FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. -- Rocky Mount, Virginia is 483 miles southwest of New York City, but it became a focal point this year in the search for a Queens, New York woman who vanished in 1994 -- more than 21 years ago.
A Good Samaritan who had watched with horror as a homeless woman crossed four lanes of traffic in the same area last fall, without looking, did some research on the Internet after the troubled stranger left town.
In January, Ruth Collins stumbled across an “age progression” photo on the Internet of Renee LaManna, who was 35 when she bolted from her sister’s home in Ocean City, New Jersey on January 8, 1994.
LaManna would now be 57 years old.
“And when I saw it, I went ‘Oh my God, I know her!”
Collins showed the sketch to her sister, Laura Manning, who had snapped photos of the female drifter shopping in a mini-mart last October and talking to a sheriff’s deputy.
“They could not have done a better job with the age progression, I can tell you that” Manning said. “I’m convinced it’s Renee. Yes, I am.”
Renee LaManna was living in Fresh Meadows, Queens in early 1994, when she was discovered wandering barefoot outside her apartment on a freezing January day. She was talking incoherently.
It turns out her long-time boyfriend, a taxi driver from Afghanistan, had just broken up with her.
LaManna had converted from her Catholic faith to practice Islam.
The boyfriend later revealed that LaManna had been struggling with anxiety and depression.
LaManna was a one-time Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and her sister said she spoke five languages. She had a Master’s degree in history.
On January 8, 1994, Margaret LaManna said Renee was taken to a psychiatric emergency room at Jamaica Hospital, but she wasn’t admitted.
Family friends got Renee LaManna to Margaret’s home in Ocean City, New Jersey. But Renee bolted from the house within 40 minutes and was never seen by her family again.
Just over 21 years later, Collins called Renee LaManna’s sister, Margaret, on Feb. 2, 2015 and announced, “I saw your sister.”
That phone call spawned a social media campaign to “Find Renee” that’s lighting up Facebook pages all over the Southeast.
But Margaret LaManna wants a national effort from law enforcement.
“She doesn’t know who she is, so her identity is foreign to her,” Margaret LaManna told PIX11 during our trip to Rocky Mount, Virginia. “She has complete memory loss.”
Ruth Collins and her sister told PIX 11 the homeless woman carries maps from many states in her bag and gave different names to law enforcement: Darlene Hanson. Darlene Hartfield.
Then, Laura Manning heard the drifter give a different name.
“That’s when she says Renee,” Manning recalled, telling PIX 11 the deputy repeated the first name to the stranger. “She said, Renee Laman.”
Last October, that name meant nothing to the Good Samaritans.
But after Collins spent months poring over the Internet, she was instantly convinced Renee LaManna’s Missing Persons page was related to the troubled stranger she had met.
“When we entered Rocky Mount, she said something to me in a language I didn’t understand,” Collins said. “I said, ‘Where are you going?, she said, to Florida.’”
Florida is significant in this narrative, because LaManna’s parents were living there when she disappeared. Her older sister later moved to West Palm Beach, as well.
Laura Manning remembered, “She couldn’t understand why her family hasn’t found her yet.”
She told the sisters in Virginia about some of the things she likes.
"The peacocks her favorite bird, she told me that,” recalled Collins. “All the colors in the peacock.”
The Facebook page featuring the campaign to find Renee LaManna features a photo of the smiling beauty as a young woman, wearing a turquoise dress.
Another photo shows her wearing a peacock-colored top near the beach.
“Ruth was the catalyst for the Find Renee campaign,” Margaret LaManna told PIX 11, at Dudley’s Truck Stop in Rocky Mount. “The roadblocks to finding her is lack of assistance from police.”
Paul Bane, a pastor from Franklin, Tennessee, wrote on the “Find Renee” Facebook page that he encountered a homeless woman last November, trying to get a bus to Dallas, Texas.
He bought the drifter a ticket. He took a photo of her. She is wearing a peacock-colored coat.
Ruth Collins said she bought that coat for the drifter last October in Virginia.
Bane snapped his cell phone photo of the homeless woman, after dropping her off at a Nashville, Greyhound Bus station.
Rod Craig is a truck driver who lives near Asheville, North Carolina. He and his wife, Linda, have joined the “Find Renee” campaign.
The couple says they saw the homeless woman in late February near Asheville.
They both say the smile on the woman’s face matches the smile on young Renee’s face from thirty years ago.
Craig hands out flyers at truck stops when he’s on the road.
Linda Craig has joined “Team Renee.”
“We’re just one ride away from finding her,” Linda Craig noted. “We need a national alert. The system is broken, as far as mental illness.”
PIX 11 visited the Hometown Inn in Rocky Mount, where the drifter spent two nights in Room 107, thanks to the kindness of “Helping Hands”—a homeless services group.
But the woman left on October 7, 2014.
Collins tearfully remembered, “She said it was time to move on. And she said ‘God brings people like you to me, and God walks with me. Every day.”
The mystery woman had told Collins she feared the police and that she’d also been robbed over the years. She told Collins “everything changed, after the blue car,” giving no indication what that statement meant.
PIX 11 Investigates joined Margaret LaManna, when she visited Captain Paul Caldwell at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office on September 10.
Caldwell later spoke to PIX 11 on camera, and he explained that it’s not so easy to stop a homeless drifter to check them out.
“There has to be some kind of possible threat they’ve made to harm themselves or others,” Caldwell said. “Certainly, with the info we have now—with the photos—we could certainly, when the person’s encountered, make the phone calls to the family.”
There is no DNA on file for this drifter to match with Margaret LaManna.
Renee LaManna does have a number in the NCIC system: one number for New Jersey and another number for New York.
The NamUS MP# for Renee LaManna is 1232.
The NIC number from NJ is M702254323.
Renee LaManna was 5’2’ tall. She weighed between 100 and 125 pounds when she disappeared. Her eyes are brown. Her hair was brown. She has a keloid-type scar near her left elbow.
Her sister believes she suffers from “dissociative fugue disorder.”
In early March, 2015, North Carolina put out a “Silver Alert” for Renee LaManna—showing a picture of the female drifter—but it was called off after several weeks.
There have been unconfirmed sightings of the woman in Lexington, Kentucky.
In August, there were unconfirmed sightings in South Carolina Walmarts.
On August 31, a police officer from Hopewell, Virginia wrote on Facebook that he spotted her on I-95 South, near Exit 52South in Petersburg.
PIX 11 stopped at Exit 58 near Richmond, Virginia—where there were unconfirmed sightings earlier this year—but none of the truckers at the Pilot Stop recognized our photo of LaManna.
One of the biggest helps to the “Find Renee” campaign comes in the form of an 18-wheeler, donated by Road Scholar Transport of Pennsylvania.
Renee LaManna was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1958.
Jim Barrett of Road Scholar Transport was moved by her story. He’s donated a tractor trailer to be used during truck deliveries all over the southeast.
It’s wrapped with information about LaManna’s story.
Danny Weaver is the driver.
“In a day’s time, we could do 500-600 miles,” Weaver told PIX 11, as he drove along Route 220 in Rocky Mount. “We go through North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, to Pennsylvania and around back.”
Jim Barrett pointed out that 80 percent of the “eyeballs” that would see Renee’s story would see it on the back panels of the truck.
There are 50 other trucks carrying her information on the back panels.
The 18-wheeler has giant visuals of the female drifter on the side of it, with social media sites and a message, “Please find me.”
“I love you, Renee,” Margaret LaManna said, in an appeal to find her sister. “I’ve missed you for 21 years. I’ve never stopped looking for you. Come home.”
Anyone with information should call 888-RENEE11.
Margaret LaManna can be reached at (561) 339-2266.
Her last appeal “Take a photo. Call 911.”