Missing woman's family keeps praying, hoping she will return home safely

Around this time every year, Laura Andrews finds it difficult to talk about her daughter.

Michele Whitaker was last seen in 2002 at a truck stop on Interstate 85 near Spartanburg. She would have celebrated her 32nd birthday only 11 days after she was reported missing.

Tonight at 7:30, Woodhaven Baptist Church will host a candlelight service to mark the five-year anniversary of Whitaker's disappearance. Andrews will hand her speech over to her daughter Linda because -- like Christmases and birthdays -- talking at the service may be too difficult.

Andrews calls it a service of remembrance because she isn't sure if her daughter is dead or alive, she said. No one can confirm seeing Whitaker in five years, and so far there have been no traces of any Social Security or credit card activities, according to police.

"We want to remember her, pray for her and get her face back out there so others can look for her, too," said Andrews, who also is sending copies of her daughter's most recent photos to her 20th high school reunion this month. "We know it's been five years, but we're still hoping for more."

Andrews said she had a bad feeling only weeks after her daughter was reported missing.

"It wasn't like her to disappear," the mother said. "She has a large family, and someone should know where she is by now."

Last year, Rock Hill Police Lt. Jerry Waldrop said there might be a chance of Whitaker showing up in York County because she was last seen on I-85. Now he says nothing in the past year has led police to believe she was ever in the area.

Authorities in Spartanburg say the case has stalled there, too.

"I don't think we're getting any closer in this case," Spartanburg investigator Tom Smith said. "We need some new leads to come in, which takes some help from the community."

For now, all Whitaker's family can do is wait.

Tom Patterson, a preacher at Woodhaven, said the church is treating the entire family as part of its own, although some are not official members of the church. Woodhaven also supported Bruce Andrews, Whitaker's brother, when he returned from running convoys in Iraq two years ago.

That's what encouraged Laura Andrews to join the community in prayer tonight, she said.

Andrews expects the service to be "emotional, touching, beautiful and religious," but she also hopes it will be informative to the public. The most recent photos of her daughter will be displayed on a poster board and guests will be given white candles for prayer.

"Having a son at war and a daughter missing at the same time was like murder," Andrews said. "I hope the community and the church will come together again, this time to support Michele."