John Peebles pleaded with his only daughter to make him one promise.
Leah Peebles had moved to Albuquerque seeking a fresh start away from the drug addiction lifestyle that had consumed her in Fort Worth.
"I looked at her and said: 'Please. Please. Whatever you do, if it gets bad, just call us. Don’t ever leave again and not let us know what you’re doing, even if you’re at the worst of the worst,’ " John Peebles said, recounting his goodbye at a New Mexico airport. " 'Just call us and let us know you’re alive.’ "
Although Leah told her father that he’d be better off not knowing, she made him the promise — but only at his insistence.
That was 3 1/2 years ago, the last time John Peebles set eyes on his firstborn.
"I wish I’d never left her. It haunts me every day. That’s been the hardest thing for me to deal with," John Peebles said, pausing to regain his composure. "I could see how scared she was. I wish I hadn’t left her."
Since then, John and his wife, Sharon, have devoted their lives, time and money to finding Leah, now 26, and bringing her back home to Fort Worth.
John Peebles has made roughly a dozen trips to Albuquerque and beyond, searching homeless shelters, truck stops and strip clubs, desperate to find signs of his daughter. The couple expanded their search to the Internet, sharing their painful story on blogs in the hope that someone who has seen Leah will read it.
"People ask me why I keep doing it," John Peebles said. "I talk to a lot of people who have missing children, and they don’t do what I do, but we share a lot of the same fears and the same hopes. I guess the thing that has just always been in my head is the story in the Bible about the lost sheep and the shepherd who left the 99 to go after the one. That’s why I do it."
Sharon Peebles said, "If it were one of our other children, we’d do the same thing."
To search for his daughter, John Peebles uses holidays, vacation time and sick leave from his job manufacturing helicopter rotors at Bell Helicopter. Sharon Peebles, a floral designer at TCU Florist, has accompanied him on two of the trips and their two sons, Phillip and Seth, on another.
The Peebleses say Phillip, 23, and Seth, 18, have gone through different emotional stages in dealing with their sister’s disappearance.
"I think they resent her. They’re angry, either that or they’re just numb," John Peebles said. "They’d just as soon put it all away and not even talk about it anymore or think about it."
It’s a feeling their parents can understand.
"Sometimes for a few hours, I might be angry at her, like, 'Why hasn’t she contacted us?’ " Sharon Peebles said. "But the love overrides that."
A rapid decline
Even in baby pictures, Leah’s smile is eye-catching.
At 1 1/2 — at her grandmother’s insistence — she was entered into her first and only beauty pageant, winning third runner-up in her age division and claiming the title "Ms. Photogenic." ......................... ...