ATLANTIC CITY — If there’s one person who knows what the loved ones of Nadirah Ruffin are going through, it’s Sheila Thomas.
“When I saw the news, I had a flashback,” Thomas said. “I felt (Nadirah’s mother’s) every pain. I really did.”
Sheila Thomas’ daughter, Sierra, was last seen Nov. 21, 2002, in the city’s Back Maryland neighborhood. The then-19-year-old mother of 4-year-old and 2-year-old daughters was a former student at Atlantic City High School and had briefly worked in two resort hotels. Her nickname since she was a baby was “Sweetie.”
On March 26, four armed suspects abducted Nadirah Ruffin, 19, the mother of a 4-year-old son, from a home on North Maryland Avenue. She was an Atlantic City High School graduate and once worked at a resort hotel. She has the words “So Sweet” tattooed on her neck.
Since Ruffin’s kidnapping was reported, police have maintained a high profile on the investigation, and the community has sponsored several vigils and rallies to gather information. A group of about 100 family, friends and residents have searched the area where she was taken as well as a Pleasantville housing complex and asked residents to supply information. She has not been found, nor have any arrests been made.
Fliers announcing Ruffin’s disappearance hang in grocery stores and convenience stores, office buildings and train station windows in the city.
“The only thing I’m happy about is this girl got a lot of support and people are looking for her, because we got nothing from anybody, said Sheila Thomas, 62.
When Sierra Thomas disappeared in 2002, the family became so frustrated with a lack of progress in the investigation that Sierra’s older sister, Stephanie Thomas, addressed City Council during its May 28, 2003, meeting to ask for help.
“She’s not a nobody. She’s a human,” she told the council members. “And if it was your relative, you’d want her found.”
Police have investigated but have made no arrests or located Sierra Thomas.
Feeling for another family
Stephanie Thomas and her mother have not reached out to the Ruffin family, but there is a connection. The 45-year-old said Nadirah Ruffin used to braid her son Brandon’s hair a few years ago.
“It brings back a hell of a lot of memories. From the moment I saw it on the news, I said, ‘Oh my God, are you serious?’ I went into my bedroom and broke down into tears,” she said. “I really feel for that family. I hope something happens soon, and they can get closure. We didn’t get it from my sister, and it hurts a lot.”
Stephanie Thomas said she prays for the Ruffin family and hopes to meet Nadirah’s mother, Fonda, so she can personally give her some support.
“I want to let her know I’m in the same predicament,” she said. “I’d love to see her face and give her a huge hug. She needs just what we need.”
Sheila Thomas also has noticed some similarities in the disappearance cases.
Fonda Ruffin said she received false leads from people that her daughter had been found less than a week after the abduction. Sheila Thomas said multiple people told her they thought they saw her daughter in New York and Philadelphia long after she disappeared.
“When I saw that, I said, ‘Oh Lord, that woman is going through the same stuff,’” she said.
The family returned to the housing complex on the anniversary of Sierra Thomas’ disappearance to talk to people and post fliers for a few years before they stopped when a resident complained. Sheila Thomas said she almost never goes by the location anymore; she feels unsafe around the neighborhood.
“I hope (Nadirah) serves as a reminder to people that closed mouths will get us nothing,” Sheila Thomas said. “Every time something happens, people say they didn’t hear anything. I don’t get that. Someone had to have seen something in the broad daylight.”
An unexplained disappearance
Sierra Thomas’ daughter, Saniyah Thomas, said she has few memories of her mother and wishes she could return home so they could do regular mother-daughter things.
“It feels sad inside,” the 13-year-old said. “I want to see her again. I want to be with her and talk to her and stuff.”
Stephanie Thomas drove Sierra to visit the father of her then-2-year-old daughter, Maeonnah, on the day she disappeared. The sister said she waited in the car for an hour and then went to a local check-cashing store to pay some bills.
“The last thing she said was she’ll call me when she wants to be picked up,” Stephanie Thomas said.
But Sierra never called. Eight and a half years later, the family still does not know what happened.
Sgt. Monica McMenamin, public information officer for the city’s Police Department, said the department is actively investigating the Thomas case and there has been no update since 2010. McMenamin did not discuss the case — or any similarities between it and Ruffin’s kidnapping — in further detail.
Meanwhile, the family has a new reminder of Sierra. Stephanie Thomas’s 7-month-old granddaughter is named Sierra Sahara-Thomas.
Sheila Thomas said it is unsettling not knowing what happened to her daughter, whom she described as a sweet kid.
“Every day it’s something that sticks with me,” she said. “She was mine. I wish I knew what happened to her.”
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