By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Jan Bynum stands at the center of her daughter's room in Bynum's Farmers Branch house and looks around. On one wall is a University of North Texas calendar from the 1997-1998 academic year. Other parts of the room are filled with her daughter's furniture, makeup and knickknacks, much as the young college student left them on July 15, 1997, the day she vanished.
The room, beyond the hallway where family pictures hang, resembles a shrine, and Bynum wants to keep it that way. She is certain her daughter will return to it one day.
Cox disappeared after a field trip to the Denton police station. She called her boyfriend to tell him she was locked out of her car, and that was the last time anyone who knew her ever spoke to her. A massive police search and publicity campaign that put Cox's case before a national television audience turned up nothing. Cox, it seemed, had simply disappeared into the ether.
Early in the investigation into the disappearance, Bynum was critical of police and frustrated with what they didn't know and couldn't find out. As the days went by without answers, the family took the advice of a Denton police officer and turned to Florida psychic John Monti.
Though famed for his work in several high-profile disappearances--efforts that critics say did little more than distract police with pointless searches and win him headlines--Monti offered little real help in the hunt for Cox. Yet Bynum says that Monti was, in fact, valuable to her. While police ignored tips, dwelled on minutia and intimidated potential witnesses, Monti provided the family with information from students, teachers and others who might have seen something. Though an outsider may think Monti is about as tapped into the supernatural as the Wizard of Oz, he offered the desperate family something police didn't--hope. Four years after her daughter vanished, Bynum still clings to the hope that police, a psychic or anybody else can come up with some kind of answer that will finally bring Cox home.
"You have to be sane about it, but at the same time, if you lose a child, you are going to try anything," Bynum says, "especially when the police have absolutely nothing."
Typically, when somebody is missing for more than a year or two, some piece of the puzzle materializes, whether it's clues in the form of clothing, body parts, a corpse or a living person. The FBI gets close to 1 million reports of missing people every year. Of those, according to a study done by the U.S. Department of Justice in the early 1990s, most people--mostly juvenile runaways--are found within three months. Fewer than 1 percent of those who have been in the FBI's national computer file more than three years are ever found.
Cox, like a handful of other nationally publicized missing persons, falls into that small category. What's more, no one seems to have seen anything of her just before she vanished. The last time Bynum saw her then 19-year-old daughter was on the morning of the day she disappeared. Bynum was on her way out the door to work. Cox was getting ready for school and was running late.
"She had her hair up in a towel, and she was sitting on the bed putting on her makeup...I said, 'OK, I'm off to work.' I said, 'I love you' and I said, 'Have a good day. I'll talk to you this afternoon,'" she says. "Those were the last words she and I ever spoke."
After her mother left, Cox drove from Farmers Branch to the University of North Texas in Denton and attended morning classes, then she accompanied a criminal justice class to the Denton police station on a field trip. When the station tour was over, she walked back to her 1989 Nissan 240-SX, which was parked in a city parking lot nearby. Because she couldn't take a purse or keys into the jail for the tour, she had locked them inside her car and was going to use a spare key that was hidden under a fender. Then she found that her spare key didn't work.
She went back to the city offices, which are attached to the police station, and tried to call her boyfriend, Lawrence Harris III. Police aren't sure why she was unable to make a call from that phone, but they know she didn't get through to Harris. Police then directed her to a pay telephone at a Conoco gas station and convenience store about two blocks away. Around noon, Cox finally reached her boyfriend at his home in Farmers Branch, calling him collect from the pay phone outside the convenience store. She told him that she was locked out of her car. Harris showed up shirtless at the police station looking for Cox. He was seen at the police station between 12:30 p.m. and 12:45 p.m.
At first, police believed Cox would probably just show up somewhere, too. But as the hours went by it became obvious, at least to those who knew Cox, that something wasn't right. She didn't attend an afternoon class. She didn't return to her car or call her boyfriend again. Bynum says it was painfully and immediately clear that something had happened to Cox because it would have been far out of Cox's character to just bolt. Cox was working hard in school, she was responsible about her life, and she dearly loved her daughter, Alexis, a 19-month-old whom Cox was raising as a single mother after breaking up with the girl's father. Cox always wanted Alexis with her, and she never would have just abandoned the child like that, Bynum says.