EVANSVILLE - Wherever Dawnita Wilkerson's family goes, people ask for updates.
They see the family wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Dawnita's face or spot the emblems on the car windows. They want to know the status of the case after the mother of six went missing.
But the family doesn't know what to say. Because they don't know how the case is going, either.
Members of Dawnita's family say they're having a hard time getting in touch with Evansville police more than two years after their loved one was last seen getting into a gray Chevy SUV at an East-Side Evansville motel on June 21, 2020.
Dawnita's aunt, Nora Martin, said former lead detectives on the case - there have been at least three main investigators over the years, the family said - would designate a contact person within the large family. That way, information could flow smoothly.
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Sometimes it would take a few days to hear back, but the family understood. They know detectives get busy with other cases.
Now even that communication has stopped, multiple family members told the Courier & Press.
"It would even be easier if they said, 'We're calling this a cold case and putting it to the side,'" Martin said. "At least then we wouldn't expect anything."
EPD spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Gray relayed a request for comment to Detective Aaron McCormick, the investigator assigned to the case. He didn't respond to the Courier & Press before publication.
Still, Martin and other family members - such as Dawnita's oldest daughter Kiahnna Wilkerson, her aunt Faye Cardin and her cousin Shalyce Martin - continue to field tips and rumors.
They have a map of the last times Dawnita's phone pinged to nearby cell towers. They plan community events, put up posters around town, maintain a GoFundMe and a Facebook (Justice for Dawnita), and are currently offering a $5,000 reward for information on their love one's whereabouts.
"We're still out there digging and looking and doing what we can as civilians, without overstepping boundaries," Cardin said.
The family believes Dawnita is dead, they've previously said, but they want the person responsible brought to justice. At the very least, they hope to keep her name fresh in people's minds, especially as the holidays approach.
Indiana is haunted with scores of missing persons. As of Monday, Indiana State Police's comprehensive list ran for 29 pages and listed more than 1,000 names. Some have been missing for days - others for decades. Through all that, it would be easy for the general public to lose sight of Dawnita's case. But that's something her family refuses to let happen.
"If you don't push to keep your own story out there, no one will," Nora Martin said. "They're on to the new thing and the old one is forgotten."
Details on Dawnita Wilkerson's disappearance
Here's how the FBI summarizes Dawnita Leauta Wilkerson's disappearance on its missing persons flyer:
"(She) was last seen on June 21, 2020, at 8:16 p.m., at a local Evansville, Indiana, motel getting into a silver/pewter-colored 2004 Chevy Suburban. … Her family reported her missing when she didn't call her mother or her daughters, as she usually did. Dawnita has several medical conditions that require medication that she is without."
She was 44 at the time of her disappearance. She is 5-foot-3 and has several distinctive tattoos, including a heart on her lower back and praying hands with the name "Timmy" on her upper-right shoulder, the flyer reads.
Photos from the motel's surveillance footage show Dawnita standing next to another man as she gets into the vehicle. From there, police believe she was driven into Southern Illinois. A map obtained by the family and shown to the Courier & Press shows Wilkerson's phone pinging in five spots in and around Carbondale just after she vanished.
"Dawnita's phone was shut off by the next morning," the flyer reads.
In a February 2021 news conference, since-retired EPD Detective Jeff Hands said police identified the owner of the vehicle, but the person refused to cooperate with investigators.
Around that same time, three people who knew Wilkerson told the Courier & Press she was "afraid for her life" in the days leading up to her disappearance. They said she received threatening messages from two men, one of whom she dated on and off for years. A friend, who asked not to be named, claimed Wilkerson called and said she was with the men the morning she was last seen.
In the years since, Dawnita's family said they've had run-ins with people they believe are connected with the case. They claimed a truck circled an event they planned and watched them from the windows. Someone also reportedly tricked business owners into taking down Dawnita's missing posters by claiming that she had been found.
Cardin believes someone even paid homeless people to swipe signs from yards and shops.
"That shows you they want you to stop looking," Nora Martin said. "That someone knows something."
The loss of a second family member
The family is hoping for any information they can get. They miss Dawnita terribly, especially around the holidays - and this year, the grief will be even worse.
Not only is it their third Christmas without Dawnita, but it's their first without her son, Kylar Wilkerson: a retired Army serviceman who was struck and killed by a car near his home in Tacoma, Washington, in February. He was 25 years old.
"It's a lot for us," Cardin said. "As a family, we help each other. But that doesn't mean it makes it easier for us."
Still, they cling to happy memories. When the family talks about Dawnita, they refer to her in the present tense, laughing and sharing stories. There were her random 4 a.m. phone calls; her thoughts on fights ("my hands don't discriminate - we fight girls and dudes"); and, of course, her cooking.
The last Thanksgiving before she went missing, she whipped up a notorious a batch of greens riddled with red pepper flakes. The spice "ripped people up," Nora Martin said, but now they're all trying to recreate the recipe.
The same goes for her broccoli salad, Cardin said.
"I think I've got it down how she used to make it," Cardin said. "But you cry when you're making it because it makes you think of her."
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Kiahnna was still in high school when her mom went missing - an age when it's easy to take your parents for granted. Now she wishes she would have said "thank you" more, especially when she babysits her sister's child.
"I always tell my sister, 'You have one. Imagine Mom with six,'" she said. "She always had us with everything we needed at Christmas, Halloween costumes, all of it. Every year."
Shalyce Martin wonders if they should start a support group for the loved ones of missing persons. Dawnita's family has repeatedly invited those going through similarly horrific ordeals to events, urging them to speak and share. Getting a response can be tough, but talking might get easier if you're surrounded by people who understand your pain, she said.
The more people talk, the more information they share. And the more likely it becomes that one crucial tip - that one key missing piece of evidence - comes to light.
Anyone with information on Dawnita Wilkerson's disappearance can call Evansville police at 812-436-7979, the FBI Indianapolis Field Office at 317-595-4000, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"They don't need to say hi, they don't need say what their name is. They just need to say, 'This is what I know and this is who you need to talk to,'" Nora Martin said. "We just want everyone to know she's still missing. She's still loved.
"We still need answers. We need help. We need someone to do the right thing."
Contact Jon Webb at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Evansville woman, Dawnita Wilkerson has been missing since 2020