(A version of this column originally ran on May 26, 2017. It has been edited to reflect the passage of six years since it was originally published.)
This week marks a tragic 12th anniversary for the people of Saipan, the principal island of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) where I lived during my high school years.
Sometime between 6 and 6:30 a.m. May 25, 2011, Faloma and Maleina Luhk (pronounced “Luke”), ages 9 and 10, disappeared from the bus stop where they had been waiting to go to school.
May 25 was a Wednesday that year on Saipan, a 44-square-mile island — about 1/17th the size of Kershaw County — in the middle of the western Pacific Ocean. Despite being small and isolated, no one ever saw them again. No one claimed to know where they were or what happened to them. They just vanished.
The few clues turned up at the time only showed that they never made it to school, being marked absent for the entire day; a family member claims they already saw they were gone from the bus stop around 6:07 a.m. So, they might have disappeared during a very narrow 7-minute window.
In 2016, on the fifth anniversary of their disappearance, the Saipan Tribune wrote that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) still maintains an open investigation into the case. It still does today.
However, in all those years, not a single lead or tip has resulted in enough evidence to charge anybody with a crime.
On the other hand, when the Tribune interviewed the girls’ grandfather, he said local authorities provided the family with no updates or even told them if they’re still pursuing the case.
The local public safety commissioner claimed his agency was working closely with federal agents. Hopefully, that’s still true today.
In November 2016, the Tribune reported that the FBI released some photographs of what appeared to be a young girl, who, according to a witness, may have been accompanied by a white woman, inside a store on Saipan. The FBI released the photographs in hopes the girl might be either Maleina or Faloma.
Unfortunately, they released another statement a short time later saying the girl had nothing to do with the Luhk sisters.
The FBI released age progression photos in 2014 to show what they would look like three years after their disappearance. They did so again in 2016 to show what they would like at that point. Neither set of pictures have helped.
One of the prevailing theories about Faloma and Maleina is they were abducted by human traffickers. One of their aunts, a radio personality, is a member of the CNMI Human Trafficking Intervention Coalition.
Human traffickers, whether for sex, labor or both, are dismayingly slick at grabbing young people away from their communities. When I think of how small and isolated Saipan is, I figure only such criminals would have been able to get the girls off the island, as appears to be the case.
The girls were living with their grandparents at the time because their father was on Pohnpei and their mother on Guam.
At one point, a former firefighter, related to the girls’ family by marriage, was a person of interest in the case. He refused to take a lie detector test (as is his right) but was later arrested for domestic violence in California.
Authorities ruled out the girls’ parents and most, if not all, of their family. They believe Faloma and Maleina were abducted by someone outside the family. I think that’s why the human trafficking angle keeps coming up.
I keep hoping someone, somewhere, will have answers for the Luhk family.
In the meantime, there are so many other missing young people, both children and older.
I visited the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website. As of Monday, there are now 84 cases listed for South Carolina. That’s 30-plus more than what I noted when I first wrote this column.
Among them is Semaj Goodwin, of Camden, who went missing on March 7, 2021, and would now be 17 years old. Originally from Covington, Ga., Semaj was reported missing from his aunt’s here in Camden. At the time, he was described as being 5-feet 5-inches tall, weighing 100 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes.
Again, someone, somewhere has to know what happened. Let’s bring Faloma, Maleina, Semaj and all the others home.
Martin L. Cahn is editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. He welcomes responses to his columns and our editorials at firstname.lastname@example.org.