The saga of a missing Mesa woman screeched to a halt Thursday after she turned up near San Francisco and told police she wasn’t kidnapped, as relatives had feared.
Instead, 19-year-old Miya Lillie told police she had been working as a prostitute over the past few days in California while family and friends in Mesa joined in prayer, pleaded for help at news conferences and blanketed neighborhoods with "missing" fliers.
Police said Lillie first told a friend she had been held against her will and escaped Thursday morning from a Union City, Calif., motel after her captors fell asleep. The friend called authorities.
Later, police said Lillie confessed to leaving Arizona willingly — and to committing sex acts for money before she left. She was never held under duress, police said.
Several images on an escort service Web site show Lillie smiling and posing in suggestive positions for prospective customers.
The revelations shocked Lillie’s family and the 50 volunteers who searched for her. As for the news media, the twist was a sour conclusion to frantic coverage of the latest missing woman case.
Syndicated television talk show host Maury Povich and reporters from at least one local television news station were on their way to San Francisco before they learned they had been duped.
"I’m sure there’s some embarrassment," said the family’s spokesman, the Rev. Ivan Holmes of New Beginning Solid Rock Church in Mesa. "There’s certainly some grief and sadness. But there’s a lot of relief she is safe, and that’s the bottom line."
Lillie’s tale is similar to a recent story snatched up by television networks and cable stations nationwide: The infamous runaway bride.
Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared from her Georgia home this spring, four days before she was supposed to marry. The widely publicized search for Wilbanks ended when she called her fiance from Albuquerque, N.M., and claimed she had been sexually assaulted and kidnapped.
She later changed her story and admitted to police that she had run away.
Arizona State University journalism professor Stephen Doig said the news media can be quick to latch onto such stories. At first glance, they have all the elements of drama: An innocent female victim, an unidentified villain, potential violence and suspense.
Doig said there’s been a spate of missing whitewoman stories pursued by the media, particularly television news. He mentioned the recent disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba; the 2002 murder of pregnant woman Laci Peterson; and the 2001 case of missing Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy.
"It’s basically the ‘white woman syndrome,’ " Doig said. "On any day, there are probably hundreds of missing people — some of them who are white women and some who aren’t. We tend not to pay attention to some of them who aren’t young and attractive."
He said television news feeds off ratings, a measure of how many viewers tune in.
"They have to fight the battle of the clicker," Doig said. "That’s why on TV you’ll see a car chase in Iowa that has absolutely nothing to do with anything here. People will linger for a few more seconds — and that’s money to a TV station."
Since Lillie is an adult, authorities had to follow a different set of rules than if she had been 17 or younger.
For example, they could not use an Amber Alert to notify the public of her disappearance. Instead, Mesa police contacted the news media — although they were uncertain whether a crime had occurred.
Scottsdale Community College criminology instructor John Kavanagh said detectives face a quandary when young adults disappear. They cannot dismiss the possibility of an abduction, although they know that most missing adults leave voluntarily.
So, what to do?
Kavanagh said they typically open dual investigations, interviewing family and friends to check into both possibilities.
Mesa police Sgt. Chuck Trapani said his detectives are not ashamed of how they handled the investigation into Lillie’s disappearance.
"You can’t take the chance of not using every possible resource in finding somebody," Trapani said. "Heaven forbid, if this didn’t end up this way and she was kidnapped, and if we didn’t take those extra steps in trying to find her, it’s not good."
Regardless, Lillie and her family could face a backlash from members of the community and news media who feel betrayed.
Wilbanks’ hometown was outraged over her lie and demanded that she be brought to justice.
After pleading no contest to filing a false report, she was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $2,550 in restitution to authorities who searched for her. She also was ordered to perform 120 hours of community service.
Mesa police said the only charge that Lillie could face in Arizona is prostitution. But they said that would be difficult to prosecute.
The man who took Lillie to California was arrested by Union City police on suspicion of running from police. He could face charges because the other girl he was traveling with is 17.