It’s been six years since Ria Sookdeo was snatched away from her family after dropping her children off to school in South Trinidad.
The family has spent thousands of dollars and days searching the most remote areas of the country for any sign of their beloved Ria.
Her father, Frankie Rajkumar, had hoped the passage of time may have dulled his pain, but speaking of that terrifying day still reduces him to tears. He looks on now as Ria’s children learn to navigate their teenage years without her but still clings to the hope that somewhere, his “little girl” is alive.
During a recent interview at his home in South Trinidad, Rajkumar showed photos of a young, smiling Ria, posing for the camera with her two brothers.
Framed photos of her at various stages of her life decorate the walls of the family home, turning their once-happy living room into a sacred shrine.
Reminiscing on her early years, Rajkumar said Ria was always adventurous and brave.
“She was in preschool and like the teachers weren’t observant because she left the school and walked out and went by her aunt. It was only when her aunt saw her, she asked ‘Ria, what are you doing here?’ that she called my wife and told her,” Rajkumar said.
That is just one of the many memories the grieving father holds close. He spoke fondly of Ria, at 16, determined to take a class in typing in San Fernando and Ria several years later, in love and giddy at the prospect of marrying her sweetheart, Mark Sookdeo.
He remembers in heart-breaking detail watching her learn how to be a mother and strive to be a business owner.
“She called and said, ‘Daddy, I want to build up a salon home here, you could help me?’” Rajkumar recalled.
He said he was all too happy to assist her and within weeks of her opening the salon at her husband’s Wellington Road, Debe home, she was being swarmed with customers.
“She used to work at another hairdressing place before she got married and people remembered her, so when she opened up again she got a lot of clients.”
And although she now had her own life, Ria remained close to her parents, often asking her mother to accompany her on shopping trips and assist her in the salon.
Life turned upside down
However, their carefully nurtured family dynamic suffered a devastating blow on September 22, 2016, when Ria was abducted by men outside her children’s Picton Village school minutes after she had dropped them off at school.
“I went to work one day, I was doing a tiling job for some people. I mix the thin set to start the job when the phone rang, my wife was on the other side telling me Ria had been kidnapped. I thought she was making some kind of joke, then she started to cry, it was then I believe what she was saying was true and it was serious,” Rajkumar said.
The days that followed were covered by the haze of grief that still lingers with Rajkumar.
“I never even thought something like this could happen to my daughter, never thought my family would be a victim of a crime like this,” he said.
Rajkumar said in the weeks that followed, his family was surrounded by police, the media, wellwishers and several conmen, who all claimed to have the “links” needed to bring his daughter home.
“One guy came, a church brother actually brought him here. He said he have links in the underworld and he would help to find Ria. One of my nephews was here and asked him what it would cost us, I remember this man saying ‘Is a life involved, this is not about money.’”
But the man’s actions would betray his true intentions within days, when he approached the family again, saying he had information about where Ria was being held.
“He said he need to get money to buy walkie-talkies and rent cars so they could go and get her, he wanted $10,000,” Rajkumar said.
Blinded by grief, Rajkumar agreed to hand the money over.
“He came here to collect it and when my nephew tried handing it to him, he stopped him and told us he wanted to pray with us first.”
The man returned days later, claiming he had found Ria alive and well but he could offer no evidence and he did not return.
Several years ago, Rajkumar learnt the man had been shot dead in a brawl at a bar.
“God works in his own timing,” he said.
That man was not the only one to exploit Rajkumar and his wife in their grief, as they quickly learnt that many were willing to come forward and offer their “services” for the right price.
No leads, no answers
But thousands of dollars later, the family is no closer to answers.
Rajkumar was also sent to various locations across the country after being told Ria had been spotted.
“A day someone said they went to a spiritual person who said Ria was being kept in the bushes behind the (Couva) Children’s Hospital. A whole crew of us went up there, men, women, children, we beat that bush for hours, even the security officer came out from the hospital and helped us,” he said.
On another occasion, Rajkumar was told Ria was seen in Cedros and yet another time in Venezuela.
All of those so-called leads led to dead ends.
“I sit here every day and imagine her walking into the yard, just coming up to me and saying “hello.”
His wife, who asked not to be named, sent out an emotional appeal to whoever may have information on her daughter’s whereabouts.
“Please, please, please, she has two children growing up without a mother, she is my baby, she is everything to me, please, please give me my daughter back,” she cried.
The elderly couple still holds on to their faith, both believing that one day they will learn the truth about what really happened to their only daughter six years ago.