CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — When Air Force spouse Kelli Abad disappeared on Okinawa, she left behind little more than a cryptic note and many questions.
More than a year later, the case continues to resonate in the military community, particularly among fellow spouses shaken by the unsolved disappearance on an island known as a safe overseas deployment.
But even as the mystery remains, with Abad’s body never found, the case appears to be growing cold. Back home, her face might be on milk cartons or WalMart bulletin boards, but her memory is already fading a little every day on Okinawa as military families rotate out and replacements arrive.
Her husband and two young children have returned to the States. Gone are the search parties and the missing-person flyers that were plastered around the island by volunteers. Air Force investigators hope for new clues from the public as Abad’s mother works against tough odds to keep the case alive.
“It’s hard to accept … Are you asking me to accept that she vanished?” said Abad’s mother, Janice Cribbs, who traveled to Okinawa from Georgia last year to head the search for her daughter.
Abad was stationed with husband Vincent at Kadena Air Base when she went missing from her base home one night in October 2011.
The scant evidence pointed toward the possibility of suicide, although friends and family painted a picture of a woman looking forward to her family’s next deployment.
Abad’s vehicle was found near a coastal cliff that is a popular spot for Japanese suicides. Sometimes the bodies of those who jump are never found, according to Japanese authorities.
There was a note that simply said, “I love my kids, my hubby and my parents. Bye.”
Vincent Abad declined to speak with Stars and Stripes for this story, but during an interview on CNN last year, he suggested his wife may have left the note with plans to kill herself.
Subsequent handwriting analysis showed the note was likely written by Kelli Abad, said a spokesman for Okinawa prefectural police, who are investigating the disappearance along with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
“But that is only a possibility,” the spokesman said. “It is not known when it was written.”
Cribbs and military spouses who have assisted with the search do not buy the suicide hypothesis. They say Abad was a loving mother who deeply cared for her two children and would never have left them willingly.
On the day she went missing, Abad had talked excitedly about a possible upcoming deployment to a new duty station for her husband and had discussed buying warmer winter clothes for her children, according to Cribbs.
Abad took her children to a church function that evening and left around 8:30 p.m. Her vehicle was recorded leaving the base about 30 minutes later, but it is unclear who was inside, Cribbs said.
Vincent Abad called Cribbs and said his wife was missing shortly after that. Days later, authorities discovered her SUV at Cape Zampa, north of Kadena Air Base, along with some of her belongings.
“I don’t think she would have ever left her children,” said Tabitha Feldmeier, a Marine spouse who was stationed at Kadena when Abad disappeared and who still helps Cribbs in the search by writing emails. “As a mom I can’t wrap my head around that.”
Cribbs, with the help of Feldmeier and others, has been pressing authorities to keep on the case.
OSI spokeswoman Linda Card said the agency is investigating all plausible possibilities.
“We continue to request the public … provide information on Kelli’s whereabouts and information that could identify what happen to her,” Card wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
The investigation has included Vincent Abad. The agency does not believe he had any role in her disappearance, according to Card.
“Evidence obtained thus far does not support Vincent had any physical contact with Kelli after he left for work on the morning of [the day she went missing],” she wrote. “Nor did evidence support Vincent was part of any nefarious activities resulting in her disappearance.”
Leila Fortier, a civilian spouse who has assisted Cribbs, said the case has been disturbing for the local military community, especially spouses.
The joint U.S.-Japan investigation has not provided any answers or comfort, and caused a feeling of vulnerability in a foreign country so far from home, Fortier said.
“The island hasn’t felt the same for me after this,” she said. “I was in love with this island, but there’s a kind of haunting echo.”