Vigil held for slain teen as cold case warms up

COQUILLE — On the 10th anniversary of her daughter's disappearance, Cory Courtright led what she hopes will be the final candlelight vigil before the case is solved.

"I am a 10-year survivor of a parent's worst nightmare," Courtright said. "Who, in life, ever anticipates they would spend the latter years of their life searching for justice for one of their kids?"

Roughly 60 people attended Monday night's vigil, held in the parking lot of Coquille High School, where 15-year-old Leah Freeman had attended ninth grade. Under a thick cover of clouds, people sniffled and stood solemnly as Courtright shared memories of her child and thanked them for a decade of support.

To her right was a table with bouquets and three photos of Leah. To her left, a clump of pink balloons swayed in the night air. "If only I could go back in time," she said. "I want that one more kiss on the cheek. That one last goodbye. That one last 'I love you.'"

Leah vanished June 28, 2000, after leaving a friend's house. Her body was found 37 days later.

The case went cold until last week, when Coquille Police Chief Mark Dannels announced that investigators have a suspect. District Attorney R. Paul Frasier planned to present evidence and about 100 witnesses to a grand jury in the coming months.

Dannels, who attended the vigil, said he had resurrected the case when he came to the memorial last year, although Courtright didn't know it at the time.

"Hopefully, next year's vigil will have a lot of answers to you," Dannels said. "No matter what happens, we won't give up."

Courtright thanked investigators for not giving up: "My only wish is that you all could have known her."

Bending down behind the table, Courtright released two balloons into the air. The first, for Leah, she did alone.

For the second, she invited her friend Cindy Gisholt — the mother of murder victim Jayme Austin — to help.

Gisholt called Austin's two daughters forward, and the girls and women embraced as the balloon tumbled upward. At that moment, the cluster of pink balloons, intended to represent all murder victims, pulled loose from a bench and flew off.

"Bless your heart, Cory," one woman said.

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