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 precious granddaughters.
In March, both a state and a Lake County judge ruled the family could file for a presumptive death certificate, something Fox had tried to get for months without success -- until News 6 got involved.
Fox said once she took a closer look at the fine print, she discovered an error. Fox said the state accidentally listed her son as Buenfil's father -- instead of the father to their three little girls -- and that error could have caused issues with the girls collecting any death benefits.
Fox said she contacted the state about the error and was told they would fix it and send a corrected copy. She said she waited six weeks before inquiring about the status. Fox said that is when she was told it had not yet been corrected.
Within days of her phone call, Fox said she finally got the corrected copy.
"She deserves dignity and respect," Fox said. "She was a beautiful little soul."
Lacey'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 1 year old when their mother disappeared two days after Christmas in 2011.
Now, three men are committed to finding out the truth about the missing mother.
"We're not going to quit," said Detective Zachary Hughes, of the Marion County Sheriff's Office.
Hughes and Lake County detectives Bud Hart and Dennis Bootle are working to solve the mystery.
Since News 6 broadcast their original story, Hart said they have received several new tips on their Crimeline and also had some sent into the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Hart encourages anyone who may have information to contact them. Callers can remain anonymous by calling 800-423-TIPS.
"We're looking at it from a totally different perspective before," said Bootle, who spent 34 years with the New York Police Department and says he's solved his share of difficult cases.
He said all three of them want to get results for Lacey'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 things may have been missed seven years ago. Detectives, including Hart, in both counties conducted several searches in the woods.
"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 said they've also re-examined hundreds of witness statements from people who knew and talked with Lacey 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.
He added that one of the challenges they faced was 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."
"That's a very close-knit community up there, and they are not willing to give up too much," Bootle said.
The day she disappeared, Lacey 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.
"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 Lacey's family confirm people have died, lied and moved away.
But these detectives keep 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
Cyndee said that's her goal, too. But she feels in her heart that there is no way that Lacey will be found alive. The family already has a headstone and a plot, all 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 has this message to anyone who knows what really happened to Lacey.
"Set yourself free and just let us bring her home," Fox said.
Cyndee said for two years she has been trying to get the presumptive death certificate, even though Lacey has never been found. But the death certificate would help Lacey's three children qualify for death benefits, like Social Security money and access to Medicaid.
Fox said she reached out to lawmakers, lawyers, even the governor, to try and get her hands on this 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, who contacted attorney Nicholas Stack, who got the ball rolling.
[FLASHBACK: New search for missing mom Lacey Buenfil]
Stack said the state attorney's office did everything it could to pave the way. But Stack said what motivated him the most was getting results 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 added the family won't have total closure until they learn the truth, so they can get justice for Lacey.
"We can't give up. We'll 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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