Open Case Virginia: 10 years after disappearance, family of missing Halifax County woman continues search for answers
"See you in a minute" was Hattie Brown's way of saying "I'll see you soon."
For ten years, as the minutes have ticked away, Brown's sisters have wondered, anxiously, if they will ever hear her say that phrase again.
"It's not easy," said Brown's sister, Preteasta Barksdale.
No one has reported seeing Brown alive since May 16, 2009.
"You have happy days, sad days. You cry a lot sometimes," said Brown's sister, Diane Brown. "It hasn't been easy, but we're getting through it."
Getting through it by focusing on better times.
In Diane's living room, you'll find photos of Hattie in her military uniform. She served in the Army for 18 years.
"She was 100% military," Barksdale said proudly.
Hattie was a Sergeant First Class who served during Operation Desert Storm.
"She would always keep in touch," Barksdale explained. "Always write letters saying she was excited to come home."
Hattie finally came home for good in 1998, leaving the military to help care for her aging mother.
"It was fantasic!" Barksdale said of Hattie's homecoming. "My partner in crime was back! We would just call each other and, when I had my second daughter and I needed her to come up to Lynchburg and stay with the girls, she would come."
"She was a family person," Diane Brown said of her sister. "She loved her family. She loved her friends. There was nothing she wouldn't do for you."
Diane and Preteasta think their sister's generosity may have played a role in her disappearance.
In the days before she went missing, Brown's sisters say she was helping her nephew, Derek. The two were spotted together at a Sheetz gas station in the early hours of May 16, 2009. Surveillance cameras captured video of Brown and her nephew just after 2:30 a.m.
Brown's sisters say it was highly unusual for her to be out so late. They believe the only reason she would have been out at that hour was to help Derek, possibly because he called and asked for a ride.
"I think she did what anyone in my family would do. Go and help each other," Barksdale surmised. "I think when she got there, it turned out not to be what she thought it would be, but she went ahead and helped him with a ride."
After Hattie left Sheetz that night, she was never seen again. By early June, Hattie's family was working with law enforcement to find answers.
"At that point Virginia State Police had an administrative case open under just a missing person," said Special Agent Kevin George with Virginia State Police.
When Hattie was reported missing, George said investigators conducted interviews and collected evidence.
"We were going through the normal protocols of interviewing individuals that had seen her in recent days, recent hours," George said. "We checked into her bank account, to see if we could locate any activity.
Hattie's sisters say her wallet with all of her credit cards and driver's license was found at her house; concerning, they say, because Hattie would never leave home without those items.
Two months after she went missing, her Volkswagon Jetta was found in a field near Virgilina, Virginia, along the North Carolina border, about 15 miles from where she was last seen at Sheetz. The car was burned, inside and out, but there was no sign of Hattie.
Until that point her sisters believed she might still be found alive. After her car was found, their hope diminished.
"I know there will be an answer," Brown said through tears. "There will be an answer, so I hold onto that."
Family members believe some of the answers could come from Derek.
"I would still consider Derek Brown a person of interest," George told WDBJ7.
Brown is serving time in prison for a burglary and assault that happened in 2016. He's scheduled to be released in three years.
State police say other people, aside from Derek Brown, may know what happened to Hattie. Those people, according to George, have declined to talk.
"Throughout the investigation, that has been a roadblock," George said, commenting on the lack of cooperation from persons of who might have information about Hattie's whereabouts.
Just as they have for the past ten years, Hattie's sisters are praying those with information will come forward.
"All we need to know is what happened to her and her whereabouts," Diane Brown said. "That would truly be a blessing."
In 2016, seven years after Hattie disappeared, her family was faced with the difficult decision of having her declared legally dead. They held a memorial service for her, but that event offered no closure.
Closure, they say, will come when they find Hattie.
"I do know, one day, we will see her again," said Diane Brown. "If not physically, spiritually."