The last time Cheryl Walker spoke to her daughter, on 5 November, she told 19-year-old Lateche she loved her.
“I love you more,” Lateche answered.
Those were the last words Ms Walker, from Indiana, heard her daughter speak before she disappeared.
Now Ms Walker and her husband – Lateche’s stepfather – have flown to California to look for the aspiring tattoo artist, a beautiful young woman described by her mother as “my sunshine ... this bright ball of energy.”
They’ve been in San Diego for nearly a week; Lateche’s father came too but had to return to Indiana.
Ms Walker’s voice breaks when she talks about the possibility of going home as well without Lateche as she speaks to The Independent on three hours of sleep from a hotel they won’t be able to afford much longer.
“We can’t stay here forever,” she says, but “I could fathom having to get on the plane one day [when] I still don’t know where she is and if she’s okay. And I will have to accept that, but I just can’t do that right now.
“I can’t leave ... even if I end up losing the childhood home that my mom just left me after she passed away, I don’t care – because there’s no optimism in looking forward to life after this if I don’t do everything I can for her right now.”
Lateche had gone to California with her boyfriend, Joseph Smith, 25, whom she’d met through a mutual friend in April in Indiana. Her parents weren’t thrilled when Lateche first brought him home and announced they were dating; not only was he older – Lateche only graduated from high school a few months after they met - but his behavior gave cause for concern. Lateche’s stepfather suspected drug use.
“He just had these mannerisms that, once you’ve lived a little longer, you can tell when things aren’t right,” Ms Walker tells The Independent.
She says Lateche “doesn’t have any prior experience with addiction in her family or anyone so grew up with ... she’s never used drugs. She wasn’t familiar enough with it to understand. She just thought he had a lot of anxiety.”
Early in the summer, however, the 19-year-old found out her boyfriend was an addict and gave him an ultimatum: Either they break up or he clean up his act.
He made an effort, it seems, and Ms Walker says he was flown out a facility in San Diego. He didn’t stay long, however, and began calling Lateche from California multiple times a day, which is when things really took a turn.
“She just said to me, ‘He’s going to end up killing himself, and I can’t live with that. I have to go out there because if I’m there he won’t do it,’” Ms Walker tells The Independent.
The Indiana mother had noticed worrying, controlling behaviour before; Mr Smith cut up Lateche’s ID, locked her out of her social media accounts and insisted on “phone-free” periods – classic signs of isolation often employed by domestic abusers.
Only now is Ms Walker finding out more about Mr Smith’s violent and tumultuous history; when he was 18, he went on a rampage with friends, vandalising 16 cars with a baseball bat and setting three cars on fire. He was sentenced to a year in jail, completion of a substance abuse programme and payment of $37,000 in restitution.
“To me, that doesn’t say teenage boys having fun; to me, that says rage,” Ms Walker tells The Independent.
She says she’s not sure whether Lateche was aware of that particular element of her boyfriend’s history.
“She’s not judgmental if you went and did something stupid,” Ms Walker says, adding that Lateche could have known and forgiven him because she was so enamoured of the older man.
“She told me the first time she saw him [that] she knew she was in trouble,” Ms Walker says. “He was just mesmerizing to her. We all know what that means when you’re a young girl.
“I think he could just do no wrong for a while ... we unfortunately didn’t make it to the point where she got sick of him before it put her in a jeopardizing situation.”
Ms Walker tells The Independent: “Normally, she’s very smart. She is highly intelligent. She’s very resourceful. She’s quick-witted. So these are things that you would think, knowing her personally, she would’ve seen [as] trouble from a while away. I know it just doesn’t work that way.
“It just takes a certain person and a certain situation and you’re just in.”
Lateche got to California on 1 November and, four days later, called her mother from a stranger’s phone, asking Ms Walker if she’d heard from Mr Smith. The teenager promised to call back the following day but never did.
Family and friends have been unable to reach either Lateche or her boyfriend since.
“I was very worried,” Ms Walker says. “I allowed her a bit of time and now I regret that. I waited another four days before I called the police department.”
She says she’s disappointed by the police response in San Diego and has taken matters into her own hands, working with advocacy groups and contacting the media. The media response to the Gabby Petito case and dogged armchair detectives fuelled her further; she’s disseminated flyers, which brought in scam ransom demands, which law enforcement warned her about.
She has been active on social media - in one Facebook post writing
“My daughter is just as important as Gabby Petito. As if what happened to that sweet girl wasn’t heartbreaking enough.”
Ms Walker reiterates that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t feel she was doing everything she can.
There have been sightings; she’s particularly worried that Mr Smith was seen on his way to Mexico – alone.
“It doesn’t take much more to put two and two together there on worst-case scenario,” she tells The Independent. “I’m just not going to stop until we find her, but I’m not going to be naïve.”
She adds: “For the most part, just survival mode’s kicked in. I’ve got to keep suppressing most of the emotion and stay in critical thinking mode so that I can be of use to my daughter.”