A Mother's Hope

Jana “Michelle” Morton finished every phone conversation with her mother by saying, “I love you.”

Sherry Cloninger clings to the sentiment because it’s been eight months since she’s heard those words from her daughter. Their last phone conversation ended that way.

Morton, who was living on Beale Road in Snow Camp, called her mother the morning of Feb. 13 with plans to visit her in Caswell County after Cloninger got off work that evening. Morton never showed up and no one has seen or heard from her since.

This week is Morton’s 40th birthday, but Cloninger has no reason to believe her daughter is still alive.

“I know Michelle never went more than two days or three days — if for some reason she was mad —without calling me,” Cloninger said. “I know she is not alive because of that.”

The Alamance County Sheriff’s Department is continuing to investigate Morton’s disappearance. She was last seen leaving Beale Road on Feb. 13 in a 1997 Dodge Intrepid. Police recovered the car in a Food Lion parking lot in Graham Feb. 27.

Investigators haven’t told Cloninger much, she said. But they did say that cadaver dogs, which are able to track dead skin cells, were put in the car.

“Two of them hit in the backseat,” Cloninger said. “That’s pretty much all they’ve told me.”

Authorities say they don’t know whether Morton is dead or alive.

“I don’t like to make that type of assumption,” said Randy Jones, sheriff’s department spokesman. “Every day that goes by we have a greater concern of that. We are not in a position to make that a flat statement yet, but every day that someone is missing there is a concern.”

There have been leads along the way, and there are still some authorities are continuing to investigate, Jones said. They also are awaiting results of a DNA test from 49-year-old Robert Mitchell Foust, a man considered a “person of interest” in the case.

A friend of Morton’s told Cloninger that Morton knew of Foust and might have known his name, but that was the extent of their relationship.

“He wasn’t someone she hung out with on a regular basis,” Cloninger said. “She knew him by face and name but that’s it.”

The last few years of Morton’s life were tough ones. She married Charles Morton in 1999. Michelle Morton had a daughter from a previous relationship, and she and Charles had a son together. Five years after they married, Charles Morton got sick with a virus that resulted in him having his left leg amputated. Michelle struggled with it. The couple eventually divorced.

She got involved in drugs. It was a difficult path but despite it, she remained close to her family, especially her younger brother and sister.

“I don’t care about the drugs,” Cloninger said. “Her family came first. A lot of things were wrong in those last years, but it never stopped her from being part of the family. That makes it really hard.”

Just four days before she disappeared, Michelle Morton had finished paying the price for one of her mistakes. She was released from North Piedmont Correctional Center for Women after serving less than two months for a drug paraphernalia and attempted shoplifting conviction she received in May 2008. Morton was originally placed on probation for the offenses but it was revoked after she was convicted of misdemeanor larceny and shoplifting in August 2008.

While in prison, she told her mother she wanted to get clean. They had a similar conversation on the phone the Friday she disappeared.

“She knew it was a long-term thing and she was willing to do it,” Cloninger said.

When Morton didn’t show up that Friday night, Cloninger wasn’t immediately worried. She tried to reach her on Saturday at Charles Morton’s house, which is where she was living, but Cloninger didn’t get an answer.

By Sunday, Feb. 15, she knew something was wrong. On Monday, Cloninger called Morton’s sister and she and her brother went knocking on Morton’s friends’ doors.

On Feb. 22, Michelle Morton’s 17-year-old daughter reported her mother missing to the sheriff’s department. Five days later, investigators received a solid lead when the white Dodge Intrepid was found.

Graham police were first notified about the vehicle abandoned in the Food Lion parking lot. When the sheriff’s department searched the car, a letter addressed to Foust was found in the vehicle, according to a search warrant.

Foust was traced to the Alamance County jail later that day. On Feb. 25, he was allegedly caught shoplifting $55 worth of ribeye steaks from Food Lion. He was searched and authorities allege they found cocaine and drug paraphernalia on his person.

Foust was charged with larceny, felony possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Foust was interviewed about Morton, and he was read his Miranda rights, according to the search warrant. But he hasn’t been charged with anything connected to Morton’s disappearance, although his involvement with her is still being investigated.

“He was in possession of the car,” Jones said. “He is a person of interest, certainly for that circumstance alone.”

Foust allegedly told authorities that Morton brought the car to him to have the axle replaced. Then he stopped talking and asked for an attorney, warrants state.

Authorities have since collected Foust’s DNA by means of a saliva/bucal swab. They also seized all of Foust’s personal property at the jail, including his undergarments. The sheriff’s department hasn’t received the results of those tests yet, Jones said.

Several violent crimes shade Foust’s criminal history, including assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, second-degree murder and six assault on a female convictions. In fact, during the sheriff’s department investigation of Foust, authorities learned of another alleged assault against a woman that took place in December 2008, according to a warrant.

Foust was charged July 17 with assault inflicting serious injury for allegedly striking a woman numerous times with a closed fist. The attack caused “busted blood vessels and bruising under eyes and on her nose,” according to the warrant.

He remains in jail under $23,500 bond.

Cloninger doesn’t know if Foust is responsible for her daughter’s disappearance. At this point, she doesn’t care. She focuses on one thing only: “I just want to know where she is at. I just want to get her home.”

Morton’s children, who live with Charles Morton, are struggling because their mother is gone. Her 17-year daughter doesn’t want to believe that her mother isn’t alive.

“She still kind of says that maybe she lost her memory,” Cloninger said. “I hope she’s right.”

The teen has created missing person posters. The latest one announces that the family and sheriff’s department are offering a $6,000 reward for information about her disappearance. The poster says that “Michelle is a mother of a 17-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy who miss her.”

While there is a shred of hope that Michelle Morton is still alive, Cloninger already accepts that it’s unlikely.

“I couldn’t wish this on the worst enemy in my life,” she said. “There is no moving forward or starting life over. … Every morning is the same thing. I sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee and sometimes I think that if I look at the door long enough, she’ll walk in. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I hope every day that I am so wrong. Right now, it doesn’t look that way.”

Cloninger still wants her daughter found.

“I drive to Burlington or Graham and I think and wonder if she is there,” Cloninger said. “I see a stretch of woods or a pond and wonder could she be there. It’s constant. It’s not just trying to accept the fact that she is gone. You just want to know where she is at. You just want to bring her home. I don’t want my kids to have to continue to live with it.”

When Morton’s white 1997 Dodge Intrepid was found, it had some damage to the hubcaps and steering. Cloninger wonders if anyone saw the car stuck somewhere before it was found on Feb. 27. She doesn’t know if anyone saw anything that could help the case. But if someone did, she hopes that person will come forward and give that information to the sheriff’s department.

Morton is white. She is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs about 115 pounds. Her hair is brown. Her eyes are hazel. She was last seen wearing a tie-dyed short sleeve shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes. She has a tattoo of a rose on her left upper chest.

Anyone with information can contact the sheriff’s department at 570-6313 or can give information anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 229-7100.

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