On this Memorial Day, the FOX 5 I-Team investigates a missing Georgia sailor and his mother's 23-year wait for answers.
Montryce Mitchell disappeared from his aircraft carrier in 1992. The Atlanta man had a history of going AWOL, but it's his mother he left behind who is the true casualty on this patriotic day.
"When I come home, every day I say honey, I'm home. Yeah. Everyday." And with that, Minnie Mitchell looks down at her hands, knowing that no matter how many times she greets her son in her tiny Atlanta home, he will never greet her back.
Instead, he's just a memory and a mystery that's another year older.
"If Montryce was alive, he would have called me," she says firmly.
Montryce was clearly a momma's boy. Minnie's only child. A single parent who seemed to be doing ok raising a boy in Atlanta until he hit high school.
And then got busted for drugs in the late 1980s.
"The ultimatum was... look, you either got to find you somewhere else to live, or you go to the military. To help get some discipline. That was my purpose for sending him to the military," she told FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.
"You wanted to get him some help."
"I tried. I tried."
She tried. At first, she says, Montryce seemed fine. His recruiting class graduation picture shows him holding the class flag.
He sent her a clock from Africa. A cat figurine picked up in Egypt. Mom saved every one of his letters.
"So you really were a proud mom," Randy pointed out after thumbing through another box of letters.
"I loved my child. That's all I had," she remembered.
Still, the homesick teen ran up mom's phone bill with constant collect calls.
Montryce went AWOL for the first time in March, 1992. The Navy caught him. Two weeks later, he disappeared again, eventually showing up at Minnie's house in Atlanta. His house. She turned him in.
"I let them know he was a deserter," she says.
On December 9, 1992, Montryce found himself back on the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier 24 hours off the coast of France in the Mediterranean. He failed to show for muster, the daily report for duty. Investigators could find no body, no leads.
Twenty-three years later, the Navy still lists Montryce Mitchell as a deserter, despite what his closest relative believes.
"When I accepted the fact that my child was gone, I knew then," said Minnie. "I've accepted that because I just can't see him being somewhere and not calling. I can't see that."
Could Montryce have somehow jumped ship, gotten back to the French shoreline and still be alive today? That would assume a kid who grew up on the streets of Atlanta, who didn't speak a lick of French and who didn't have much money at all could still figure out how to melt into the French Riveria with the Navy actively searching for him. Jason Bourne maybe. But this isn't Hollywood.
A spokesman for the Navy's investigative branch, NCIS, told the FOX 5 I-Team "there is no evidence that Montryce Mitchell is still alive."
Navy records reviewed by the FOX 5 I-Team provide no solid leads for what happened to Mitchell. Three years ago NCIS performed a DNA swab test on Minnie to see if Montryce's DNA was listed in any government database, including prisoners and unidentified bodies. NCIS got no match.
In November, 2013, NCIS requested the Navy change his status from deserter to deceased. But the Navy has made no decision. After our calls, NCIS did remove Montryce from their official website of missing persons.
Bite six "Twenty-three years is a long time to everybody but a geologist, ok?" said Steven Shewmaker, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in military legal issues. He is not representing Ms. Mitchell.
He says Montryce's mother can petition a county probate judge to declare him dead since he's been missing for more than minimum four years under Georgia law.
"Personally, my heart goes out to her. And I wish her the best," said Shewmaker. "That really is the only remedy she has other than to continue to ask the Navy for updates."
Minnie tried hiring an attorney, but says no one would take her case because the Navy still considers Montryce missing, a fugitive from justice.
"That's my only child. I'm his mom. I was his sister. His big brother. His favorite cousin. You know? I was the one he talked to--" Minnie's voice trails off.
"You think if he were alive today, he'd be writing you."
If he were alive today, Montryce Mitchell would be soon celebrating his 44th birthday.
On this Memorial Day, also remember the family members who wait 23 years for an answer. Any answer.