Sister seeks answers 24 years after Erin Marie Gilbert vanished while on first date at Girdwood Forest Fair in Alaska

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By Andrea Cavallier

Erin Marie Gilbert went on a first date to the Girdwood Forest Fair in Girdwood, Alaska on July 1, 1995. The 24-year-old has been missing ever since.

Stephanie Gilbert Juarez clearly remembers the last time she saw her younger sister.

She told Dateline that Erin had been living with her, her husband, and their two young children, on the Elmendorf Air Force Base, now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

“My husband traveled a lot for work, and I was alone so much of the time, so I told Erin she should come stay with me in Alaska,” Stephanie said. “She had been living in San Francisco with her dad.”

So Erin moved to Alaska about a year prior to her disappearance. She worked as a nanny for a family her sister knew, Stephanie told Dateline.

On July 1, 1995, Erin was getting ready for a date with David “Dave” Combs, a man whom Stephanie said Erin had met a few nights earlier at a local bar.

“We met him when he came to the house,” Stephanie said. “I remember my husband asking him to take off his sunglasses. I think he wanted to get a good look at him, but it was also a respect thing.”

Stephanie told Dateline her older son, who was about 4 at the time, told Erin, “Auntie Erin, you should bring a cell phone,' and she said, 'No, that's OK.’ In hindsight, that cell phone might have saved her life.”

Erin left with her date and they drove to the Girdwood Forest Fair, about an hour away.Witnesses told Alaska State Troopers that Erin was last seen at a beer garden with her date before they left around 6 p.m.

In a statement to authorities in 1995, Dave Combs said they walked to his car, but the lights had been left on and it would not start. He told Erin he would walk to a nearby friend’s house for help. He said he walked for about two hours, but was unable to find his friend’s house.

When he returned to the car, Erin was gone. He told authorities he figured Erin returned to the fair. When he tried to start the car this time, it worked. He stated he went back to the fair and searched for Erin until about 1 a.m.

“He didn’t tell anyone she was missing until he called me around 7 a.m. the next morning,” Stephanie said. “He said he called to make sure Erin made it home OK. He was very casual about it.”

Stephanie told Dateline that because of the location of Erin’s room in their house, she would not have heard her come home. But when she checked, it was apparent Erin had not been home that night.

“This is not like her,” Stephanie said. “She wasn’t the type to stay out all night. And if she did for some reason, I know she would have found a way to call.”

Stephanie described Erin as kind and confident. She enjoyed running and reading, and was an aspiring novelist. Erin had planned to enroll in cosmetology school.

Stephanie and her family drove to the fair after realizing Erin was missing and searched for her at the fairgrounds and in the surrounding woods.

The Alaska State Troopers conducted a more extensive search involving dogs and helicopters, but turned up no sign of Erin.

Lieutenant Randy McPherron, who is the sole investigator in the troopers' Cold Case Investigation Unit, told Dateline they haven’t received any leads in several years, but said he would follow up on any that come in.

“We just try to keep Erin’s story in the public eye as much as possible,” Lt. McPherron said. “It’s not over until we find her.”

Lieutenant McPherron told Dateline there are no suspects in Erin’s disappearance, but said they have attempted to reach Dave Combs multiple times for questioning.

“He’s the last person to see her as far as we know,” Lt. McPherron said. “He gave a few initial statements when she disappeared, but we want to talk to him again. That’s all.”

David Combs could not be located by Dateline for comment.

Stephanie has started a Facebook page FindingErinMarieGilbert, where people can follow the case or leave tips and leads.

“It’s been a great outlet to share Erin’s story -- to keep her face and name out in the world,” Stephanie said. “We don’t think she’s alive. But she deserves justice.”

At the time of her disappearance, Erin was described as 5’5’, 145 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes. She would be 48 years old today.

Anyone with information about Erin’s case is asked to call the Alaska State Troopers at 907-428-7200 or Lt. McPherron at 907-269-5611.