Sauquoit, N.Y. - It's been 25 years since the search began for 12 year old Sara Anne Wood, but many say her legacy is that her disappearance has helped find countless other children.
Wood disappeared on August 18th, 1993 while riding her bike near the church where her father was the pastor, Norwich Corners Church in the Herkimer County town of Litchfield.
Lewis Lent, a janitor from Massachusetts and convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts, admitted to abducting and killing Sara Anne, but he never revealed where her body was.
On Saturday, Sara Anne's cousin, Cari Alukunois, was one of 40 bicyclists that rode in a Ride For Missing Children Commemorative Ride in Sara Anne's honor beginning at Sara Anne's school, Sauquoit Middle School.
Alukonis says the pain of what happened is still there for her family, "It just seems like it was yesterday that it happened, it's so vivid in your memory." Alukonis says this ride is truly very special to each and every rider, and every member of her family, "It’s kind of just remembering my cousin and it’s also remembering everything that’s happened after my cousin's disappearance. Thousands of children have come home because the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded. There are walks that were done, there were rides that were done, there are posters that have gone out, and all these children are home. And it makes me feel a little bit better being Sara‘s cousin to know that these people are home because my cousin went missing."
After her disappearance, Sara Anne's father, Bob Wood, established the Sara Anne Wood Rescue Center in Utica, creating a system to ensure that posters are distributed quickly when a child is missing. Then in 1995, two years after Sara Anne disappeared, a small group of local bikers decided to raise awareness about the Sara Anne Wood Rescue Center in our nation's capital. They rode their bikes from Utica, nearly 400 miles to the U.S. Capitol. The next year, the Sara Anne Wood Rescue Center officially became known as the Mohawk Valley Office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's New York branch.
Now the Ride for Missing Children is held, not only here in our area each year in late May or early June, but it's held throughout the year in communities all across the country.
Chip Hemmel is the president of Saturday's Sara Anne Wood Commemorative Ride Leadership Team. He says Sara Anne's legacy lives on every day, "Over 7,500 children have been reunited with their families because the Woods' decided to keep sending posters when Sara wasn’t going to come home, and it’s amazing how we taught children how to be safe, and we've been a lot of comfort to some families of children missing over the years."
Wendy Fical, Program Director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's New York office here in the Mohawk Valley says that more than 10.5 million posters of 11,012 children have been sent out through the targeted poster distribution. Fical says of those missing children, 7,524 children have been recovered, "Getting ready to come here, and on my way, I thought about her family and I also thought about all the other families that have had either a near miss that they thought their child was missing or that their child is missing and has not been found, and I can’t imagine that feeling inside. If it continues to be with them, we want them to know we will never give up, there is always hope and we are with them."
Fical says the legacy of this one child named Sara Anne has assisted in bringing thousands of children home safe, and she says the search for Sara Anne continues.