WORTHINGTON, Minn. — On June 26, 2011, Lucia Chilel Perez left Worthington with a family acquaintance to look for a job. Her kids haven't heard from her since.
A Guatemalan immigrant, Lucia had come to the United States to make a better life for herself and her three sons. Minnesota law prevented her from getting a driver's license, so she had to rely on others for transportation around the area. Family members connected Lucia with 33-year-old Bernardino Ramirez Perez, no relation, who agreed to give the soon-to-be 41-year-old Lucia, a ride to different businesses around northwest Iowa so she could find employment.
The two got into a maroon Buick Century and headed across the state line. When Ramirez Perez returned, he was still driving the Buick. He had a large scratch across his face, and Lucia wasn't with him.
The next day, Lucia's adult son, Oscar, had not seen or heard from his mother, and called police.
Worthington Police Department investigators were able to confirm that Lucia had been to several northwest Iowa businesses the previous day. What they couldn't determine, however, is what happened next, and why she didn't come home.
Besides Oscar, Lucia's other sons were minors. She had never left them alone before, so police didn't think it likely that she had purposely run away from her family.
Checking Lucia's phone records, investigators saw that her cell had last pinged in northwest Iowa before going dead. They immediately turned to Ramirez Perez for questioning.
According to him, Lucia was picked up by immigration during their journey. Investigators contacted ICE and ran Lucia's information, including her alias, Mary Rodriguez Figueroa. Nothing.
It appeared that Lucia had vanished.
And Ramirez Perez?
"He left town shortly after we began our investigation," recalled Worthington police investigator Dave Hoffman, who worked on the case.
Ramirez Perez has a harrowing slew of criminal charges against him. At the time of Lucia's disappearance, he had two warrants out for his arrest, one for kidnapping and sexual assault, and one for domestic violence. However, there is no physical evidence that points to foul play in Lucia's case. Officially, she's considered "missing under suspicious circumstances," Hoffman and Detective Sgt. Brandon Peil explained.
On July 8, 2011, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension designated Lucia an endangered missing person, and asked newspapers to publish news of her disappearance in case anyone knew her whereabouts.
Shortly after that, Ramirez Perez placed a call to Worthington police from an international phone number. He wouldn't say where he was. That was the last time investigators were able to talk with him.
They spent months looking for any other clues about what happened to Lucia, but eventually ran out of leads. While there's not enough evidence to label Ramirez Perez a suspect, he is considered a person of interest in Lucia's disappearance.
Investigators still believe that Ramirez Perez is the key to getting closure on the case. If they could visit with him more, they might be able to find out what happened to Lucia. Every so often, they run his name and his aliases through the court system, hoping to find a match with the fingerprints the department has on file.
Police are asking southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa residents to call in any information that may lead to Ramirez Perez.
"The public are our eyes and ears," Hoffman said. "We need their help. We want to know where Lucia is."
Tips don't have to be direct knowledge. Any small piece of information could lead to solving the case.
Lucia is described as 5-feet-1-inch tall, about 120 pounds as of 2011, with brown eyes and dark hair. She was last seen wearing an ankle-length denim skirt, a short-sleeved black shirt and carrying a black backpack.
Anyone with a tip should call the Worthington Police Department at (507) 295-5400.