Police, family of still-missing man hoping for break

Police, family of still-missing man hoping for break

When Jeannie Douglas heard Tuesday that two men had been arrested in connection with the death of 20-year-old University of Illinois student Vicente Mundo, her thoughts immediately went to the young man's relatives, who had been desperate to find him.

As the aunt of another man who went missing from the Champaign-Urbana area a few weeks earlier and still hasn't been found, Douglas understood what they were going through.

And while the discovery of Mr. Mundo's body over the weekend wasn't the outcome anyone wanted, "at least now his family has some closure and knows that he's not suffering any more," she said, adding her own family longs for some sort of closure in the disappearance of her nephew, 23-year-old Cristian "Chris" Zamora.

The Chicago resident and recent UI graduate went missing on New Year's Eve.

Police said he was last seen by friends between 6 and 7:30 p.m., walking to County Market, at 331 E. Stoughton St. in Champaign. Surveillance cameras captured him later that night near Crystal Lake Park in Urbana.

Zamora's mother — Sandra Carrion, of Chicago — reported him missing to Champaign police after he didn't show up at his job at Jimmy Johns in Urbana on Jan. 2.

At Tuesday's news conference announcing the arrests of Daniel Gonzalez and Reginald James Scott in connection with Mr. Mundo's murder, Champaign police Chief Anthony Cobb insisted Zamora's missing-persons case hasn't been put on the back burner.

"I'm sorry to have to report we don't have many new leads. But we're still looking, and it's still an active investigation," said Cobb, who again asked the public to come forward with any information they might have.

Both Cobb and police Detective Sgt. Dennis Baltzell reiterated that the two cases aren't related.

"I can say the facts of the case are different," said Baltzell, who would not specify details. "They're not similar at all. And there have been no leads or tips or facts that we've uncovered in any case that would relate the two in any way other than they were both initially reported missing."

'In a bad nightmare'

Douglas said she and other members of her close-knit family have felt like their lives have been in limbo since Zamora disappeared.

"It's like you're in a bad nightmare that you can't wake up from," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "What's killing us is not knowing if he's suffering somewhere."

She said her sister calls her son's cellphone two or three times daily to see if he'll finally answer. She also goes into his bedroom, "hoping by some miracle," he will be there.

Zamora's younger brother, Ariel, a student at Northeastern Illinois University, was so distraught that he had to leave school this semester, Douglas said.

Nothing about her nephew leads relatives or friends to believe he would leave on his own.

He grew up in Humboldt Park, on Chicago's west side, and was close to his mother, brother and older sister Omandra, a full-time social worker and graduate student in New York. (He also has three half-siblings on his dad's side.) Carrion and her kids are part of a bigger, extended family, whose members still gather for Friday night dinners at the home of Douglas and Carrion's mother.

"Whenever he walked though the door, he would light up the room," Douglas said. "He wanted everyone to be happy, and he would do anything to make them happy."

Zamora attended a Catholic grade school and graduated with honors from Lake View High School in Chicago. At the UI, he studied East Asian languages and culture and graduated in May.

"He was fluent in three languages — Spanish, English and Japanese," Douglas said, adding he studied Japanese in high school and college, and studied in Japan his junior year at the UI.

Douglas and friend Jerica Harweger said Zamora was writing a book, although they didn't know the subject or when it would be finished. Douglas said he told the family he also hoped to start a business with a friend, and Harweger said he was considering going back to school.

"He missed campus," said Harweger, who works as a hairstylist at Hair Cuttery in Campustown and hit it off with Zamora when he came in for a cut 1 years ago.

Douglas said Zamora moved back to Champaign in October and began working at Jimmy John's.

"He wanted to make some change and save up," his aunt said of her nephew, who had never missed work until he went missing.

She said Zamora came home for Thanksgiving, but returned without eating dinner with the family because he didn't want to be late for his shift later that day. He also spent Christmas — and planned to spend New Year's Day — in Champaign because he had to work the next day.

Circle K video helps

"For him to not report to work on a day he was scheduled was out of character," Baltzell said.

He added the investigation remains a missing persons case.

"We've uncovered no facts or received no leads to indicate anything other than that," he said.

Police know that Zamora, a friend and the friend's brother attended a party in Champaign on New Year's Eve. When those men last saw him, he was heading toward the Campustown County Market.

"He was going to get some food," Douglas said, adding he left his backpack at the friend's apartment, which leads her to believe he was coming back for it.

Baltzell said Champaign police Detective Patrick Funkhouser, who was assigned the case, interviewed the friends, Zamora's roommate, co-workers and relatives and has watched hours of video surveillance.

"I can't tell you how many hours of video surveillance he's reviewed to try to piece together (Zamora's) movements on the night he went missing," said Baltzell, who assisted with some of the work. "He's just done an outstanding job. ... When you're finally able to catch him on video, you can check video surveillance from other businesses in those areas and try to pick him up on them. Then you can kind of retrace his tracks to see which direction he's heading and follow the trail that way."

While witnesses last saw him in Champaign early that evening, Baltzell said video placed him at Wright and John streets later that night, then in alley north of Dunkin Donuts on University Avenue. The detective said Funkhouser also took another look at a dispatch ticket that described a man walking in that vicinity as a black male with slightly different clothing than Zamora was wearing.

"We were able to track down that gentleman (who made the report), obtain video from a Circle K gas station ... and capture Cristian on video from there," he said.

Also, police were also able to tell Zamora's cellphone was last active in central Urbana.

'Tips have quit coming in'

Champaign police and the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency, with the help of volunteers from local and other search-and-rescue teams, spent 400 hours on Jan. 24 conducting ground, water and canine searches at Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods and the Champaign County fairgrounds, Baltzell said. He said Department of Natural Resources officials tried to search Crystal Lake with sonar, after cutting holes in the ice.

"The problem is there was eight inches of ice on the lake," he said, which prevented the dive team from going in. "They have agreed, once the weather breaks, they will come back with a boat and do side-scanning sonar, which, I believe, is more accurate."

Other than that, he admitted, police are stumped at where to look next.

Initially, numerous tips came in via phone calls, the department's Facebook page and Crime Stoppers. Unfortunately, he said, most led to dead ends or led police down the wrong track.

"The tips have quit coming in," Baltzell said. "If anybody has any information they're withholding or that's related to this case, we urge them to call in and give us the opportunity to at least investigate that so we can find Mr. Zamora and bring closure to his family."

Meanwhile, Douglas and Harweger hope to organize a fifth large-scale sweep of the area in the near future.

"One thing I'm asking people to do on my Facebook page is to keep looking out for him," Harweger said. "I know it's cold outside. But if we could just look under our porches, in our backyards, under bushes ... it will help tremendously."

"And if you have any information, please tell the detectives," added Douglas, who praised the police for their efforts and keeping in touch with the family. "You may think it's insignificant, but that might be the most important thing that will help."

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