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Thread of hope We just want these girls to come home

• Mothers of two missing teens endure a grueling wait for their daughters • Portland area parents worry about how to protect their kids

The prayer service for two missing 13-year-old girls at Oregon City Christian Church began with the message that the evening would not be a memorial; Miranda Gaddis and Ashley Pond would not be spoken of as if they were dead.

Instead, the girls were referred to in present tense during the two hours of prayer and song. The more than 200 friends and relatives in attendance were encouraged to have patience for a speedy resolution to the disappearances and hope that the girls could come home unharmed.

The Tuesday service marked two episodes in a recent string of Portland area events involving young girls Ñ chilling occurrences that have parents looking for assurance and a way to keep their own children safe.

A University of Portland student was killed in her dorm room in May, a 14-year-old Northeast Portland girl was killed on her way to school in December, and, earlier this week, there was a sexual assault and an abduction attempt in Canby.

'We don't seek closure here tonight,' said Jim Fenderson, church pastor. 'We are here to seek hope, peace and strength.'

His words comforted Michelle Duffey and Lori Pond, who share a painful bond: They're mothers of the girls who disappeared from the same apartment complex in Oregon City. The women sat apart during the vigil but briefly spoke and held each other.

'I know exactly what she's going through because I'm living it,' Pond said. 'I told her I'm here for her.'

Miranda disappeared March 8, almost two months to the day after Ashley vanished. The girls attend Gardiner Middle School, perform on the same dance team, The Fallen Angels, and were last seen by their mothers as they prepared for school. Both were headed to the same school bus stop, half a mile away from the Newell Creek Village apartments on South Beavercreek Road.

The FBI and Oregon City police have no suspects and few leads in the cases, which investigators think are connected. They don't think the girls ran away and are treating the search as a criminal investigation.

Deep down, Duffey and Pond share the hope that their children did run away, although they are the first to say the girls knew better. But they are coping with the loss of their daughters in different ways. Pond has sought a measure of privacy through the ordeal, speaking as little as possible to the media. Duffey, on the other hand, has been interviewed by morning news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, as well as local TV stations and newspapers.

Duffey, relatives say, pretends that she's speaking about someone else's child when she talks about Miranda. She numbly recounts the last time she saw her last Friday:

Miranda was awakened by her 11-year-old sister, Miriah Duffey, who usually leaves the apartment first for school. Miranda helped her mother find a hair clip. She told her she would be at the home of her dance coach, Sharonda Garrett, after school, which was to end early that day.

Duffey went to work. She had planned to watch Miranda's dance team practice at 3 p.m. at the school. But after school ended, a friend who was supposed to walk with Miranda from school to Garrett's house called to ask of Miranda's whereabouts.

Duffey called the school, which reported Miranda absent that day. Duffey then called the apartment, but Miranda wasn't there, either.

'That's when I started to get worried,' she said.

Duffey left work and drove to the dance team practice. When Miranda didn't show after a half hour, Duffey said she went to the police station.

Like most parents, Duffey had struggled to protect her child without stifling her since Ashley's disappearance. In the weeks after Ashley was reported missing, Duffey said she walked Miranda to a friend's apartment in the same complex at her daughter's request. Miranda was too scared to walk alone, she said, 'although she would never say it.'

She said Miranda usually walked with another friend to the bus stop, but the friend had recently moved out of the apartment complex.

'The first night we speculated she was with friends,' said Miranda's uncle, Wes Duffey. 'Now, we don't speculate.'

Miranda was actively involved in raising reward money for information leading to the resolution of Ashley's disappearance, even advocating the cause in an appearance on KATU-TV.

Ashley was last seen on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 9. Pond, a stay-at-home mom, woke Ashley and her two sisters in time to prepare for school. Pond usually walked the two youngest girls to the bus stop, or her fiance would drive them there.

Ashley is considered old enough to walk by herself to the stop.

Relatives say Pond, who is seven months' pregnant, is doing her best to get through each day without her oldest daughter, whom they describe as alternately boisterous and shy, depending on the company she kept.

She quietly celebrated Ashley's 13th birthday two weeks ago with relatives.

'We got together to comfort each other,' said Maria Harris, Pond's sister. 'There was no cake.'

After the prayer service, a group of young people gathered at the entrance to the church. Among them was Marissa Marquardt. Ashley used to go on vacations with Marissa and her family to the coast or to parks in Washington state.

Marissa, 13, held a candle, but couldn't stop crying long enough to talk about her best friend.

'Everyone is scared,' said Vickie Marquardt, Marissa's mother. 'We just want these girls to come home. We want them safe.'