ST. LOUIS – Elizabeth Ann Gill was 2 years old when she disappeared from the front porch of her family's southeast Missouri home in June 1965. Her family always believed she was snatched and, 45 years on, the FBI has reclassified her case as a kidnapping and reopened the investigation.
Until last week, authorities considered Gill's disappearance in Cape Girardeau a missing child case.
Rebecca Wu of the FBI office in St. Louis said Thursday that the agency officially reclassified the case on Friday, but would not say if there was any new evidence.
Relatives and friends have refused to let the case die, hosting vigils, balloon launches and other events in Beth's honor. About 100 people gathered Saturday to mark Beth's 48th birthday.
Her sister, Martha Gill Hamilton, 60, said she remains hopeful Beth is still alive.
"I think somebody picked her up, someone who wanted a child, or (who) picked her up and sold her," Hamilton said. "I don't think she wandered off."
Beth, the youngest of 10 siblings, disappeared on June 13, 1965. Police and more than 200 volunteers searched for her for days.
Some wondered if she fell into the Mississippi River near the family home. Hamilton said that was unlikely because the toddler would have had to cross streets, railroad tracks and make her way down a bluff.
It was a close-knit neighborhood, Hamilton said. Anyone seeing Beth wandering alone would certainly have taken her home.
Roger Graham of St. Louis, a family friend who has been part of the fight to keep the case open, said four Gypsies were in the city at the time of the disappearance, staying at a motel directly behind the Gill home and selling purses in the neighborhood. Some suspected they may have abducted the girl.
Graham said he was able to find the name of a Gypsy woman who was part of the group, and authorities have tracked her down for an interview. Wu declined comment.
"I believe absolutely she's alive," Graham said. "I believe this is much bigger than Beth Gill. There are other missing kids about that same time frame. I think human trafficking was much bigger back then than people suspect."
Hamilton said her parents always suspected Beth was kidnapped. Her father, who died in 1970, wrote letters to President Lyndon Johnson in the years after her disappearance, urging him to direct the FBI to investigate it as a kidnapping. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote back, essentially saying the bureau's investigative options were limited unless there was proof of a kidnapping, such as an eyewitness.
But Wu said today's FBI takes a far different approach.
"The policy and guidelines for missing children have changed," she said. "Whenever a young child goes missing, it is presumed the child has been abducted until we investigate and it is proven otherwise. That's because if a young child really is abducted, time is critical."
The loss of Beth haunted the family, Hamilton said.
"It was devastating," she said. "You see your siblings cry, you can deal with that as a child, but to see your parents heartbroken is just devastating."
Now, Hamilton said, there is at least hope for resolution.
"Our expectations are that we're going to have answers, and whatever those answers are, we're going to accept," Hamilton said.