Police suspect foul play in case of missing South Seattle woman

The check sat for two days, then the Seattle-area pastor became worried.

It was routine for Nicole Cearo to pick it up from him, a family friend who routinely held the checks at the start of each month. He called her cell phone. It went to voice mail.

The checks remain, but Cearo has disappeared.

Nicole  Cearo
Nicole Cearo

It's been nearly a year since anyone has seen Cearo alive, when she was picked up from King County Jail on March 30 by a man with whom she had a history of domestic violence, police say.

Sometime after her disappearance, police believe that man admitted killing her.

"She put her hands on me," he allegedly told an associate, according to police documents. "See if they find her ass in Seward Park."

On Sept. 5 -- four days after police investigators learned of the alleged statement -- they teamed with King County Search and Rescue. Cadaver dogs searched the park, and police looked for a body in the water.

The all-day effort found nothing, but police didn't publicize details. The man who allegedly made the threat -- the same person who investigators were told picked her up from jail the last time she was seen -- didn't know about the search, and police didn't want the case to be jeopardized.

Investigators trying to find Cearo checked all police, jail and Social Security databases. The Social Security data track employment. But police found nothing.

They called her cell phone. It went to voice mail.

Most phone numbers found for her family were disconnected, and messages left by seattlepi.com at one that wasn't went unreturned. Attempts by a reporter to reach Cearo's mother at her last known King County address also brought nothing.

Now, Seattle police say the case has gone cold.

Cearo, 20, spent part of her childhood in Chicago, living in a drug- and gang-scarred housing project. At 9, she attended an anti-violence program at the Yesler Community Center and told a Seattle P-I reporter she'd already seen stuff beyond her years.

Court documents show Cearo had a minor police record, starting in 2007 when Sea-Tac police cited her for driving without a license or insurance -- the first of two such tickets. Later that year, police said they found the 18-year-old with alcohol.

She was investigated for attempting to elude an officer and added in a stolen vehicle case, but charges were not filed in that case.

In February 2009 -- a little over a month before her disappearance -- landlords at the Coronado Springs Apartments in the 10600 block of 14th Avenue Southwest filed an eviction notice, saying she owed $828.

On March 28 of that year, a South Precinct officer responded to a shots fired call in the 9000 block of Seward Park Avenue South, looking for a white car with five people.

Cearo and four others were in a car matching that description, the officer wrote in an incident report. Police ran her name and learned she was violating a no contact order -- one involving the man who picked her up from jail the day she was last seen.

She was booked into jail for violating the order.

"It should be noted that (the man) and Ms. Cearo had a history of domestic violence against each other," homicide Detective Earl Kasner wrote in court documents.

The man is not being named by seattlepi.com because he has not been charged in connection to Cearo's disappearance.

He was arrested for auto theft after she went missing, and in a jailhouse interview "stated that he had not seen her since (March 30) after he picked her up from the King County Jail and had been looking for her as well," according to police documents.

Prosecutors have called that man a career criminal and convicted felon with 33 known arrests and at least 42 warrants. His conviction history includes assault, theft, harassment, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.

Police said he was one of the five people in the car stopped that night in Seward Park, but he wasn't booked. The next time he was at jail, police said, he was there to pick up Cearo.

Detectives investigating the case learned they had shared unit 819 of the Coronado Springs Apartments , and when the man returned after King County sheriff's deputies removed their belongings because of the eviction notice, Cearo was not with him.

Two sets of detectives heard an associate of the man say he admitted killing Cearo. Now police aren't sure if the man was talking about park or the surrounding neighborhood also called Seward Park.

"Evidence suggests that Ms. Cearo has been a victim of foul play, and all other attempts to locate Ms. Cearo have been exhausted," Kasner wrote in police document. Of 21 Seattle homicide cases -- which doesn't include Cearo, though police presume she's died -- six have been confirmed domestic violence cases.

By the time she was reported missing, Cearo had missed a court hearing in the domestic violence case, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Believing she was a homicide victim, police received a search warrant for Cearo's phone records, but found no strong leads. They're hoping a tip -- even an anonymous one -- could help bring closure.

"If anyone has information about this incident or who may know the identity or whereabouts of the suspect," Seattle police spokesman Jeff Kappel said, "they're asked to call 911 or Seattle police immediately and refer to this incident."

Anyone with information, including those who want to remain anonymous, can call CrimeStoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS. For information on texting a tip, click here

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