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Where did San Diego's missing persons go?

Skylar Tosic, Gabby Petito, Elijah Diaz, Debi Puente, Brandi Jolene Meinhart, Maya Millete

“I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him,” says LeLanie Thompson, when asked if she believes her son is still alive.
“I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him,” says LeLanie Thompson, when asked if she believes her son is still alive.

At the time of his disappearance six years ago, Skylar Gregory Peterson Tosic was employed by the county of San Diego as a caregiver for his mother’s fiancé, a popular Escondido musician known as Ukulele Ray, who was suffering from complications of Valley Fever and unable to walk. Skylar lived with his mom — who had split from his dad after she got pregnant — and his extended family in a huge house across from Kit Carson Park in Escondido. An Escondido native, Tosic was 20 years old and a student at Palomar College. During his teen years, he had played bass in a number of rock bands, one of which did well enough to play the iconic Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip on more than one occasion. He tutored fellow students in math.

The last time Olivia Tosic heard from her son, he was planning to meet friends near San Pasqual Academy for some hiking in the hills between Escondido and Ramona.

But after a bad experience with bath salts that prompted him to swear off pot, Skylar Tosic became a changed man. He suffered from acne, and was skinny and a bit of loner. “He had gotten rid of a lot of his high school buddies when he turned 18,” his mother, Olivia Tosic, recalls. “He didn’t want to be in the drug world.” He was hesitant about making new friends in college, but his mom says she told him to just approach fellow students. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people,” she counseled. On the night of Friday, August 28, 2015, Sky told his mom he was going to meet two new friends, Thaddeus and Eli. As his Mustang was in the shop, he took an Uber. He returned Sunday afternoon, but before his mom could talk with him, he left a second time — again in an Uber. That night, he texted his mom that he had met two “rich women” who had offered to take him on a trip.

That was the last time Olivia Tosic heard from her son. That night, she contacted Escondido police. The responding officer took a report, Olivia says, “but he kind of laughed in my face. He said, ‘People leave when they are 18’.” Since then, Olivia says, she has devoted her life to finding her son — or at least finding out what happened to him. She accessed his computer and found he had met Thaddeus and Eli at their house out by San Pasqual Academy for some hiking in the hills between Escondido and Ramona. She immediately drove out to canvass the area; on innumerable return trips, she and a handful of friends combed the hills near the school. She talked to people who lived or worked in the area, and even had a conversation with a school administrator who thought she gave Skylar water on Saturday afternoon and, that night, found him asleep in one of the buildings. “He told her he got lost and was dehydrated,” Olivia says. The distraught mother has also made and passed out thousands of fliers in both English and Spanish. She has posted those flyers to Facebook pages for missing persons, and she’s created a Facebook page of her own: Help Find Skylar Peterson Tosic. Currently, it has more than 3100 followers.

Police found Debi Puente’s car, a black 2013 Hyundai, at the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue in Ocean Beach, where it dead-ends at the cliffs.

“I think he’s alive,” she says. “Oh my God, it’s a living nightmare. I can’t even tell you – it’s surreal; it’s like living in the Twilight Zone. I was dizzy for four and a half years. I couldn’t drive down the street to the 7-Eleven – I’d park my car and imagine what happened to my son. He’s my pride, my joy, my everything. I just want my son back. It’s very hard on me.”

Lieutenant Bode Berreth, the public information officer with the Escondido Police Department, says Skylar’s vanishing is still an open missing persons case. “We have sent materials to the FBI for analysis, but nothing’s led to locating him,” he says. “And tips, as they have come in, have been followed up.”


The recent tragic tale of Gabby Petito put the media spotlight on missing persons. Petito, as everyone surely knows by now, was a pretty 22-year-old with blonde hair and blue eyes who left on a summer road trip tour of national parks with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. The pair traveled in a white Ford Transit van and chronicled their adventures on Instagram and YouTube. Laundrie returned to the North Port, Florida home he shared with his parents and Petito on September 1, alone in the van. Ten days later, Petito’s parents reported her missing. Laundrie refused to cooperate with police and then vanished himself. Five days after Laundrie’s disappearance, Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. An autopsy ruled her death a homicide; the cause was strangulation. On October 20, Brian Laundrie’s skeletal remains were found in Florida’s Carlton Reserve.

The Petito case continued to generate headlines into the fall, while an undercurrent of protest surfaced on social media about all the missing persons cases that weren’t receiving as much press — if any. Some questioned whether Petito’s beauty and “whiteness” was a factor. In a USA Today opinion column, Suzette Hackney, who is Black, noted that in 2020, 543,018 individuals were reported missing, nearly 40% of them people of color. “We’ve been here before – too many times,” she wrote. “Tens of thousands of individuals – Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQ, young, old, men and boys – disappear every year. Some return to their families; some remain unaccounted for; and, unfortunately, some end up dead. But very few receive the national spotlight that seems reserved for white women and white girls.”

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Elijah Diaz, “Bear” to his family and friends, was a diabetic, in poor health. At the time of his disappearance, he carried only 110 pounds on a five-foot, ten-inch frame.

Here in San Diego County, hundreds of people are reported missing each year, and the vast majority are either found or, in the case of children, reclassified as runaways. Last May, the local NBC affiliate reported that just 20 of the 1,100 adult missing persons cases filed with the San Diego Police Department in 2020 remain open. In El Cajon, just three of the 193 missing persons reports filed in 2020 are still open, the NBC report said; in Escondido, one of 171. But it’s those open cases, like the Skylar Tosic case, that continue to haunt families, friends and investigators.


Debi Puente was a cheerful, outgoing 50-year-old when she disappeared the night of March 28, 2017. Born and raised in San Diego, she had four adult children and a good job at Wawanesa Insurance, where she had been working for 14 years. She lived in Linda Vista, in a duplex she shared with her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother. After work on that Thursday evening, Puente and two co-workers met at the Longhorn Bar and Grill in Grantville for happy hour. Around 10 pm, the two friends were ready to leave, but Puente said she wasn’t quite ready to go home. She was fighting with her boyfriend, she told her friends as she got in her car alone, and wanted to cruise around to give her boyfriend some more time to leave the house.

Bear’s family members initially posted a $10,000 reward, then bumped it up to $50,000 four years later. In the meantime, they put up a billboard in Lakeside, on southbound State Route 67 at Mapleview Street, as well as a banner reading “Bring Bear Home” outside his El Cajon house.

Tami Cox, one of Puente’s two younger sisters, said the family didn’t know Puente had vanished until April 5. That’s when her parents got a call from Wawanesa, informing them their daughter hadn’t been to work since the previous Thursday and that they couldn’t get a hold of her at home. That same day, Cox says, police found Puente’s car, a black 2013 Hyundai, at the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue in Ocean Beach, where it dead-ends at the cliffs. Her socks, shoes, and purse with ID were all inside the car. “The car was found with a bunch of parking tickets because my sister did not park parallel – she just drove straight to the end of the road and turned her car off,” Cox says.

Puente’s family filed a missing persons report with the San Diego Police Department and then, as families of the missing often do, took matters into their own hands. They did their own search of the area, made fliers and distributed them all over Ocean Beach, and joined various missing persons groups on Facebook.

The detective assigned to the case has since died, Cox says, and the new police officer assigned to the case hasn’t been returning calls. “I honestly don’t know what to think,” she says. “I don’t want to believe she’s in the water. I don’t know if she went back home, got in a fight with her boyfriend and he staged her car. I just don’t know. I don’t know if she walked down and put her feet in the water and the waves overtook her and she went out to sea. No body ever washed up. And I honestly, truthfully believe that if she fell in the water or hit her head or drifted out, something would have washed up. My parents thought maybe she was running away because she was fighting with her boyfriend, but I can’t imagine her being gone for five years without coming back. And she’d never leave her dog or her kids. I’m praying that she’s still alive.”

Puente’s boyfriend, Cox says, “was extremely sketchy. So was his brother. The family didn’t like them – that’s why we never went to her house. But the police said they interviewed him and he had an alibi, and he just seemed to them to be not guilty. He passed a lie detector test.”

Debi Puente, Cox says, “was a fixer. She was always trying to fix people and help them. But it doesn’t always work.”


The San Diego Missing Persons Search Group has 544 members on Facebook. It was started by a woman who calls herself Chloe Jolene, a 43-year-old real estate agent who lives in Mission Valley. A single mom, she just completed her first year of law school. “I started this page in loving memory of Max Lenail, who went missing and was found dead after drowning in the San Diego River in Mission Trails Regional Park last January,” she says. “When I was little, around seven years old, my father was murdered in front of our home in the Hollywood Hills. His murder is still unsolved to this day. I’ve always been drawn to crimes. I watch Forensic Files all the time. And when I was little, I was extremely afraid of getting kidnapped. I used to watch America’s Most Wanted, and I always told my mom, ‘Please make sure nobody steals me’ when we were at the mall together. One time I did get lost and separated from my mom when I was at Universal Studios, and it was a very traumatic experience. I am extremely protective of my 12-year-old daughter, and I never let her go anywhere alone, not even walking to school. In fact, it scares me when parents let their children walk alone to school in this day and age.”

Sometimes a missing person doesn’t want to be found. That may or may not be the case with Brandi Jolene Meinhart, one of the most recent San Diegans to seemingly disappear.

Helping missing persons, Jolene says, “is something I’ve always wanted to do, and when Max died, it was so close to my home, and I didn’t even know he was missing, and I found out about his death afterward... There was a whole search group out there, and I felt not in the know about it, and it really affected me deeply. After I found out about his death, I cried. I went and visited where he died, and it inspired me to create my missing person search group for San Diego. I wanted to do something for the community.”

Jolene says she’s been “really disappointed in the how the police handled Maya Millete’s disappearance. I felt so outraged, especially when I saw how the community came together for Gabby. I thought, why can’t they do that for Maya and everyone else who goes missing?

Maya Millete is the 39-year-old Chula Vista mother of three who was last seen by her family at her Paseo Los Gatos home at around 5 pm on January 7, two days before the family was supposed to leave for Big Bear. Her sister, Maricris Drouaillet, called Chula Vista police to report her missing two days later. The following month, Drouaillet said detectives told her that her sister’s husband, Larry Millete, had retained a lawyer and was no longer cooperating with the investigation. Millete was named a “person of interest” in his wife’s disappearance on July 22. In n update from the Chula Vista Police Department, issued September 22, police said they had interviewed 85 people about Millete’s disappearance, written 68 search warrants, and reviewed more than 128 tips. On October 19, police arrested Larry Millete and charged him with murdering his wife.

“I feel like every single missing person case should be handled the way Gabby Petito’s case was handled,” Jolene says. “I feel like changes need to be made, so that when a person goes missing, there is no waiting and searches are done right away, because the crucial time to find them is within the first 48 hours of their disappearance. Although I just started this Facebook group this year and I’m a single mom — I don’t get paid for this — I feel like this is my starting point. I don’t have a lot of resources or networks, but I am learning, and I want to help and I’m doing all I can. I hope to grow my Facebook page, and I really hope to make a difference in helping find missing people in San Diego and branch out from there.”


Elijah Diaz, “Bear” to his family and friends, went missing six years ago. At the time, he was a 20-year-old, described by his mom, LeLanie Thompson, as a “young man with a big heart.” I pressed his mom for more details, telling her I wanted to really zero in Bear as a person. She paused, then: “He wanted to help anybody he could … I don’t think I was ready for this, I am so used to just rattling off the facts of the case…. Those who got to know him saw he was a precious person. If he had friends who were battling health issues, he was right by their side. If they were having trouble at home, he was there for them and would take them in. Even when he was a teenager we had so many young men coming and spending the night on our couch, and I would always call their parents and check if everything was OK before sending them home.”

A Native American and member of the Barona tribe, Bear Diaz lived in a house on El Cajon’s Joey Street. He was a diabetic, in poor health. At the time of his disappearance, he carried only 110 pounds on a five-foot, ten-inch frame. He shared the house with several roommates, a situation that made his mom unhappy. “The roommates we thought he was going to get were not the roommates who moved in,” Thompson says. “The house was full of people we did not know.” Bear didn’t take good care of himself, and had wounds on his feet because of neuropathy. “He was just learning to use crutches, the last time I saw him,” Thompson says. “The week before, he had been in a wheelchair.”

Bear was last seen on August 29, 2015 at around 10:30 pm, when his mom dropped him off at his house. The next day, Thompson stopped by her son’s house around 4 pm to bring him dinner. He wasn’t home. “I waited the day to see if he would answer the phone or text,” she says. The next day, after he missed a doctor’s appointment, Thompson reported him missing, at first visiting the Lakeside sheriff’s station. “The lady there who wrote down the information was very rude, and when I said he was disabled, she told me he wasn’t,” Thompson says. “I was changing his bandages daily; his roommates were no help.”

Thompson later went to the El Cajon sheriff’s station to file a formal missing persons report. She noted that Bear’s 55-inch TV, comforter, and bedsheets were missing from his bedroom, “but they didn’t care.” So were his crutches, the contents of a safe he kept in his room, and a backpack with 10 days’ worth of diabetes medicine. It was not until two weeks later, when someone else asked deputies to make a welfare check on Bear at the Joey Street house, that detectives took action. An investigation found that Diaz’s phone was turned off the day after his mysterious disappearance, and was never turned on again. Social media posts stopped, and there was no further activity on his bank account. “He always called me,” Thompson says. “There was never any moment in time that I wasn’t aware of where he was. There was a very close bond between he and I. People say, ‘He’s a 20-year-old, he’s not going to be good friends with his mom,’ but they’re wrong. He didn’t really have any friends who had the time to spend with him that I did, and we were very, very close.”

From the start, Thompson suspected the worst. On the website BringBearHome.com, she writes, “Someone took Bear from his home. I believe it was a horrific scene…He opened his door to anyone he thought he could help. Eventually, the people in and out of his home were beyond his control. Whoever took Bear that night knew the house, knew our routine, and waited for me to leave.” Thompson said she hoped a police search of Bear’s house would yield clues about his disappearance, but by the time deputies got around to it, “it was too late – the kids who had been living in the house could have been stealing from his room and cleaning up. It was very strange that they took the bed sheets and comforter, that doesn’t make sense. They also took the wrong shoe — he only had one, because of his injured foot. That tells me he didn’t leave willingly.”

Family members initially posted a $10,000 reward, then bumped it up to $50,000 four years later. In the meantime, they put up a billboard in Lakeside, on southbound State Route 67 at Mapleview Street, as well as a banner reading “Bring Bear Home” outside his El Cajon house. They organized door-to-door searches around El Cajon, combed the backroads for over two years, hired a private investigator, and launched a website with the tagline, “Pray that the truth is revealed.”

In April 2017, the case was featured on the TV series Disappeared. “We had a lot of exposure,” Thompson says. Six years after Bear’s disappearance, does Thompson think her son is still alive? She pauses, then: “I do not. He hasn’t used his health insurance in six years, and his foot, if he didn’t have a doctor’s attention, it would have continued to eat itself and he would have wound up in the hospital. And to not access his money in six years, his credit card... You put this piece and that piece together, and you just come up with the fact that most likely he’s not alive.” Even so, Thompson says, “I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him.”


Sometimes a missing person doesn’t want to be found. That may or may not be the case with Brandi Jolene Meinhart, one of the most recent San Diegans to seemingly disappear. Brandi was happy and excited the day she vanished. After several months of homelessness, during which she was in and out of rehab for alcohol and meth, she had gotten a new job. Not only had the owner of the City Lights Christmas store in Bay Park agreed to rehire her, he was willing to give her boyfriend, London Sandoval, a job. Meinhart, 41, showed up for her first shift on August 23, 2021, and clocked out a few hours later. That was the last time anyone saw her.

Meinhart was a troubled soul. Born in Illinois, she lived a nomadic lifestyle with her parents: first mom and dad and then mom and stepdad. She graduated from Helix High School and married her high school sweetheart, with whom she had two kids. By the time she was in her late twenties, the marriage was dissolving and she had begun to drink — heavily. After her divorce, things went from bad to worse. A judge deemed her unfit to be a mother and sent the kids to live with their dad. Meinhart began drinking more, and was soon remarried. “We never even met the second husband,” says Meinhart’s sister, Jamie Robison, 46, who lives near Akron, Ohio, with their mom, Heidi. “He was abusive and threatened to kill her.”

In December of 2016, that marriage, too, ended in divorce. The following month, Meinhart got married a third time, to someone else she had dated back in high school. “By this time, Brandi was a recovering alcoholic and her new husband, a recovering drug addict,” Robison says.

Despite her drinking, Meinhart had maintained steady employment, first at City Lights, and, later, processing claims for Sharp Healthcare. She also was an aspiring writer, and had published a book of poetry, available on Amazon. But Meinhart and Husband No. 3 still could not afford a home of their own, so they rented a room in a house “where there were bad things going on,” Robison says. “She was drinking and he was drugging; they both lost their jobs, and after trying to kill each other, they decided to separate so they could continue breathing.”

Last November, Meinhart moved in with a friend in Imperial Beach. Her friend had a 23-year-old son who was addicted to meth. Before her third divorce was even final, Meinhart and the son began dating — and drugging. “When his mom found out, she kicked them both out,” Robison says. “They went to rehab, stayed in hotels, went to Father Joe’s, went back to rehab — it’s crazy for me to even repeat this.”

Mom Heidi chips in: “For the last twenty years, Brandi’s life was non-stop crazy.”

The craziness finally appeared to subside by summer of this year. By that point, Brandi was keeping in touch with family members back in Ohio. But the last time Jaime heard from her was a call on Heidi’s birthday in July. “Brandi told us she had gotten mugged and that someone had stolen her phone the last time they stayed at Father Joe’s,” Robison says. After a month of no contact, Robison says, she and her mom became concerned. They contacted the three ex-husbands, but none of them had heard from Brandi, either. They found out about her new job, but the owner of City Lights said he had seen her just once, on the day she was supposed to start, and then never again.

Robison filed a missing persons report with the San Diego Police Department and started making fliers, which have since been distributed, electronically, around the world. “We joined 44 different missing persons groups and gotten notices published in all 50 states plus Canada, Mexico, even Ireland. We’ve gotten over 1000 primary shares.” In late September, Robison said, she received a call from a police officer assigned to her case, who said contact had been made with Brandi. “He told us she’s alive and in San Diego, but because she is an adult he couldn’t tell us anything more,” Robison says. “She was told she has been reported as missing, but at this point, it’s up to her to contact us.”

In the meantime, Robison says, she and her mom are continuing their cybersearch for Brandi, distributing the flier and posting notices on Facebook and other social media sites. “We’re 3000 miles away, with health problems and a lack of finances,” Robison says. “I just started a new job, and I can’t take two weeks out of my life to go to San Diego with no place to stay and no vehicle, to try to find somebody who may not want to be found at this point.” Mom Heidi adds, “Brandi at one point wanted to work with kids, she wanted to work with deaf kids and go into sign language. She had just high aspirations when she was in high school. And now this...”

One week after our interview, I received a message from Robison: “Hi Thomas, Brandi was picked up by a couple of friends I’ve met along the way and she’s now in a detox center... She’s down to about 80 pounds, and is going to need years and years of therapy.”

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“I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him,” says LeLanie Thompson, when asked if she believes her son is still alive.
“I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him,” says LeLanie Thompson, when asked if she believes her son is still alive.

At the time of his disappearance six years ago, Skylar Gregory Peterson Tosic was employed by the county of San Diego as a caregiver for his mother’s fiancé, a popular Escondido musician known as Ukulele Ray, who was suffering from complications of Valley Fever and unable to walk. Skylar lived with his mom — who had split from his dad after she got pregnant — and his extended family in a huge house across from Kit Carson Park in Escondido. An Escondido native, Tosic was 20 years old and a student at Palomar College. During his teen years, he had played bass in a number of rock bands, one of which did well enough to play the iconic Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip on more than one occasion. He tutored fellow students in math.

The last time Olivia Tosic heard from her son, he was planning to meet friends near San Pasqual Academy for some hiking in the hills between Escondido and Ramona.

But after a bad experience with bath salts that prompted him to swear off pot, Skylar Tosic became a changed man. He suffered from acne, and was skinny and a bit of loner. “He had gotten rid of a lot of his high school buddies when he turned 18,” his mother, Olivia Tosic, recalls. “He didn’t want to be in the drug world.” He was hesitant about making new friends in college, but his mom says she told him to just approach fellow students. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people,” she counseled. On the night of Friday, August 28, 2015, Sky told his mom he was going to meet two new friends, Thaddeus and Eli. As his Mustang was in the shop, he took an Uber. He returned Sunday afternoon, but before his mom could talk with him, he left a second time — again in an Uber. That night, he texted his mom that he had met two “rich women” who had offered to take him on a trip.

That was the last time Olivia Tosic heard from her son. That night, she contacted Escondido police. The responding officer took a report, Olivia says, “but he kind of laughed in my face. He said, ‘People leave when they are 18’.” Since then, Olivia says, she has devoted her life to finding her son — or at least finding out what happened to him. She accessed his computer and found he had met Thaddeus and Eli at their house out by San Pasqual Academy for some hiking in the hills between Escondido and Ramona. She immediately drove out to canvass the area; on innumerable return trips, she and a handful of friends combed the hills near the school. She talked to people who lived or worked in the area, and even had a conversation with a school administrator who thought she gave Skylar water on Saturday afternoon and, that night, found him asleep in one of the buildings. “He told her he got lost and was dehydrated,” Olivia says. The distraught mother has also made and passed out thousands of fliers in both English and Spanish. She has posted those flyers to Facebook pages for missing persons, and she’s created a Facebook page of her own: Help Find Skylar Peterson Tosic. Currently, it has more than 3100 followers.

Police found Debi Puente’s car, a black 2013 Hyundai, at the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue in Ocean Beach, where it dead-ends at the cliffs.

“I think he’s alive,” she says. “Oh my God, it’s a living nightmare. I can’t even tell you – it’s surreal; it’s like living in the Twilight Zone. I was dizzy for four and a half years. I couldn’t drive down the street to the 7-Eleven – I’d park my car and imagine what happened to my son. He’s my pride, my joy, my everything. I just want my son back. It’s very hard on me.”

Lieutenant Bode Berreth, the public information officer with the Escondido Police Department, says Skylar’s vanishing is still an open missing persons case. “We have sent materials to the FBI for analysis, but nothing’s led to locating him,” he says. “And tips, as they have come in, have been followed up.”


The recent tragic tale of Gabby Petito put the media spotlight on missing persons. Petito, as everyone surely knows by now, was a pretty 22-year-old with blonde hair and blue eyes who left on a summer road trip tour of national parks with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. The pair traveled in a white Ford Transit van and chronicled their adventures on Instagram and YouTube. Laundrie returned to the North Port, Florida home he shared with his parents and Petito on September 1, alone in the van. Ten days later, Petito’s parents reported her missing. Laundrie refused to cooperate with police and then vanished himself. Five days after Laundrie’s disappearance, Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. An autopsy ruled her death a homicide; the cause was strangulation. On October 20, Brian Laundrie’s skeletal remains were found in Florida’s Carlton Reserve.

The Petito case continued to generate headlines into the fall, while an undercurrent of protest surfaced on social media about all the missing persons cases that weren’t receiving as much press — if any. Some questioned whether Petito’s beauty and “whiteness” was a factor. In a USA Today opinion column, Suzette Hackney, who is Black, noted that in 2020, 543,018 individuals were reported missing, nearly 40% of them people of color. “We’ve been here before – too many times,” she wrote. “Tens of thousands of individuals – Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQ, young, old, men and boys – disappear every year. Some return to their families; some remain unaccounted for; and, unfortunately, some end up dead. But very few receive the national spotlight that seems reserved for white women and white girls.”

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Elijah Diaz, “Bear” to his family and friends, was a diabetic, in poor health. At the time of his disappearance, he carried only 110 pounds on a five-foot, ten-inch frame.

Here in San Diego County, hundreds of people are reported missing each year, and the vast majority are either found or, in the case of children, reclassified as runaways. Last May, the local NBC affiliate reported that just 20 of the 1,100 adult missing persons cases filed with the San Diego Police Department in 2020 remain open. In El Cajon, just three of the 193 missing persons reports filed in 2020 are still open, the NBC report said; in Escondido, one of 171. But it’s those open cases, like the Skylar Tosic case, that continue to haunt families, friends and investigators.


Debi Puente was a cheerful, outgoing 50-year-old when she disappeared the night of March 28, 2017. Born and raised in San Diego, she had four adult children and a good job at Wawanesa Insurance, where she had been working for 14 years. She lived in Linda Vista, in a duplex she shared with her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother. After work on that Thursday evening, Puente and two co-workers met at the Longhorn Bar and Grill in Grantville for happy hour. Around 10 pm, the two friends were ready to leave, but Puente said she wasn’t quite ready to go home. She was fighting with her boyfriend, she told her friends as she got in her car alone, and wanted to cruise around to give her boyfriend some more time to leave the house.

Bear’s family members initially posted a $10,000 reward, then bumped it up to $50,000 four years later. In the meantime, they put up a billboard in Lakeside, on southbound State Route 67 at Mapleview Street, as well as a banner reading “Bring Bear Home” outside his El Cajon house.

Tami Cox, one of Puente’s two younger sisters, said the family didn’t know Puente had vanished until April 5. That’s when her parents got a call from Wawanesa, informing them their daughter hadn’t been to work since the previous Thursday and that they couldn’t get a hold of her at home. That same day, Cox says, police found Puente’s car, a black 2013 Hyundai, at the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue in Ocean Beach, where it dead-ends at the cliffs. Her socks, shoes, and purse with ID were all inside the car. “The car was found with a bunch of parking tickets because my sister did not park parallel – she just drove straight to the end of the road and turned her car off,” Cox says.

Puente’s family filed a missing persons report with the San Diego Police Department and then, as families of the missing often do, took matters into their own hands. They did their own search of the area, made fliers and distributed them all over Ocean Beach, and joined various missing persons groups on Facebook.

The detective assigned to the case has since died, Cox says, and the new police officer assigned to the case hasn’t been returning calls. “I honestly don’t know what to think,” she says. “I don’t want to believe she’s in the water. I don’t know if she went back home, got in a fight with her boyfriend and he staged her car. I just don’t know. I don’t know if she walked down and put her feet in the water and the waves overtook her and she went out to sea. No body ever washed up. And I honestly, truthfully believe that if she fell in the water or hit her head or drifted out, something would have washed up. My parents thought maybe she was running away because she was fighting with her boyfriend, but I can’t imagine her being gone for five years without coming back. And she’d never leave her dog or her kids. I’m praying that she’s still alive.”

Puente’s boyfriend, Cox says, “was extremely sketchy. So was his brother. The family didn’t like them – that’s why we never went to her house. But the police said they interviewed him and he had an alibi, and he just seemed to them to be not guilty. He passed a lie detector test.”

Debi Puente, Cox says, “was a fixer. She was always trying to fix people and help them. But it doesn’t always work.”


The San Diego Missing Persons Search Group has 544 members on Facebook. It was started by a woman who calls herself Chloe Jolene, a 43-year-old real estate agent who lives in Mission Valley. A single mom, she just completed her first year of law school. “I started this page in loving memory of Max Lenail, who went missing and was found dead after drowning in the San Diego River in Mission Trails Regional Park last January,” she says. “When I was little, around seven years old, my father was murdered in front of our home in the Hollywood Hills. His murder is still unsolved to this day. I’ve always been drawn to crimes. I watch Forensic Files all the time. And when I was little, I was extremely afraid of getting kidnapped. I used to watch America’s Most Wanted, and I always told my mom, ‘Please make sure nobody steals me’ when we were at the mall together. One time I did get lost and separated from my mom when I was at Universal Studios, and it was a very traumatic experience. I am extremely protective of my 12-year-old daughter, and I never let her go anywhere alone, not even walking to school. In fact, it scares me when parents let their children walk alone to school in this day and age.”

Sometimes a missing person doesn’t want to be found. That may or may not be the case with Brandi Jolene Meinhart, one of the most recent San Diegans to seemingly disappear.

Helping missing persons, Jolene says, “is something I’ve always wanted to do, and when Max died, it was so close to my home, and I didn’t even know he was missing, and I found out about his death afterward... There was a whole search group out there, and I felt not in the know about it, and it really affected me deeply. After I found out about his death, I cried. I went and visited where he died, and it inspired me to create my missing person search group for San Diego. I wanted to do something for the community.”

Jolene says she’s been “really disappointed in the how the police handled Maya Millete’s disappearance. I felt so outraged, especially when I saw how the community came together for Gabby. I thought, why can’t they do that for Maya and everyone else who goes missing?

Maya Millete is the 39-year-old Chula Vista mother of three who was last seen by her family at her Paseo Los Gatos home at around 5 pm on January 7, two days before the family was supposed to leave for Big Bear. Her sister, Maricris Drouaillet, called Chula Vista police to report her missing two days later. The following month, Drouaillet said detectives told her that her sister’s husband, Larry Millete, had retained a lawyer and was no longer cooperating with the investigation. Millete was named a “person of interest” in his wife’s disappearance on July 22. In n update from the Chula Vista Police Department, issued September 22, police said they had interviewed 85 people about Millete’s disappearance, written 68 search warrants, and reviewed more than 128 tips. On October 19, police arrested Larry Millete and charged him with murdering his wife.

“I feel like every single missing person case should be handled the way Gabby Petito’s case was handled,” Jolene says. “I feel like changes need to be made, so that when a person goes missing, there is no waiting and searches are done right away, because the crucial time to find them is within the first 48 hours of their disappearance. Although I just started this Facebook group this year and I’m a single mom — I don’t get paid for this — I feel like this is my starting point. I don’t have a lot of resources or networks, but I am learning, and I want to help and I’m doing all I can. I hope to grow my Facebook page, and I really hope to make a difference in helping find missing people in San Diego and branch out from there.”


Elijah Diaz, “Bear” to his family and friends, went missing six years ago. At the time, he was a 20-year-old, described by his mom, LeLanie Thompson, as a “young man with a big heart.” I pressed his mom for more details, telling her I wanted to really zero in Bear as a person. She paused, then: “He wanted to help anybody he could … I don’t think I was ready for this, I am so used to just rattling off the facts of the case…. Those who got to know him saw he was a precious person. If he had friends who were battling health issues, he was right by their side. If they were having trouble at home, he was there for them and would take them in. Even when he was a teenager we had so many young men coming and spending the night on our couch, and I would always call their parents and check if everything was OK before sending them home.”

A Native American and member of the Barona tribe, Bear Diaz lived in a house on El Cajon’s Joey Street. He was a diabetic, in poor health. At the time of his disappearance, he carried only 110 pounds on a five-foot, ten-inch frame. He shared the house with several roommates, a situation that made his mom unhappy. “The roommates we thought he was going to get were not the roommates who moved in,” Thompson says. “The house was full of people we did not know.” Bear didn’t take good care of himself, and had wounds on his feet because of neuropathy. “He was just learning to use crutches, the last time I saw him,” Thompson says. “The week before, he had been in a wheelchair.”

Bear was last seen on August 29, 2015 at around 10:30 pm, when his mom dropped him off at his house. The next day, Thompson stopped by her son’s house around 4 pm to bring him dinner. He wasn’t home. “I waited the day to see if he would answer the phone or text,” she says. The next day, after he missed a doctor’s appointment, Thompson reported him missing, at first visiting the Lakeside sheriff’s station. “The lady there who wrote down the information was very rude, and when I said he was disabled, she told me he wasn’t,” Thompson says. “I was changing his bandages daily; his roommates were no help.”

Thompson later went to the El Cajon sheriff’s station to file a formal missing persons report. She noted that Bear’s 55-inch TV, comforter, and bedsheets were missing from his bedroom, “but they didn’t care.” So were his crutches, the contents of a safe he kept in his room, and a backpack with 10 days’ worth of diabetes medicine. It was not until two weeks later, when someone else asked deputies to make a welfare check on Bear at the Joey Street house, that detectives took action. An investigation found that Diaz’s phone was turned off the day after his mysterious disappearance, and was never turned on again. Social media posts stopped, and there was no further activity on his bank account. “He always called me,” Thompson says. “There was never any moment in time that I wasn’t aware of where he was. There was a very close bond between he and I. People say, ‘He’s a 20-year-old, he’s not going to be good friends with his mom,’ but they’re wrong. He didn’t really have any friends who had the time to spend with him that I did, and we were very, very close.”

From the start, Thompson suspected the worst. On the website BringBearHome.com, she writes, “Someone took Bear from his home. I believe it was a horrific scene…He opened his door to anyone he thought he could help. Eventually, the people in and out of his home were beyond his control. Whoever took Bear that night knew the house, knew our routine, and waited for me to leave.” Thompson said she hoped a police search of Bear’s house would yield clues about his disappearance, but by the time deputies got around to it, “it was too late – the kids who had been living in the house could have been stealing from his room and cleaning up. It was very strange that they took the bed sheets and comforter, that doesn’t make sense. They also took the wrong shoe — he only had one, because of his injured foot. That tells me he didn’t leave willingly.”

Family members initially posted a $10,000 reward, then bumped it up to $50,000 four years later. In the meantime, they put up a billboard in Lakeside, on southbound State Route 67 at Mapleview Street, as well as a banner reading “Bring Bear Home” outside his El Cajon house. They organized door-to-door searches around El Cajon, combed the backroads for over two years, hired a private investigator, and launched a website with the tagline, “Pray that the truth is revealed.”

In April 2017, the case was featured on the TV series Disappeared. “We had a lot of exposure,” Thompson says. Six years after Bear’s disappearance, does Thompson think her son is still alive? She pauses, then: “I do not. He hasn’t used his health insurance in six years, and his foot, if he didn’t have a doctor’s attention, it would have continued to eat itself and he would have wound up in the hospital. And to not access his money in six years, his credit card... You put this piece and that piece together, and you just come up with the fact that most likely he’s not alive.” Even so, Thompson says, “I would like to bring him home, lay him to rest properly. If he’s out there somewhere, let’s bring him home and enjoy him, but most likely we’ll be laying him to rest when we find him.”


Sometimes a missing person doesn’t want to be found. That may or may not be the case with Brandi Jolene Meinhart, one of the most recent San Diegans to seemingly disappear. Brandi was happy and excited the day she vanished. After several months of homelessness, during which she was in and out of rehab for alcohol and meth, she had gotten a new job. Not only had the owner of the City Lights Christmas store in Bay Park agreed to rehire her, he was willing to give her boyfriend, London Sandoval, a job. Meinhart, 41, showed up for her first shift on August 23, 2021, and clocked out a few hours later. That was the last time anyone saw her.

Meinhart was a troubled soul. Born in Illinois, she lived a nomadic lifestyle with her parents: first mom and dad and then mom and stepdad. She graduated from Helix High School and married her high school sweetheart, with whom she had two kids. By the time she was in her late twenties, the marriage was dissolving and she had begun to drink — heavily. After her divorce, things went from bad to worse. A judge deemed her unfit to be a mother and sent the kids to live with their dad. Meinhart began drinking more, and was soon remarried. “We never even met the second husband,” says Meinhart’s sister, Jamie Robison, 46, who lives near Akron, Ohio, with their mom, Heidi. “He was abusive and threatened to kill her.”

In December of 2016, that marriage, too, ended in divorce. The following month, Meinhart got married a third time, to someone else she had dated back in high school. “By this time, Brandi was a recovering alcoholic and her new husband, a recovering drug addict,” Robison says.

Despite her drinking, Meinhart had maintained steady employment, first at City Lights, and, later, processing claims for Sharp Healthcare. She also was an aspiring writer, and had published a book of poetry, available on Amazon. But Meinhart and Husband No. 3 still could not afford a home of their own, so they rented a room in a house “where there were bad things going on,” Robison says. “She was drinking and he was drugging; they both lost their jobs, and after trying to kill each other, they decided to separate so they could continue breathing.”

Last November, Meinhart moved in with a friend in Imperial Beach. Her friend had a 23-year-old son who was addicted to meth. Before her third divorce was even final, Meinhart and the son began dating — and drugging. “When his mom found out, she kicked them both out,” Robison says. “They went to rehab, stayed in hotels, went to Father Joe’s, went back to rehab — it’s crazy for me to even repeat this.”

Mom Heidi chips in: “For the last twenty years, Brandi’s life was non-stop crazy.”

The craziness finally appeared to subside by summer of this year. By that point, Brandi was keeping in touch with family members back in Ohio. But the last time Jaime heard from her was a call on Heidi’s birthday in July. “Brandi told us she had gotten mugged and that someone had stolen her phone the last time they stayed at Father Joe’s,” Robison says. After a month of no contact, Robison says, she and her mom became concerned. They contacted the three ex-husbands, but none of them had heard from Brandi, either. They found out about her new job, but the owner of City Lights said he had seen her just once, on the day she was supposed to start, and then never again.

Robison filed a missing persons report with the San Diego Police Department and started making fliers, which have since been distributed, electronically, around the world. “We joined 44 different missing persons groups and gotten notices published in all 50 states plus Canada, Mexico, even Ireland. We’ve gotten over 1000 primary shares.” In late September, Robison said, she received a call from a police officer assigned to her case, who said contact had been made with Brandi. “He told us she’s alive and in San Diego, but because she is an adult he couldn’t tell us anything more,” Robison says. “She was told she has been reported as missing, but at this point, it’s up to her to contact us.”

In the meantime, Robison says, she and her mom are continuing their cybersearch for Brandi, distributing the flier and posting notices on Facebook and other social media sites. “We’re 3000 miles away, with health problems and a lack of finances,” Robison says. “I just started a new job, and I can’t take two weeks out of my life to go to San Diego with no place to stay and no vehicle, to try to find somebody who may not want to be found at this point.” Mom Heidi adds, “Brandi at one point wanted to work with kids, she wanted to work with deaf kids and go into sign language. She had just high aspirations when she was in high school. And now this...”

One week after our interview, I received a message from Robison: “Hi Thomas, Brandi was picked up by a couple of friends I’ve met along the way and she’s now in a detox center... She’s down to about 80 pounds, and is going to need years and years of therapy.”

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My mom (Debra Puente) always spelled her name "Debi" not "Debbie." What's the best way to get this corrected?

Thank you for your attention and care for missing persons.

Dec. 17, 2021

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