FEDERAL WAY — There’s hardly a day that Tracy Lyne doesn’t think about her sister, Katya Marie Lyne, who was 15 years old when she was last seen on March 21, 1997.

The sisters grew up quite close. Tracy was 5 when her parents brought home 3-month-old Katya, who was born in El Salvador.

“She was a little reserved, but once you got to know her you’d learn she had a wicked sense of humor,” Tracy said, recalling her sister’s playfulness.

Katya’s absence, and the not knowing whether she’s alive, has been the hardest thing to wade through, said Tracy, who is now 44.

Friends and family members gathered Saturday at a Federal Way alehouse to celebrate what would have been Katya’s 40th birthday. They shared stories and reminisced about the teenage girl who was at home in Federal Way one day and gone the next.

Katya’s case is still open, one of among 2,176 missing persons reported in Washington, a number that can fluctuate day by day, said Carri Gordon, the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit program manager. Katya (pronounced Ka-tee-uh) also remains in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children database.

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“Everything that could have gone wrong, did”

The night before she disappeared, Katya had an argument with her father, Pat Lyne, about missing class at Auburn High School, said Tracy, who at the time lived in Seattle.

When Tracy headed over to the apartment Katya had shared with her father after their parents’ divorce, her sister was nowhere to be found. None of Katya’s friends had heard from her. Three days later, the girls’ father killed himself.

His death, coming so soon after Katya disappeared, has led to a lot of speculation, Tracy said.

The family believes Pat Lyne had tried to end his life three weeks earlier when he was involved in a head-on collision with a semi-truck on Highway 18, only to walk out of the hospital on his own, Trudy Lyne, Tracy’s mother, wrote on Facebook in October 2021. He had lost his job at Boeing, had no savings, no car and his 27-year marriage had recently ended as Trudy Lyne was recovering from cancer.

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If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255); you will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. More info: suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Or reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling. More info: crisistextline.org.

“At the time, it seemed like everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong,” Tracy said.

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Even when Tracy called Katya’s friends with news about their father’s death, no one knew where Katya was, she said.

Police response

On March 23, 1997, the Federal Way Police Department received a report that Katya was missing, said Detective Lee Leddy, who was the original detective assigned to the case before briefly retiring in 2009. He returned to the department in 2014, rejoined the detective unit in 2018 and was eventually reassigned to Katya’s case.

Every runaway case merits attention, Leddy said, but there were red flags surrounding Katya’s disappearance, including her father’s suicide three days after her disappearance.

“From the moment it came to my desk it was more than just a runaway case, there was potential for more,” he said.

Investigators did not find any indication that Katya’s disappearance and her father’s suicide were linked, Leddy said. Police preemptively sent out five cadaver dog teams to search areas she frequented, Leddy said.

Detectives extensively interviewed family and friends and followed leads and any reported sightings, Leddy said.

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“I can’t tell you how many nights I spent driving the streets in Seattle or Tacoma, trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of somebody that was reported who might have looked like her,” Leddy said.

DNA testing technology wasn’t available in 1997, Leddy said. Once it was, DNA was extracted from Katya’s baby teeth that her mother had saved. The information was entered in tracking databases used to help identify remains found anywhere in the country.

In 2010, investigators asked a cold-case team of retired investigators from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to review Katya’s case to make sure they hadn’t missed a key detail.

But they didn’t find anything, Leddy said.

The center created an “age progression” photo of Kayta, speculating what she would have looked like at age 30. The center is now working on an updated age progression photo of a 40-year-old Katya, Leddy said.

Leddy has kept a close connection with the Lyne family, especially Tracy, who periodically calls for updates.

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“I am invested in this case. I believe that ultimately one way or the other, they’re going to get resolution,” Leddy said.

No concrete answers

Katya wasn’t one to just up and leave without telling a friend where she’d be, said Elisha Tubbs, who was close to her.

Tubbs joined Tracy in the search for Katya, which often extended late in the night and into “sketchy areas,” she said.

“This was before cellphones and before the internet really took off, so there was only so much we felt we could do,” Tubbs said.

Tracy made thousands of flyers and handed them out at large sporting events, went door-to-door, spoke to bus drivers and anyone she ran into in hopes that it would lead to some news about her sister.

Tracy felt she didn’t understand the police’s process and why, every time she called them, her sister was referred to by her case number. So she volunteered with the Federal Way Police Department’s missing-persons unit for a year in 1998, she said.

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“It’s the not knowing that is the hardest,” Tracy said, “because you don’t know how to grieve.”

Any loss is tremendously difficult, she said, but when a family knows where a loved one rests, they at least have a path to follow as they grieve.

Losing both her sister and father at the same time took a toll, Tracy said. The family wasn’t able to talk about the loss or possible connection between Katya’s disappearance and the suicide for at least five years. Even now it remains an emotionally sensitive topic, she said.

“I only had 15 years with her and I’ve had almost 25 without her,” she said. “It’s harder for me to remember the specifics. I wish I could hold on.”

Tracy moved to Oregon in 2000 in an attempt to keep her life moving, as she had become consumed with trying to find her sister, she said.

“I was seeing all my friends graduate … and it’s like I had to get on with my life,” she said.

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She stayed with some family, started attending college again and ended up working in the records department at the Lane County Sheriff’s Office. Leaving Federal Way allowed Tracy to restart her life but she finds herself often wondering what Katya would look like and what her family would be like if she were found to be alive.

“In retrospect, I wish I would have done a million things differently,” Tracy said, adding she still felt some guilt over being “unable to protect” her younger sister.

Katya’s mother noted in that 2021 Facebook post that she still believes her daughter is alive and left in a hurry because she didn’t take her shoe lifts, retainer or Social Security card.

“We hope Katya makes contact with us. We have always had hope, and I want her to be happy,” she wrote.

People with information about Katya or any missing person can contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline at 800-843-5678.