boots cost.
Kelli asked her parents if they planned to visit Japan for Christmas. She told them about a military ball she and her husband had recently attended, and about a doctor’s appointment scheduled for later in the day for a persistent sinus infection.
Cribbs never did find out if she kept the appointment. It is one of the missing pieces in a time line she has tried to construct.
At some point, Kelli swapped cars with her husband, leaving him the ailing van and taking the SUV. She picked up Kyree from preschool. At 3:30, she was in the yard with the kids, according to one neighbor. In a phone call with a friend around 6:30 p.m., Kelli discussed lunch plans for later that week. Around 7 p.m., she took the kids to church. A security camera showed her returning to base around 8:30 p.m. The SUV was shown leaving the base again about an hour later.
In an interview with CNN six weeks after Kelli went missing, Abad said the couple had argued and he had sought out the family’s pastor to help resolve the dispute. When he returned home around 10 p.m., the children were sleeping and Kelli and the SUV were gone.
In the CNN interview, Abad suggested the note found in her car two days later was a suicide note.
Kelli’s mother isn’t convinced.
“Kelli was one of those people who, like me, talked a lot. She would explain things and interject what she thought about this and that and the other. She was not a concise person who put everything in a little box. I think she would have said, ‘Let me tell you what I’m fixing to do and let me tell you why I’m going to do it.’ She would have rambled,” Cribbs said.
“Bottom line, she loved her kids,” she said. Cribbs does not believe Kelli would have voluntarily left them.
Abad, now stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., with the children, declined an Air Force Times request for comment through Lt. Col. Francisco Rivera, commander of the 479th Operational Support Squadron, said Dona Fair, a spokeswoman at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
'One day I will know'
Cribbs flew to Japan two weeks after Kelli disappeared. She stayed a month, posting fliers in Japanese and English, filming an emotional plea for information, giving interviews to American and Japanese media.
Several times, Cribbs visited Cape Zanpa, a popular tourist attraction with running trails, a playground, a petting zoo, a hotel, a lighthouse blinking on the edge of a rocky cliff.
How, Cribbs wondered, had no one seen her? If Kelli went there at all, when did she go? The night of the argument? Or later? When did authorities begin the search? And did they do everything they could? Cribbs said she asked many times for the search to be expanded beyond the park. Each time, she was told there was no reason to.
When these questions plague her, Cribbs tries to concentrate on the things she can control: keeping Kelli’s name and face out there; submitting hers and her husband’s DNA to a missing persons database so that if Kelli is ever found, dead or alive, she can be identified; and tracking down one of Kelli’s fingerprints for another ID system.
“I try to continue to ask questions. I try to continue to get [the Air Force Office of Special Investigations] to follow up on things that haven’t been done. I try to get myself every day to do something,” Cribbs said.
Sometimes, it is uncomfortable. Before Kelli disappeared, Cribbs didn’t have an email address. She avoided social media. Now, they are integral parts of her search. If the efforts don’t bring the answers she wants, Cribbs hopes her daughter’s story will help someone else.
“Maybe they’ll say, ‘I better make every moment count because I don’t know what the next moment holds. I want people to take every opportunity to show people they love them, to not be bickering and squabbling over small things,” Cribbs said.
“I do have faith that although we may not ever know in this lifetime what happened, one day I will know something. If you believe in heaven, one day I will know. Sometimes, that feels like a long time to wait. But it keeps me going.”