Anthonette Cayedito and an age-progressed image: photo FBI Missing Person Flyer


Anthonette Christine Cayedito

Born: 25 December 1976; Last seen: 6 April 1986

A child gone missing is the stuff that nightmares and horror films are made of.

But in the early morning hours of a Sunday in April, 1986 in a modest neighborhood in Gallup, New Mexico, someone came knocking at the door of Theresa “Penny” Cayedito’s home where she lived with her three daughters: nine-year-old Anthonette, seven-year-old Senida (aka Sadie), and five-year-old Wendy.

Anthonette, the oldest of the three was the biological half-sister of the younger girls, but in Penny Cayedito’s house, they were simply sisters, and like a lot of oldest sisters, Anthonette often helped care for her younger siblings.

Gallup, New Mexico

Gallup, New Mexico, with a current population of just under 22,000 lies along Interstate-40, twenty miles east of the Arizona border. Situated 185 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona, and 138 miles west of Albuquerque, it is the largest populated area between the two larger cities.

Situated just south and east of the Navajo nation, Gallup is home to a diverse population including members of the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes, and it was into this world that Anthonette Christine Cayedito was born on December 25, 1976.

The child of a Navajo mother and an Italian father, Anthonette was the cultural crossroads that is New Mexico made flesh. By all accounts, she was a warm and loving child who was well thought of by all who knew her.

Timeline of an abduction

Saturday, April 5, 1986

Before her life got turned upside down, Penny Cayedito was a social sort of person who liked to go out with her friends. This particular Saturday night was no exception, and she had gone to a popular local haunt called the Talk of the Town to meet up with and visit friends. Penny had returned home around midnight, sent the girls’ baby sitter home, and then spent the next two or three hours visiting with her daughters.

Despite living in a home with four bedrooms, mother and daughters often slept together in Penny’s room. Around 3:00 am on Sunday, as the impromptu family slumber party wound down, and they all went to bed.

A knock at the door

Penny and her youngest, Wendy, fell asleep quickly, but shortly after they had gone to bed for the night, Anthonette and Sadie heard a knock at the door.

They went to investigate, but when neither Anthonette nor Sadie recognized who was at the door, they did not answer it and went back to bed.

Some hours later, there was another knock at the door.

Sadie reported being awakened a second time when someone knocked on the door yet again. This time, Anthonette got up and checked while an exhausted Sadie stayed in bed and fell back to sleep.

What Sadie had not known, and what the five-year-old Wendy could not bring herself to share until questioned by police years later, was that Wendy had also heard the second knock at the door, and she had followed after, but not quite caught up to, her older sister.

What Wendy would finally tell police in 1991 when they came to her school to question her about what she remembered of that night was that when Anthonette asked who was there, a man’s voice answered, “Uncle Joe.” This prompted Anthonette to answer the door, and in the blink of an eye, two men grabbed her and took her out to a brown van.

That was the last time anyone who knew and cared about Anthonette saw her alive.

Sunday, April 6, 1986

When Penny Cayedito awoke at 7:00 am, just four hours after going to sleep, it was for the purpose of getting her daughters ready for Bible school.

Because Anthonette often took the lead helping to get the household ready, Penny was not initially alarmed when Anthonette was not in the room, but as soon as Penny realized Anthonette was not in the house, she expanded her search outward.

204 Arnold Circle #9, Gallup, New Mexico

Arnold Circle in Gallup, New Mexico, is a neighborhood of modest homes just off the historic Route 66, and also very near exit 20 along Interstate-40 putting it very near the border with Arizona.

Whatever flaws Penny Cayedito may have had as a person and as a parent, waiting for someone to do something was not one of them.

The search for Anthonette began as soon as Penny realized her daughter was missing; the help of family, friends, and neighbors was enlisted. It was an “all hands on deck” situation.

After four hours of searching the neighborhood and with no sign of nine-year-old Anthonette anywhere, Penny called the Gallup Police Department to report her daughter missing. To her horror, she was told she would need to wait eight more hours before they could take a missing person’s report.

Eight, incredibly long hours

Eight hours is a long time, and from Gallup , it would be easy to reach Amarillo, Texas to the east, Provo Utah to the north, Barstow, California to the west, and Vado, Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua to the south.

Whoever took Anthonette could be long gone with her before the police would even start to look.

And that is exactly what happened.

I know that times were different, but I don’t understand why would law enforcement wait 12 hours to investigate the case of a missing child who had no history of running away. It appeared that Anthonette had been abducted, and an instance like a missing child, time is of the essence. Even if she hadn’t been taken, even if she had simply wandered off or run away, she was nine-years old, and no matter how mature and responsible she might be, she needed help.

The FBI does not wait 12–24 hours to begin investigating a bank robbery; rape victims are not told to go home and shower and wash off as much evidence as possible before filing a report; robbery victims are not told to wait at home with the doors open to see if the robber returns the goods that were stolen; but somehow, it is expected that if a child disappears from home in the middle of the night someone is pulling something over on someone else, and the child doesn’t need to be looked for.

In 1986, law enforcement didn’t have the same investigative tools in their tool kit, but letting the kidnapper have a 12-hour head start makes it seem like they were throwing in the towel before the fight even started.

Unfortunately, it would take longer than it should have for the magnitude of what had happened in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 6, 1986 to sink in. Anthonette’s abduction was not a fevered imagining, it was real. By the time law enforcement started looking, there wasn’t anything to find, and far too soon, the trail went cold.

The phone call

About a year after her disappearance, the Gallup Police department received a call from someone claiming to be the missing Anthonette Cayedito. She said she was in Albuquerque, but before the police could get more information, a male voice interrupted, asking the caller:

“who said you could use the phone?”

Police in Gallup were then able to hear the ensuing scuffle followed by a scream. Then the line went dead.

All of this took just 40 seconds — not long enough to trace with the technology available in 1987 — and it didn’t bring the Gallup Police or anyone else closer to finding Anthonette.

When Penny heard the recording of the call, she was certain it was her daughter on the other end of the line, and that gave her hope that Anthonette would be found, but for four long years there was no more news.

Carson City, Nevada, 1991

Having no leads left to follow, the FBI created age-progressed images of Anthonette that showed how she would look at age 14 — the age she would have been in 1991 if she were still alive. The images were widely distributed, and as a result of seeing those photos, a waitress in Carson City, Nevada, contacted Carson City police to report an odd encounter she had had at the diner where she worked.

A rather unkempt couple had come int and had what appeared to be a rather slightly built teen girl with them. Throughout the meal, the girl would deliberately drop her fork onto the floor, and when the waitress would pick it up, and give her a clean utensil, the girl would squeeze the waitress’s hand. It wasn’t until later, however, when the waitress bussed the table, that she found a note under the plate where the girl had been sitting. It read:

“Please help me! Call the police!”

In the follow-up after this report, detectives went to the school Anthonette’s younger sister Wendy attended, and it was in their interview of the now ten-year-old Wendy that they learned she had witnessed Anthonette’s abduction.

With Wendy’s new statement in hand, detectives then investigated “Uncle Joe.”

At the time of Anthonette’s abduction Penny’s daughters did have an uncle named Joe. By 1991, he and Penny’s sister had divorced, but Joe had a solid alibi at the time of Anthonette’s disappearance, and law enforcement was able to clear him of any involvement.

It did however point to another truth: whoever had taken Anthonette had known the family well enough to use his name to get someone inside the house to open the door.

Who was Anthonette Christine Cayedito?

It would take years to come to the realization that Anthonette would probably never come home again, and in the intervening thirty-four years, her mother and father have passed away, never learning the answers to questions they had about their daughter’s abduction.

And her sisters have their own questions about what became of her.

Years later, Wendy, the younger of Anthonette’s two sisters who witnessed the abduction would recall:

The story I always heard was that Anthonette was like our mommy. — Wendy Montoya

But Anthonette wasn’t just someone’s sister or daughter, she was also her own person, and in addition to being super responsible and accomplished at a lot of things, she had also earned a Presidential Fitness Award at school. Having failed to ever do this myself, I could not help but be impressed at what Anthonette was able to accomplish.

I don’t doubt that she gave her kidnappers more of a fight than they had expected.

Thirty years later

For reasons that aren’t clear, the thirtieth anniversary of Anthonette’s disappearance elicited more response and reflection from law enforcment than any of the previous anniversaries.

Like the investigation into Elizabeth Smart’s abduction, the investigation into Anthonette’s disappearance did uncover other criminals, but unlike Elizabeth Smart, neither Anthonette Cayedito nor her body has been found.

Talk of the town

In the aftermath of her disappearance, Anthonette’s family became a topic of discussion.

Penny, who had previously been a social butterfly, found herself isolated and the object of a lot of speculation and gossip. In the world of the internet it is reported that soon after Anthonette’s disappearance, she got a new car, that she failed a polygraph, that she sold Anthonette into sexual slavery to pay a debt.

The accusations are endless.

There is also speculation that Anthonette’s father was involved in the world of drugs, but for the most part, the internet rumor mill has been a bit kinder and gentler toward him.

Wendy, the younger of Anthonette’s sisters, has shared that she was often maliciously teased at school about her sister’s disappearance. She says she responded by using drugs and challenging anything that there was to challenge, but then she managed to get sober, and her life took a long needed turn for the better.

Traumatic events can change us, and we don’t always get the opportunity to rise above the circumstances that lay us low.

Wendy, fortunately, was able to push forward and create a life for herself despite the detours and challenges.

Her mother, Penny, did not fare as well. She drank too much, had to be institutionalized on several occasions, and on April 18, 1999, at the age of 46, she died of a combination of cardiac and liver issues.

Larry Estrada, Anthonette’s father, died on May 4, 2012 without ever learning what became of his daughter.

Busting some myths

The failed lie detector test

There is no public report of Penny Cayedito ever having “failed” a lie detector test. In the only public statement on the topic was in an article published in the Albuquerque Journal on June 22, 1986, which stated that family members had undergone polygraph testing, and said “none of whom was withholding information, according to the results.”

Years later, Penny Cayedito’s daughter noted that she had been told her mother’s polygraph was “inconclusive,” and as any true crime aficionado knows, “inconclusive” and “failed” are not synonymous.

Also, there is a large body of evidence to support the observation that guilty people can pass polygraph tests while innocent people can fail them, and more than once a criminal passing a polygraph has led law enforcement to stop investigating the guilty party.

Anthonette ran away

Here is one instance where Penny Cayedito had a very clear observation to make. When discussing why she didn’t think her daughter had left of her own accord, she pointed to the fact that the day Anthonette disappeared was a chilly day, and her coat and shoes had been left behind.

When a child goes missing

While rare, stranger home abductions are not unheard of, and they are more numerous than I had realized.

If you have the misfortune of having a child taken from your home while you sleep, there is a good chance your misfortune will be compounded by the truth that many people will not believe you, and that disbelief will be transformed into innuendo, rumors, and straight up lies.

But it doesn’t really matter what you believe about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a child, this fact remains: the child is still in danger and needs to be found as soon as is humanly possible.

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart had not even been born when Anthonette Cayedito was taken from her house, but sixteen years later and 485 miles to the north of Gallup, New Mexico, Elizabeth would share a similar fate.

In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002, while her nine-year-old sister with whom she shared a room feigned sleep, Elizabeth Smart was abducted at knifepoint by Brian David Mitchell, a con-man and self-styled “preacher.”

Despite the fact that Elizabeth’s sister consistently and accurately told police what had happened, her testimony was often discounted while police tried to concoct a version of events in which Elizabeth Smart’s father was somehow involved. Had police listened to Elizabeth’s sister and more aggressively investigated when they were called to a public library in Salt Lake City to investigate a very odd looking trio, Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal would have been over five months earlier than it was.

The abduction of Isabel Celis

In addition to Elizabeth Smart and Anthonette, there is also the case of Isabel Celis, who in April of 2012 was taken from the family home while everyone else slept. While it is likely that Isabel had been killed by the time her parents realized she was gone, law enforcement wasted precious time thinking that a six-year-old managed to run away in the middle of the night with nothing but her pajamas.

We are fortunate that Elizabeth Smart lived to tell her story and that she has used the platform it has given her to advocate for those who have been taken. In doing so, she has wrested the narrative from the perpetrators and given the often overlooked victims a voice.

Thirty-four years later

The thirty-fourth anniversary of Anthonette’s disappearance recieved almost as much coverage as the thirtieth anniversary. The Los Alamos Daily Post, which bills itself as the “Official Newspaper of Record in Los Alamos County” and is a 230 mile and three-and-a-half hour drive from Gallup, carried a piece titled, “The FBI Continues Search For Anthonette Cayedito 34 Years After Her Disappearance In Gallup,” as did KOB 4 and KRQE 13, two television stations based in Albuquerque.

The FBI even posted a new video with an overview of the case and a message to the public from the FBI, The Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, and the Gallup Police Department, reminding people that they are still looking for Anthonette.

“Someone out there knows what happened to Anthonette, please call us.” — Frank Fisher, FBI spokesman

When Anthonette went out the door of her home she left behind her mother, her sisters, her father, her clothes, her stuffed animals, her bicycle, and an upcoming award from school.

She also left behind a thousand questions that have yet to be answered.


Albuquerque Journal

Arizona Republic

Associated Press

Durango Herald

FBI, Kidnappings & Missing Persons

The Gallup Independent

KOB 4, Albuquerque, New Mexico

KRQE 13, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Los Alamos Daily Record

NBC News

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