What happened to Celina Mays?

The smallest things remind Robert Benaglio of his half-sister.

Whether he’s out and about or just watching something at home, whenever he sees a picture of Barney, the titular character from the popular children’s show, he can’t help but smile.

“She used to like to sing the Barney song, changing the words to be humorous,” Begalio, 54, said, “because she thought Barney was stupid. So every time I see Barney, that’s what I think of.”

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the last time anyone’s seen his sister, Celina Mays. Her disappearance from her Willingboro home has at times gathered national attention and been the subject of conspiracies and accusations thrown between both sides of her family.

Celina was 12 years old when she disappeared. She was also nine months pregnant, just two weeks from her due date. After following hundreds of leads that have yet to bear any meaningful fruit, police are mobilizing efforts to get people talking about her again.

A poster from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows a photo of Celina Mays from around the time she disappeared from Willingboro at age 11, as well as an age-progressed image.

Celina Mays’ last night at home: Ice cream and thanks

“In 1996 we had limited resources to communicate with the public and inquire details regarding missing persons,” the Willingboro Police Department said in a statement. “In 2021 social media has evolved greatly and can now reach a wide variety of people quickly through many platforms. We are using social media to distribute information about Celina to raise awareness of her case. We are hopeful that social media will be a beneficial tool in finding new information about the disappearance of Celina Mays.”

The department has been working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) since 1996 to her find Celina, who would now be 37. Recently the organization has requested media circulation from Walmart, USA Today, Surfer Quest and FIA in multiple states.

Over the years, the case has been passed on to a handful of officers as a result of retirements. Still, Willingboro Detective Monica Pogorzelski said, enthusiasm toward solving it hasn’t wavered.

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“This isn’t something that just got pushed to the side,” she said. “It’s been continually investigated and whatever leads come up, we follow and go, go, go; and just nothing turns up of any evidentiary purposes to go farther.”

Celina disappeared Dec. 16, 1996.

After church that night, the family returned to their Crestview Drive home and ate ice cream in the kitchen. When Celina finished around 11 p.m., she kissed everyone good night and put her dishes in the sink.

Gospel of Christ church in Mount Holly, NJ on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

Gospel of Christ church in Mount Holly, NJ on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

All was as normal until, according to her stepmother Evette Mays, Celina said “thanks for everything.” The family may not have thought anything of it in the moment, but looking back, they saw it as her telling them goodbye.

Celina’s 4-year-old stepsister was sent to wake the teen for breakfast, but she found only pillows and sheets arranged to make it seem like she was still in bed. All of Celina’s personal belongings, like her purse and CD player, were left in the room. It appeared as though she left with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Disappearance conspiracy theories

It didn’t take long after her disappearance was reported for the speculation and theories to form.

One of the first angles police looked at was identifying the father of Celina’s child. Family members claimed she never revealed who got her pregnant. In fact, her father C.J. Mays said she became upset when she learned blood tests done on the baby could lead to the identification of the baby’s father. Mays said his daughter told him the father was 16 and not a member of their church.

In an effort to prevent certain rumors from spreading out of control, Mays submitted to the police that he had gotten a vasectomy years before. His doctor confirmed this.

Despite Celina’s age, the family objected to an abortion because of their faith. Amplifying the urgency to find her was the fact that due to her being so young, she likely wouldn’t have been able to perform a vaginal birth and would have needed a caesarean section.

Both sides of Celina’s family have pointed the finger at the other in search of her whereabouts. But that tension existed well before the disappearance.

Celina was born May 21, 1984 to C.J. Mays and Lynn Vitale. The three moved from Miami to Palmyra in 1986. When Vitale died in 1994 from an aneurysm, her maternal family attempted to gain custody of Celina citing Mays’ criminal history involving domestic abuse and drug use. He said he moved past that life after leaving Florida and finding religion in New Jersey. Mays was ultimately given custody and Celina moved in with him in Willingboro.

At the time of the disappearance, Cindy Cram, Celina’s maternal aunt, suggested that Mays’ family was hiding her and suspected foul play. His family, on the other hand, placed blame on the mother’s side of the family, alleging they took her either back to Florida or to Michigan, where they’re originally from, because they still wanted custody of her. Mays also believed the family didn’t like him because he’s Black and they’re white.

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Although she would love to see her niece again, Cram isn’t optimistic.

“My feeling about it right away was she’s not alive,” Cram said. “Sometimes, you go with your gut feeling. And I still don’t feel that she was alive. I think they shut her up.”

Cram points to concerns and controversies surrounding the Mays’ church, Gospel of Christ Ministry, which fell under scrutiny early in the investigation.

In 1991, Gospel of Christ was removed as a member church of Christ Gospel Ministries International of Jeffersonville, Indiana, a Pentecostal denomination of more than 1,100 members. This removal came after an investigation into claims that its pastor, Cerita Smith, C.J. Mays’s sister, ran the church with an “authoritarian style.”

Barbara Young, an attorney for the organization, said at the time they found Smith’s “philosophy of church leadership and her management of financial matters to be incompatible with our philosophy and policies.”

Gospel of Christ Ministry was the focal point of the Mays family. Many of the adults worked there; the children were homeschooled there; and it dominated their social lives. During the initial investigation into Celina’s disappearance, multiple members of the church spoke out and claimed that Smith controlled every aspect of the church and family.

Smith and Mays’ family provided little cooperation for the investigation, police said at the time.

C.J. Mays died in 2019. Other members of the Mays family could not be reached for comment.

Gospel of Christ church in Mount Holly, NJ on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

Gospel of Christ church in Mount Holly, NJ on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

Today, the church property on Washington Street in Mount Holly appears abandoned. Residents there say the building hasn’t been a house of worship in more than a decade.

One resident, who only gave the name Tina, said she remembers when the entire town could only talk about Celina and the church.

“The kids would play and I’d be like, ‘Don’t go down that way,'” Tina said while motioning toward the former church a few hundred feet away. “There was a lot of talk about the girl that went missing.”

Initially, Smith claimed allegations and suspicions were drummed up by former members who simply wanted to see the building fail. After speaking during the early phases of the investigation, Smith has rarely given statements to the media or police and denied police requests to search the home and church.

Officers were denied a warrant to search the Mays’ home, with a judge ruling they could be considered victims, citing Mays’ claims police demonstrated bias against the family during questioning.

One of the most promising leads came on Jan. 25, 1997 when the owner of a Sizzler’s location in Howell told police he saw Celina dining with a group. The girl, who came in with a pastor and several other people, including a photographer, didn’t appear to be pregnant, the restaurant owner, Narain Harpaul told officials.

Police followed up on the tip, but ultimately determined the girl was not Celina.

Police puzzled, but still working the case

The first weeks of the investigation turned into months and then years and now more than two decades. But the case isn’t bearing much fruit.

Two years ago, the Mays’s moved out of their Crestview Drive home, according to a woman who lives across the street from the property. She didn’t know the family or the case very well, but simply knew them as well as anyone would know their average neighbor. It’s not known where they reside now.

A neighbor identified this house in Willingboro, NJ as the former residence of the Mays family.

A neighbor identified this house in Willingboro, NJ as the former residence of the Mays family.

Police today are still as puzzled as they were the day she was reported missing; but continually-evolving technology may change that. Today, if she’s alive and if she successfully gave birth, Celina’s a 37-year-old mother with a 25-year-old child. An age-progressed headshot has been developed and distributed across the country, and police are hoping someone will recognize her.

Maybe someone will pass one of those flyers and wonder why their friend’s mother is reported missing; or maybe someone else will recognize her as a co-worker, not realizing they work the same shifts with someone who’s the subject of one of the most high-profile cold cases in state history; or maybe the rumors were true, and the 12-year-old known for being wise beyond her years had her life tragically cut short after she vanished without a trace.

Ahmad Austin Jr. is a lifelong South Jersey resident telling stories within the healthcare and cannabis industries for Burlington County Times, Courier-Post and The Daily Journal. For story tips, reach out at aaustin@gannett.com.

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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Willingboro NJ girl Celina Mays missing for 25 years