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Cold Case Spotlight

Sunday Marks 20 Years Since Illinois Girl Trudy Appleby Vanished

Trudy Appleby is still 11 years old to those who knew her, even though she would now be in her 30s. That's because this Sunday, Trudy will have been missing for 20 years.

Trudy Appleby Kelly Roland Carlson

"There isn't really a day she isn't thought of in our minds," Amber Holderfield, a close childhood friend of Trudy's, told Dateline. "She'd be in her 30s now. There is so much she didn't get to do."

What happened to Trudy continues to tear at the hearts of Amber and her mother Kelly Carlson. And they've made a vow to never give up searching for answers, no matter how few clues there are out there.

An ordinary summer day

It was a hot August in Moline, Illinois in 1996. Trudy was just two weeks shy of her 12th birthday. The spirited, quick-witted brunette was in a good mood the afternoon of August 20; she was going to be free after being grounded for a few weeks. As she was nearly every summer afternoon - before she was grounded, that is - Trudy was at the Carlson house.

"She was a staple in this house. She called me her mom #2," remembers Kelly. The Carlson house was roughly a block from Trudy's father home, where the young girl lived with him and an older half-brother. Her mother also lived nearby, but her parents were separated.

It was a safe, quiet area. Trudy, Amber and other neighborhood kids would roam the blocks surrounding their homes. It was a different time than it is now.

The girls spent August 20 rollerblading in front of the Carlson's home, then ate some hotdogs and mac and cheese. It was around 8:00 p.m. when Amber, 13 at the time, walked Trudy home to her driveway. It was nearly impossible to see Trudy's home from the road as the family's driveway wound between two other houses and crossed a small ravine before arriving at the house.

"We made plans to hang out again the next day and that was it. Nothing unusual or strange," Amber told Dateline. "It was summer vacation, and I slept through my alarm the next day. When I finally got up, I rang and rang over to her house. But no one answered."

When Trudy's father returned home from work for lunch on August 21, a normal routine for him, Trudy wasn't there. That was not too alarming, though, since Trudy spent the majority of her time out and about with friends. It was before the age of cell phones.

When she still wasn't there that evening, he began to worry.

"He called over here and asked if Trudy was here or had been here," Kelly said. "I told him no, that we hadn't seen her."

Amber told Dateline that immediately after her mother hung up the phone with Trudy's father, she knew something was very wrong. "I was like, 'Someone took her,'" said Amber.

The police were called, but authorities weren't certain something sinister had occurred. Perhaps Trudy was off with a different friend or simply ran away.

She'd be back soon, Kelly remembers an officer telling her. "It was frustrating that it took a few days for them to get it. We don't know what would have happened if they had jumped on it right then," Kelly said.

Shortly after Trudy vanished, Amber told detectives her friend had recently been saying she was talking to an older boy. At the time, she thought Trudy was making up the story to make a neighborhood boy who had a crush on her jealous. "I wish I would have asked more questions about it when she said it. That still affects me greatly to this day."

A neighbor told police she believed she saw Trudy getting into a boxy, grey vehicle the morning she disappeared with a man in his early 20s with brown, curly hair. Authorities believe that was the last known sighting of her.

An on-going investigation

Trudy Appleby at 11-years-old (left) alongside an age-progressed photo of what she may look age 30 (right). Moline Police Department

Trudy's case fills nearly six file cabinets at the Moline Police Department. Interviews, witness statements and detective notes, organized in various fashions have been gone through multiple times, but no one has been able to put the puzzle of Trudy's fate together.

"It's probably one of the biggest well-known cases in the Quad Cities, especially in cold cases," Detective Michael Griffin, of the Moline Police Department, told Dateline. "We get tips weekly about Trudy. Some of them are far-fetched, of course, but they come in."

Griffin has been the lead investigator on Trudy's case since March of 2015. He was handed the case after receiving training in cold cases -- specifically missing person cold cases. Those are the kinds of cases that are hard to shake when off duty, he said.

"You feel as year by year passes, hope dims a little. We've never found her, so technically it's still a missing person's case," said Griffin. "You feel for her family because having kids of my own, I know the panic when you lose track of them in the grocery store. Imagine how much that panic compounds over 20 years."

There are a number of primary suspects, but none has cooperated with authorities. Several people have been questioned over the years.

It's unclear what physical evidence, if any, has been recovered.

A never-ending promise

When Trudy first vanished, neighbor Kelly Carlson made Trudy's mother a promise. It's one she intends to keep until she reaches the grave.

"She was worried people would forget about Trudy," Kelly said. "But we won't let that happen. Never. I keep my promises."

Tragically, Trudy's mother was hit and killed by a drunk driver in 2014. She died without knowing the fate of her only child. Trudy's grandmother also passed away that year. "I believe they got their answers as soon as they passed over, and that they are with Trudy now. That's a small comfort."

Trudy would be turning 32 in a few weeks. Kelly and Amber believe she would have become a teacher, a nurse, or a veterinarian because she loved animals so much.

As Amber grew up, she would stop by the mailbox at the start of Trudy's driveway before school, in the hope that Trudy would somehow be there waiting to go to school. Of course, she never was. Trudy's father still lives it that house. Amber now has children of her own. They all know who Trudy is.

"I have one of the original fliers laminated and hanging in my house," said Amber. "My kids know why I'm so strict with them." Amber has also taken a course to become certified to help with official searches for the missing. It's all because of Trudy.

There is a vigil this Sunday in Moline for Trudy. Kelly and Amber will be there, as they are every year. They hope this year will be the last time they have to gather like this.

"Someone out there knows exactly what happened. Get off your high horse and give Trudy's family closure. Little girls just don't go 'poof,'" said Kelly.

If you have any information about Trudy Appleby's case, you are urged to contact the Moline Police Department at (309) 524-2147.