Rows of prayer candles adorn a grassy median at Orlando’s Arden Villas, their flicker reflected on semi-deflated balloons tied to a nearby palm tree swaying in the night breeze.
The apartment complex where Miya Marcano lived and was last seen has turned into a sort of pilgrimage spot. One where family and friends congregate after helping local authorities search for the missing 19-year-old to join in prayer, offer words of encouragement, sing hymns and shine their cell phone lights in unison in an effort to illuminate a path back home.
Ms Marcano, a Valencia College sophomore, was last seen on 24 September around 5pm at Arden Villas, where she also worked in the leasing office. That Friday once her shift was over, she was meant to board a 50-minute flight to Fort Lauderdale to visit family but never made it.
On Monday Orange County Sheriff John Mina said Armando Caballero had gone from “person of interest” to “prime suspect”.
The 27-year-old worked maintenance at the complex, and was said to have developed romantic feelings for Ms Marcano which were rebuffed.
According to authorities Mr Caballero possessed a master key fob that allowed access to apartments, and it was used to enter Ms Marcano’s unit on the same day she disappeared. Following initial questioning, Mr Caballero was found dead by apparent suicide.
“I want to reiterate [that] Miya is still missing,” Sheriff Mina said during a press conference. “Her disappearance is suspicious, and our detectives and the family members, obviously, suspect foul play, so we’re still doing everything possible we can to find her.”
Pia Henry, the missing woman’s aunt, was among those present.
She described her niece as strong and a fighter. “I know you’re alive. I know you’re out there. We love you,” Ms Henry said, fighting back tears. “As soon as you’re ready, Miya, come, give us the sign and we’re right there, you know it.”
Violet Delville, Ms Marcano’s grandmother, also made a plea to the area’s Latino residents. “If you’ve seen her… please call the police,” she said in Spanish. “We love her a lot. Please help us find my princess.”
Ms Marcano’s family is working alongside the official law enforcement investigation with relatives searching woods next to the apartments and knocking on doors, hopeful for a clue.
Marc Marcano, Ms Marcano’s uncle, has been a driving force, sleeping in a car near her niece’s apartment and leading canvassing efforts.
“I need you to go door-to-door. Knock on the door, say her name, ‘Miya!’ [and] listen,” Mr Marcano told a crowd of volunteers gathered on Tuesday.
“Think about if you were kidnapped, what would you want to do?” he said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “If you’re handcuffed or tied to something in a room, you’re not going to be right next to the window, so you gotta listen for the faintest sounds.”
‘Our focus is on finding Miya’
With searches still going strong, a second press conference followed on Thursday.
Officials are deploying “all possible resources to find Miya,” Sheriff Mina said, adding that “hundreds of sworn and civilian personnel here at the sheriff’s office and beyond… working around the clock.”
A command post has been set up to handle leads and tips. A team of 60 detectives were exclusively assigned to the case and the FBI has been brought onboard to assist in the investigation.
Sheriff Mina said 30 searches have been conducted since Ms Marcano was reported missing across three counties — Orange, Seminole and Volusia — involving 175 personnel and a specialized K-9 unit trained in tracking “electronics, specifically cell phones”.
He said the department had ruled out the possibility of a kidnapping. “We believe that the suspect that we had named, Armando Caballero, is responsible. We don’t know all the circumstances involved in what happened there, but he is, obviously, or was, obviously, the prime suspect.”
Mr Mina reiterated that the department’s focus was “finding Miya”.
Following Thursday’s search efforts, which now included Ms Marcano’s family members from Los Angeles, New York, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands, another evening vigil was held at the Orlando apartment complex along with another 220 miles south at Pembroke Pines’ Charles W. Flanagan High School, her alma mater.
In Orlando, Ms Marcano’s grandmother, begged for “closure, regardless of what it is”.
“I don’t know what life would be for, never knowing where she is at,” Mrs Delville said, according to local station WFTV. “I just want her to come home,” she continued. “We are looking, and we will never stop, no matter what.”
The week concluded with another vigil at Arden Villas, where numbers had grown from a few dozen participants to a few hundred. A Catholic priest offered a Bible reading and prayed over Ms Marcano’s parents.
The gathering ended with family members asking those congregated to raise their phones in the air to light Ms Marcano’s way back home.
Instead of singing “Amazing Grace” like on previous nights, this time the family chose to play some of Ms Marcano’s favorite music including Nigerian rapper Lyrikal’s song “Cloud 9.”
As the lyrics,That’s why ah living for tonight / On cloud nine / Live it all could end tonight / On cloud nine, flooded the damp Florida air some of the crowd began to sway, a much-needed moment of escape amid a harrowing week.