GIFFORD – Ten years ago this Saturday, Heather Mullins Zimmerman vanished.
Hundreds of hours of police work have turned up no trace of the 19-year-old Gifford woman, who was last seen when she walked out of her parents' home during the evening hours of May 26, 1997.
"I lost hope awhile back," Ann Mullins said. Despite the decade gone by, "You don't heal. The first year or so was the hardest. I'm not saying it's not tough now. At that time it's tough to accept the realization (she) might not come back." To mark the decade since Heather's disappearance, her family plans a remembrance service at 3 p.m. Saturday at Gifford Park.
The Rev. Barb Busboom will conduct the service. A stone containing a plaque will be placed in the park.
Friends and family are invited to attend.
Ann Mullins said she saw her daughter for the last time about 8 p.m. May 26. Heather Zimmerman took a soft drink from the refrigerator and left in an outfit her mother had recently bought for her.
It was a medium-sized Sears navy/chambray shirt, size 9 stonewashed bell-bottom jeans and size 9-9 1/2 black St. Michael shoes.
Her father never saw her leave.
Police were told during their investigation that someone dropped her off in the Mullins' driveway during the early morning hours of May 27, but that could not be confirmed.
Her father, Ron Mullins, does recall that earlier on May 26 Heather had received a couple of phone calls, and he thought the caller was her husband. She seemed upset at the time.
"Whether she was going out to meet somebody, I really don't know," he said. She had lost her purse containing all of her identification shortly before her disappearance.
Heather was 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed 115 pounds and had brown hair and green eyes.
Her marriage to Michael Zimmerman was in trouble. He was stationed in the Marines in Okinawa.
When Heather suffered an accident that required surgery, he was given emergency leave to be with her, but afterward he went AWOL. He was later captured and jailed.
It was not uncommon for Heather Zimmerman to be gone for two or three days at a time. So, when she did not return that night, her parents were not concerned. "Three or four days later we were getting really worried, and that's when we reported her missing," Ron Mullins said.
Gifford police and later the Champaign County Sheriff's Office handled the investigation – an investigation that remains open , said Lt. Ed Ogle, investigations division manager for the sheriff's office.
"We don't want people to forget about her," Ogle said. "When anniversaries and things like this come up, we want to make sure we keep that memory of her going and not let (people) ... forget. We're still working this case.
We're still diligent about it.
Ogle said there are several "persons of interest" in the case. The family has offered a $5,000 reward.
"She was a very beautiful girl," her father said.
"Both her and her sister, Melissa, (who is 17 months younger than Heather) were into softball, basketball and tennis, and she loved rock music." She also loved animals, her mother recalls.
The couple also have a son, Matt, who is 17.
Ann Mullins said she recently called the mother of missing Paxton woman Jamie Harper. She told Susan Kehrer of Paxton she would always be there if she wanted to talk. Harper was reported missing in March.
The ordeal will never really end until Heather is found.
"It's always there," said Ron Mullins.
"We both live with it day in and day out (and so do) her brother and sister."