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‘Nightmare that never ends’: 20 years later, mother, son still missing

Police car with lights. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Mary McGrath and Mary Ramsbottom have had no answers for 20 years.

Twenty years ago, Oct. 13, 2002, Paula Wade, then 25, and her 3-year-old son, Brandon, disappeared.

Paula was last seen Oct. 12, 2002, leaving her job at the Sam’s Club in Valdosta.

On Oct. 14, 2002, McGrath and Ramsbottom received the call that Paula had not come into work and was assumed missing.

Twenty years. No answers.

For McGrath, Paula’s mother and Brandon’s grandmother, and Ramsbottom, her sister and his aunt, and other family, which includes brother Regis, that’s not only 20 years of missed holidays and birthdays, it’s 20 years each and every day.

“I was robbed of 20 years of growing old with my sister,” Ramsbottom said. “We were robbed of seeing Brandon grow up to become a man. In our minds, he’s still a 3-year-old wanting to play ball.”

Brandon would be 23 now. Paula would be 46 on Oct. 30.

“Just like it’s happened today,” McGrath said. “Even though it’s been 20 years, it never goes away. It’s a nightmare that never ends.”

Looking Back

McGrath and Ramsbottom spoke with The Valdosta Daily Times in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary.

The Valdosta Police Department still considers the Wades missing person case open but has publicly reported no new leads in years.

The details remain almost the same as they did 20 years ago.

Paula Wade moved to Valdosta with her husband. In the Air Force, he was assigned to Moody Air Force Base. They had their son, Brandon, but the marriage failed.

Brandon’s father is not a person of interest in the case, according to police in past interviews. He continued serving in the military and has served overseas, according to police.

By the time of October 2002, he was assigned to another military base out of state. Brandon’s father/Paula’s ex-husband has always cooperated in the investigation, according to the VPD.

Paula had worked a few years at Sam’s Club. She and Brandon lived with one of her friends in an apartment at The Commons. She drove a 1998 Chevy Blazer, according to family reports.

Paula was not known to be part of a party crowd, according to police. She was not a person to suddenly leave town. She was a good employee at work. She was making plans to move from Valdosta, returning home to her parents in Florida.

She contacted her parents regularly at least once a week. There is no known reason why she would feel compelled to suddenly disappear, according to police.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002, Paula worked her shift at Sam’s and was off the clock by mid-afternoon. That is the last time anyone reported seeing Paula Wade alive.

On Monday, Oct. 14, she did not report for work. Her absence concerned her fellow Sam’s employees. Twice, a Sam’s marketing team leader sent an employee to check Paula Wade’s apartment. There was no sign of Paula or Brandon, though her vehicle was parked in the lot.

Police describe her apartment as looking “lived-in” but there were no signs of struggle.

Valdosta police filed a missing persons report but neither Paula nor Brandon has been reported seen since.

Valdosta police have reported exploring numerous leads in the case.

On several occasions, cadaver dogs have explored wooded areas near the apartment complex, finding only animal bones.

Several years ago, a forensic anthropologist visited areas, providing pertinent information regarding topography, and other specifics, while formulating “what-if” theories.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have participated in the case. So have the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Polly Klaas Foundation and the National Center for Missing Adults.

But family members still wake each day wondering what happened to Paula and Brandon?

Looking for Answers

Somebody knows something.

McGrath and Ramsbottom have said that innumerable times.

“Somebody somewhere knows something,” Ramsbottom said. “I never thought I’d still be saying that 20 years later but somebody must know something. … We never thought we’d see a 20-year anniversary with no answers. Nothing.”

The Wades vanished before the era of social media.

Now, there are social media networks that help gather information as well as missing person support groups for families who have experienced similar losses and have similar questions.

“We did not have that network from the start,” Ramsbottom said. “It was just us.”

For many years, photocopied flyers that included photos of Paula and Brandon were regular sights on public billboards in Valdosta and Lowndes County.

Family members visited South Georgia to talk to people, to distribute flyers, to look for answers.

Mary McGrath and Mary Ramsbottom live in Orlando, Fla., but still periodically visit the Valdosta area.

In more recent visits, handing out new flyers, Ramsbottom said local people say they had believed the case had been resolved years ago. That Paula and Brandon were found. Some people, she said, thought the story had a happy ending and are surprised to learn the mother and son were never found.

“Every day, it’s a piece of you,” McGrath said. “Some days you have hope. You hear the stories there are people found alive years later but it is a perpetual loss.”

McGrath’s husband, Regis, died without having any answers several years ago.

“My husband’s up there, looking down and he knows something now, about what happened,” she said. “We used to say to each other, if you go first, give the other a sign. … Two months after he passed away, a detective called me from California. It didn’t lead to anything but I hoped it might.”

Always Looking

So the family keeps asking questions, keeps looking and keeps praying because they believe someone out there knows something and maybe this time that someone will come forward.

While the family asks what happened, people have several questions for family members.

“People always ask, How do you go on? How do you keep looking?” Ramsbottom said. “Why would I stop? I’m never going to stop, either to my last breath or until we have answers.”

Anyone with information may call the Valdosta Police Department’s investigation bureau, (229) 293-3145; or the VPD’s anonymous tip line, (229) 293-3091.


(c) 2022 The Valdosta Daily Times

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