Imagine giving birth to your baby or witnessing that miraculous moment. Imagine all the firsts: first word, first step, first everything.
Now imagine fast-forwarding 23 years without ever so much as seeing or hearing from your own child.
That is the nightmare that one South San Francisco family has had to bear, after one of their own ran away in 1989. All the Ornelas family has now are recycled memories they’ve been holding onto of Santana Ornelas Jr. He was 20 years old when his father, Santana Ornelas Sr., last saw him.
From the phone while he lay in a bed in intensive care at Seton Medical Center in Daly City, 66-year-old Ornelas Sr. described what happened to his son, known as “Junior.” Ornelas said his son was arrested in 1989, when he was a student at Marin Junior College, after he said a friend of his encouraged Junior to rob his family’s house. Before the court date, Junior packed up and left home. His family said it hasn’t seen or heard from him ever since.
“Devastating,” described his mother, Patty Tozzi. “It’s absolutely devastating. It is to this day. I cry, yes, I cry. It’s not easy. You just want to know what happened.” As mother, she added she was forced to confront a possibility no parent ever wants to face – was Junior still alive? Just two years ago, Tozzi finally gave her DNA to police, just in case.
The family searched extensively. Junior’s aunt, Barbara Ornelas, said she and other relatives talked to a private investigator who said Junior may have changed his Social Security number and his name. They even had an artist sketch what Junior might look like today. The police department's missing persons gave the family a picture of a man whom they believe is Junior, just under a different alias. Loved ones said it was hard to know where to go next.
“The worst thing about it is we kept wondering, after a while, you just give up because you don’t know where to look,” added Daniel Ornelas, Junior’s uncle and godfather.
His grandparents never gave up hope, even to their last breath. But the hardest hit may have been Junior’s “baby” sister, Melanie Luce. “I just want closure, is he okay, does he have family? We’re here,” Luce said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s just really difficult, and not having his presence is extremely hard. And being my mom fought cancer and she’s in remission right now. So he needs to be with his family and with my father being real sick, he needs to be with him, as well.”
And therein lies the urgency this time around. This relatives who have so desperately searched for a missing part of who they are for more than two decades, are even more desperate now. That’s because Santana Ornelas Sr. needs a kidney transplant. He found out just a few years ago. His son is the only 100 percent match. “That broke me up. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he described. “You know, I thought it was just a matter of time… I wasn’t going to be around.”
But the family wanted to stress that the kidney is not the focus of its search. Ornelas Sr. said a life cut short would still be more worth it if he could hear from his long-lost song and erase the pain that cannot be fixed by medicine nor surgery. “Oh yeah, I cry a lot. I have a room downstairs where I do my dialysis and I cry a lot by myself.”
NBC Bay Area checked with Daly City police who said they would no longer try to pick Junior up for the arrest more than 20 years ago. The San Mateo County District Attorney’s office wouldn’t comment specifically on the case, but said that typically the statute of limitations on this burglary charge would have run out by now.
Each of the family members had a message for Junior.
From his uncle, Jose Santana, it was quick but passionate. “Junior, it’s your Uncle Chino. Hey, if you’re out there and I pray you are, get a hold of your parents, get a hold of your mom and your dad.”
From his aunt, Barbara Ornelas, “ You won’t be in trouble, we just love you, and we want you to come home.”
From his baby sister, Melanie Luce, “ I just love you. I want you back here and, we just need you.”
And then, from the broken-hearted parents. First, his mom. “Just that I love him very much, and I’d really like to see him again. Please come home, your dad needs you, your dad wants to see you right now, too. He’s vulnerable right now.”
The last word came from Ornelas, Sr. who said the key he gave his son 23 years ago will still open the door to his front door, and to the rest of their lives together. “I live in the same place. He knows where to find me. I just hope one day he’ll come back and knock on my door and say… ‘Dad, I came home.’”
If you think you know where Junior is, the family is asking that you message the sister, Melanie Luce, through the following e-mail: Litlsunflower@aol.com