PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. – It wasn't much as far as slim hopes go, but it was all that relatives of Bonita Sanders had to cling to for more than 22 years.
"I thought maybe she was adopted somewhere, you know, sold on the black market somewhere, and that we may never see her again but at least she'd be all right and happy," said her aunt, Danielle Dabney.
But that hope was dashed earlier this month, family members say, when prosecutors in southern New Jersey told them there is evidence that Bonita was killed and her body might have been buried in a wooded area a few miles from the home where she disappeared on Sept. 14, 1986.
The girl was three days shy of her second birthday and strapped into a stroller on the porch of her home eating an ice pop the last time anyone saw her.
According to news accounts at the time she went missing, the girl's mother, also named Bonita Sanders, told police her other children were playing outside while she made dinner, and that later she noticed the stroller was empty.
Dabney said the family has not heard from Bonita's mother in at least a week and doesn't know where she is. The Atlantic County prosecutor's office and local police departments would not discuss the investigation.
Investigators spent a second day Tuesday digging in a wooded area just off the Atlantic City Expressway in Pleasantville, a blue-collar suburb of Atlantic City. Cadaver-sniffing dogs centered on a specific area of the woods where authorities searched intensively with rakes and leaf blowers before bringing in a back-hoe to dig deeper into the frozen earth.
The search continued through Tuesday afternoon.
"They said they got strong evidence that the little girl is dead and that the person told them where to look," Dabney said.
Madelaine Vitale, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, would only say "there is an investigation in Pleasantville," declining further comment.
In an interview Monday, the girl's father, Abdul Salaam, also said authorities told him Bonita is dead.
"We have good information now that we know she is dead, and we're just trying to find the body," he told NBC 10 television on Monday. "I just want to know why."
The aunt recalled little Bonita, which means "pretty girl" in Spanish, as an inquisitive, adventurous child.
"She was such a sweetheart," Dabney said. "She couldn't walk or talk yet, but she was real playful. She had those adventurous eyes, always real alert. We were looking forward to her birthday party."
She said the family is devastated at word that little Bonita is probably dead.
"This has been our biggest fear all along," she said. "They just don't know how this tears a person apart.
"We just need justice now," Dabney said. "God has got us, and we'll be all right. God didn't bring us all this way just to let us down."