SUMMERFIELD, Fla. - For more than seven years, Cyndee Fox has been consumed with trying to figure out what happened to Lacey Buenfil, her son's longtime girlfriend and the mother to her three granddaughters.
"She deserves dignity and respect," Fox said. "She was a beautiful little soul."
Buenfil's daughters have lived half their lives not knowing what caused their mother to vanish without a trace.
Ruby was 5, Cloey was 4 and Haley was just 1 when their mother disappeared two days after Christmas in 2011.
Now, three Central Florida detectives are committed to finding out the truth about why this missing mother of three vanished.
"We're not going to quit," Detective Zachary Hughes, with the Marion County Sheriff's Office, said.
Hughes and Lake County Detectives Bud Hart and Dennis Bootle are working together to try to solve the mystery.
"We're looking at it from a totally different perspective (than) before," Bootle said.
Bootle, who spent 34 years with the New York Police Department, said he's solved his share of difficult cases.
He said all three of them are committed to getting answers for Buenfil's family, especially her little girls.
"Absolutely, that's why we're doing this," Bootle said. "She's a mother of three children. She's a daughter and she deserves everything we can do for her."
All three detectives admit that seven years ago, things may have been missed. Detectives in both counties conducted several searches in the woods, including Hart, who had just started working with the Lake County Sheriff's Office the week Buenfil disappeared.
"We dove lakes, we dove rivers, we've canvassed miles of wooded area, and nothing," Hart said. "But who's to say we were looking in the right place?"
They say they've also re-examined hundreds of witness statements from people who knew and talked to Buenfil in the days leading up to her disappearance.
"Unless they are a cold, calculated psychopath, their conscience has got to be eating at them," Hart said.
Hart said one of the challenges they faced was getting factual information from the group of people they were questioning.
"We're not dealing with people who have sound minds and memories, because they use drugs," Hart said. "And methamphetamine just pretty much destroys your brain."
Bootle said the community is close-knit and isn't willing to give up too much information.
The day she disappeared, Buenfil was caught on surveillance video with a known meth user in the area and the two were reportedly heading to the Ocala National Forest to party.
[PREVIOUS STORY: New search for missing mom Lacey Buenfil]
Deputies identified the man in the surveillance video as Terry McDowell, and classified him as a person of interest. But he died in 2013, with any secrets he may have been keeping.
"She left with him," Hart said. "He left a story behind that he last saw her walking down a dirt road."
But Hart said he never felt good about the story he was told.
"I just can't fathom a man letting a young woman walking down a dark, dirt road in a national forest," Hart said.
A lot has happened with the case in the past seven years. Both the detectives and Buenfil's family confirm people have died, lied and moved away.
“Somebody knows,” Fox said. “Five people have died that are directly involved in her case. They are gone. And the other people that know -- they need to step up.”
That’s why detectives are still digging and asking questions.
They've even recently interviewed people in prison, hoping to one day uncover the truth.
"Our end result is to bring Lacey home," Hart said.
Fox said that's her goal too. But she feels in her heart that there is no way that Buenfil will be found alive.
The family already has a headstone and a plot paid for, thanks to generous donations from the public.
"Her daughters wanted a place that they could go and visit and take flowers to and so we have that now," Fox said.
She offered the following message to anyone who knows what really happened to Buenfil:
"Set yourself free and just let us bring her home," Fox said.
Fox said that for two years she has been trying to get the presumptive death certificate, even though Buenfil hasn't been found.
She said the death certificate would help Buenfil's children finally qualify for death benefits, like Social Security money and access to Medicaid.
Fox said she reached out to lawmakers, lawyers and even the governor to try and get her hands on the important piece of paper. But she said no one would help, until News 6 got involved.
"I filed the paperwork. I paid the filing fees and I waited 14 months -- and still, never heard anything," Fox said. "I was actually told at the courthouse that I would not get a presumptive death certificate when I filed it."
News 6 contacted the state attorney's office in Lake County, which contacted attorney Nicholas Stack, who got the ball rolling.
Stack said the state attorney's office did everything they could to pave the way. Stack said what motivated him the most was getting answers for the missing mom's three little girls
"I'm just happy that I'm able to do what I was able to do here, and get this certificate for them so that they can get these benefits," Stack said.
Fox said the certificate brings them one step closer to closure, but said the family won't have total closure until they learn the truth, so they can get justice for Buenfil and her girls.
"We can't give up. We will never give up. And that's our motto: Never give up," Fox said. "We've got to bring her home. And I pray one day we will."
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