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Families are still waiting for an answer to what happened to loved ones

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Sometimes when the phone rings unexpectedly or the doorbell chimes at an odd hour, Mary Sorensen thinks it might bring the answer to the question she has been asking herself for 15 years:

Why did her daughter disappear on Oct. 2, 1985?

"I think you always wish (to know) that," the Roy woman says via telephone three weeks after the anniversary of Sheree Warren's disappearance. "You know, when you're not expecting the doorbell to ring."

Warren, 25, walked out of the Utah State Employees' Credit Union, where she was in management training, about 6:30 p.m. She was wearing black heels and a red and white striped blouse with a gold necklace. She had dark brown hair and hazel eyes, a chipped tooth and a subtle smile.

Authorities found her car a month later at a Las Vegas hotel.

"You feel about the same now as you did then," Mary Sorensen says. "Your feelings don't change a lot. It's still remorse and (longing) that things could be different."

Sorensen and her husband, Edwin, aren't alone.

There's a long list of Utah families waiting for explanations about where their loved ones are; men, women and children who have been gone for decades while police stare at their photos, sending them out every so often hoping for that one tip that will break open the case.

Their names and faces fill the online version of the three-year-old Utah criminal Tracking and Analysis Project, a crime-fighting team modeled on the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

Names such as Johanna Leatherbury, 18, who was reported missing on Aug. 21, 1971. Her nude body was found the next day near the Great Salt Lake. She'd been shot and sexually assaulted.

Or Valaine Briggs, 19, who was walking from home to the LDS Business College when she disappeared on May 5, 1977. Her nude body was found two days later in Lamb's Canyon.

And Bertha Hughes, 81, who was found dead in her Salt Lake County home by family members March 17, 1982. She had been sexually assaulted.

Their smiling faces stare out from the UTAP Web site, clothes and haircuts now far out of date. Two decades can do a lot to discourage families, cities, even the officers assigned to deliver justice and explanations.

And it would be discouraging, says Mike King, an investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office, if cases just like these weren't being solved nearly every day.

King points to cases such as that of Barbara Kaye Williams, whose nude body was found in Juab County on March 22, 1991. Last year, Williams' mother, who lives in Florida, contacted authorities because she was grew suspicious after not hearing from her daughter. Williams' husband confessed to the killing after being questioned.

Then there's 7-week-old Ian Wing, whose 1996 death was the first case solved by UTAP. In 1998, Ian's father admitted to King he'd squeezed the child to death to keep him quiet. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

"Time is usually an enemy in law enforcement, but sometimes it works to our advantage," King says.

He says advances in forensic technology during the past decade have made more evidence available in old crimes. For example, if physical evidence has been retained, it can be put through DNA testing now.

"I think the advances forensically that have occurred in the last 10, 15 years alone ensure that if police departments are in a position where they can take old physical evidence and run it through the forensics office, they would score a victory every now and then just based on that," King says.

Weber County Attorney's Office Investigator Shane Minor, the latest person to work on the Sheree Warren case, agrees.

"I think the technology does it," he says.

But it's not always the technology that gets confessions, King says. Sometimes it's a case of "telltale heart syndrome," when a person feels so guilty for committing murder that confession or madness becomes necessary.

"You see all kinds of problems," King says. "A person who was pretty much a normal person starts having to run from all the terror of the incident and starts committing other crimes." Other Utah investigators have similar tales.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Jerry Townsend, who heads the Leatherbury, Briggs and Hughes investigations, says one case his agency solved happened because the murderer kept bragging about the woman he killed. Bonnie Sievers Ryan, who was six months pregnant, was shot in the head as she climbed into her car.

Eventually, one of Michael Robert Jones' ex-wives told police of the crime. Nationally, the story is much the same.

New York City's cold case squad cleared 280 cases in its first three years. The Washington, D.C., cold-case squad closed 157 old homicides and several high-profile attempted-murder cases in its first five years. In Prince George's County, Md., police recently solved the 45-year-old murder of two teen-age girls. All of which means that one day when the phone rings, it might be the call Mary Sorensen has waited for as she watched her daughter's son grow up, as she and her husband had their girl legally declared dead and held a memorial service, as she watched every news report on every body found in Utah for 15 years and wondered if it could be her daughter. "There are those times that are bad," she says. "It being this many years, it's still hard ... but the right person might hear something someday."