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Eileen Goetz graduated from El Molino High School in Forestville, married, raised two kids and worked more than 20 years in the grocery business.

The memories of her youth are clouded by the thought of two friends from Forestville who vanished without a trace as teenagers. As the decades wore on, months could go by without Goetz giving a thought to that mystery from nearly 40 years ago. But when she does remember, Goetz is haunted.

In mid-December 1978, Kerry Ann Graham, 15, and Francine Trimble, 14, disappeared, never to be seen again by friends and family.

Skeletal remains that would ultimately be identified as theirs were located the following July, dumped off the side of a rural highway in Mendocino County. But it wasn’t until late last year that their identities were determined through DNA, a link that authorities announced in a press conference early this month.

It remains unclear how the girls died, but investigators suspect foul play and are seeking breaks in the long-frozen cold case that they hope could lead to suspects.

Goetz, who was a schoolmate of Graham’s and hung out with both girls, remains troubled that no one at the time asked her whether she’d seen them and no one in authority told her or other students they were even missing.

“What breaks my heart is no one ever asked,” said Goetz, 53, whose maiden name was O’Halloran and who now lives in Santa Rosa. She said she may have had information that could have helped find the girls.

Other former schoolmates who knew the girls more casually first found out they’d gone missing this month when the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office revealed Feb. 2 their remains had finally been identified, found in the woods near a pullout along Highway 20 west of Willits. They were stunned they had not heard of the case sooner.

“How did we not know about this disappearance of two girls from very small schools and a very small town?” asked Kathy Culley, a Santa Rosa resident and classmate of Graham’s at El Molino.

“No one I have talked to can remember anything about the girls turning up missing,” said Ken Jones, a retired teacher who had taught both girls at Forestville School.

Today, when a juvenile is reported missing under suspicious circumstances, an Amber alert may be issued, photos are distributed to media outlets, advisories are posted on social networks and school staff and students are notified, if not interviewed. Had Twitter and Facebook existed in 1978, news of the Forestville girls’ disappearance no doubt would have spread like wildfire.

According to the girls’ family members, Trimble’s grandmother and Graham’s sister were the primary advocates for finding the teens, contacting law enforcement officials in multiple counties and states over the years. Trimble’s grandmother went so far as to contact a psychic to try and find them, according to the girl’s aunt, Madelon Johnson.

But some Forestville residents of that era, including teachers in town, don’t recall hearing about the girls’ disappearance. Newspaper archives in Sonoma County include no published reports of the girls having gone missing.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has declined to make the initial missing persons report available because the investigation is ongoing. But it was first reported as a possible runaway case in mid-December by Trimble’s mother to someone who worked at the county’s juvenile facility, said sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha. Law enforcement then contacted Graham’s parents, she said. The detectives who investigated the original case are no longer with the Sheriff’s Office, Focha said, and were not made available.

The resources at hand today for investigating cases of missing children did not exist in the 1970s, and authorities often took less extensive measures for children thought to be runaways. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children didn’t exist until 1984. The Petaluma-based Polly Klaas Foundation, which helps find missing children, arrived on the scene almost a decade after that, following the abduction and murder of the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who is the foundation’s namesake.

Cindy Rudometkin, director of the foundation’s resource department, said she’s not surprised that the two missing girls got so little attention at the time, especially if they were thought to be runaways.

“There probably weren’t a lot of resources” available for tracking down the girls, she said.

Even today, cases reported as suspected runaways don’t get much attention from law enforcement, Rudometkin said.

In 2014, there were 943 cases of runaway children in Sonoma County alone, she said. There were 83,850 runaway reports statewide that year, according to the Department of Justice website. Of those, 157 were reported in Mendocino County and 102 in Lake County.

It’s still largely up to family and friends to spread the word when a child is thought to have run away, but at least now there are more resources for them to do so through social media and organizations like hers and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Rudometkin said.

Accounts from the girls’ surviving family members paint a hazy picture of the time leading up to their reported disappearance and the aftermath.

Trimble’s parents and brother are deceased and Graham’s mother, interviewed for the first time since the girls were identified, said she cannot recall how the long-ago investigation into their disappearance proceeded or exactly when it began. But Margaret Graham thinks sheriff’s investigators believed at the time the girls left voluntarily.

“If a child didn’t come back, they assumed they ran away,” she said. “You have to remember how long ago that was. Kids were doing their own thing.”

Graham, 77, doesn’t think that was the case because her daughter was recovering from having her appendix removed and was still taking antibiotics. Trimble’s aunt earlier this month recalled in an interview her sister telling her at the time that Graham’s antibiotics were left on a dresser at her home, something she considered suspicious.

Graham doesn’t remember the date the girls vanished but believes they were out of school for Christmas break. She said she last saw them when they left her house, where she still lives, to go Christmas shopping.

Her son, Ron Graham of Utah, said during an interview this month that his parents may not have been as alarmed by the disappearance as some other parents might have been in similar situations. He said he ran away from home when he was 16 and his other sister ran away when she was 15.

He said his parents didn’t immediately tell him his sister was missing, instead waiting until they saw him in person a couple of years later.

Goetz said if anyone had talked to her in 1978, she might have been able to provide information that could have helped with the investigation.

She last saw the girls at El Molino High School one day that December. They had joined her and some other students that morning to smoke cigarettes in the parking lot near the tennis courts. Graham was a student at the high school while Trimble was in eighth grade at Forestville School. Neither attended school that day, Goetz said.

“They came to school. They didn’t go to class,” she said. “That was the last time we saw them.”

The girls said they were going to hitchhike to a party in Santa Rosa, Goetz said. She said she didn’t know who they were meeting up with.

“It makes you wonder, who were those girls partying with?” she said.

The girls asked whether Goetz wanted to tag along, but she said she declined.

Goetz said cutting school wasn’t unusual for her and her classmates, nor was hitchhiking. She said someone later told her they’d last seen the girls at the local Chevron gas station, where a packaging store now stands. It was a location from which teens often hitchhiked, Goetz said.

Chances are, they were picked up by someone who knew them, she said.

Forestville then “was a five-block town,” Goetz said. “If 10 people drove by, seven of them knew you,” Goetz said.

It also wasn’t unusual for kids in her crowd to take drugs, she said.

“We were out there in halter tops and high heels. We thought every drug given to us was a gift from God,” Goetz said. She recalled Trimble that day was wearing a fitted, calf-length denim coat that belonged to Graham. Both girls had been tomboyish, she said, but had recently blossomed and were enjoying newfound attention from boys.

Graham said she doesn’t know whether her daughter used drugs, but doesn’t think she did.

“They didn’t have a lot of money” to buy drugs, she said.

Graham said her daughter was happy and bright, but hadn’t thought much about her future. She was more interested in spending time with her friends, she said. Trimble was sweet and quiet, she said. Learning the girls are dead means she no longer has to question whether they’re alive. But that answer brings her no solace.

“I still always had hope,” Graham said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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