Dateline   |  August 16, 2013

Under the Desert Sky, Part 1

An attractive teen goes missing in the desert near the Utah-Nevada border. Dateline NBC’s Keith Morrison reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> welcome to "dateline," everyone. i'm lester holt . a lot of teenagers have stuff they keep from their parent, but not the girl you'll hear about tonight. she was a great student, star athlete that always used her cell to check in. something sinister at the local high school was uncovered and an entire town would wonder what some other good kid his really been up to. here's keith morrison .

>>> he waved at you for miles, the big neon cowboy. wendover will is what they called him and his job these last 60 years is to tempt travelers off interstate 80 in the utah-nevada border, with this tiny gash of high desert , casino commerce and leave lighter in the wallet. knowing precious little about the stories wendover love to tell about the racers that come here to break speed records at the nearby bonneville flats , and the plane that took off for hiroshima. but there's also the story they whispered to each other up and down the little strip, the one that shocked them all, that puzzles them still about the terrible night when three families lost their teenage children. about the dark mysteries spawned under the pointing grin of wendover will.

>> it was a thursday afternoon. a windy, late winter day in the high desert , here at the local high school , star runner micaela costanzo cleaned up after track practice. mickey , as everyone called her, intended to walk home. wasn't far, about a mile. her usual ride, her sister christina was out of town.

>> before we had left, me and/or my husband would always pick micaela up from school, and so we were, like, are you sure you're going to have a way home?

>> this is something you do every day?

>> this is something i do every day. it was the first time i left her.

>> mickey was 16, a junior. clockwork reliable said her mother celia .

>> micaela is not your typical teenager. that girl would check in with me all of the time. so we have a routine. i'm changing. i'm going to be heading out. i'm heading home . i'm home.

>> always kept in touch.

>> always. to a fault.

>> as the sun began to set, celia was still working at one of the local casinos expecting mickey 's usual check-in call.

>> she did not call me to tell me track practice was over and she was getting ready. she didn't call me to tell me she was walking home, and so i started calling her phone, and it rang and rang and rang the first time, and then i called it right back because that was unusual, and it was like you hit the ignore button. this is so not her.

>> now celia called christina 400 miles away in las vegas to see if she had heard from mickey .

>> and i said, mom, she's probably at practice. and she says, no practice ended and she's not home. and i said calm down. you're probably just missing her.

>> kristchristina tried calling mickey , too. no answer.

>> i'm thinking, maybe for the first time in her life she's being a normal teenager.

>> mickey was the youngest of celia 's three girls. she was a star student and athlete, mature beyond her years. she loved to write poetry, short stories and she was pretty and very popular.

>> she was the one out of all three of us girls that i'd say was just going down the path you would want any child to go down. she was doing it the right way, stereotypically.

>> bright. talented, good looking. the trifecta.

>> yes. she had it all.

>> one of those special kids said celia , born happy.

>> she was always positive. she just had a different approach to life. she found the good in everything, in everybody.

>> a depressive personality she was not.

>> no. oh, no. not at all.

>> oh, and one more thing. mickey and d.j., her middle sister were inseparable.

>> i'd consider us twins. everything we did we had to be together. if we weren't at the same place we always had to know where the other was at all times.

>> but now nobody seemed to know where mickey was. it was getting dark in the desert. dark and cold. celia bolted out of work early and rushed home hoping to spot mickey on the way or find her at the apartment, but only d.j. was there.

>> my mom came in and she said mickey 's not here. where is she because this isn't funny. i immediately went out ask searched for her. called her friends, called my friends. if you hear from mickey , you need to tell me.

>> word spread fast across wend ore.

>> by the time i called the police there were over 80 people starting to look. the police asked me, did you check with all of her friends? did you go any place she would go? i'm, like, yes, and they're all panicked all out looking and everything. so they immediately knew something was wrong.

>> reporter: the tiny west wendover police defendant jump department jumped on the case right away. donald burnham was in charge.

>> there's no point in waiting. the longer you wait the bigger problem you have and the longer it will take to find them.

>> hours now since mickey was due home.

>> scared, upset, panic, worried because it was dark now and it was cold and she had no jacket and -- and in the bottom of my heart i knew something was really, really wrong.

>> and you try to tell yourself, no, no, no, no, no. it it can't be.

>> yeah.

>> then the police had an idea. maybe mickey 's cell phone , the one she always used to keep in touch would give them a clue. so they checked her most recent calls and there it was. one particular number that kept popping up just before mickey disappeared. . ten digits. would they lead detectives to mickey costanzo or something also altogether?