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In memory of Ericka

Janice Collins holds a picture of her late daughter, Ericka Brair, who lived in Oxford Circle and was a Frankford High senior when her body was found on April 16, 2007 in a wooded area not far from Woodhaven Road in the Far Northeast.

Kevin Cook / for the Times

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When 18-year-old Ericka Brair left home early on March 16, 2007, and didn’t return, police initially suspected she was another runaway — a runaway of legal age, at that.

But Brair’s mom, Janice Collins, knew better.

It would take a month, but on April 16, 2007, Collins’ worst fears were confirmed. Brair’s body was discovered in a wooded area near the 2000 block of Kubach Road in the Byberry West Industrial Park. The young woman had been stabbed dozens of times and apparently dumped there.

Five years later, the slaying remains unsolved. Collins is renewing her public appeal for information that could help Philadelphia homicide investigators unlock the case and bring some resolution to a tragedy that will never be fully resolved for the victim’s loved ones.

“There is no closure. You’ll never get over it, but you will get through it,” Collins told the Northeast Times recently. “That was my only child. I’ll never have grandchildren. This is the end of our family. There’s no one left. It’s like we fall off the face of the Earth.”

On Friday, friends will have the chance to help Collins on her mission. The Justice 4 Ericka Brair fund-raiser will be held at St. Dominic’s Marian Hall, 8532 Frankford Ave., from 8 p.m. to midnight.

Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and include a buffet, drinks and entertainment. There will be door prizes, a “Chinese” auction and a 50/50. Call 215–531–3935 for information.

• • •

Brair was a senior at Frankford High School and an Oxford Circle resident. She had turned 18 three weeks before her disappearance.

The night before she went missing, she had visited the home of a friend for a small gathering, then returned to her own home on the 1400 block of Cheltenham Ave. at around 11 p.m. Collins and her life partner also lived there.

It was a Thursday night, but Brair didn’t have school the next morning. Instead, she was scheduled to appear at a court hearing for a man accused of robbing her and a male friend on a West Philly street several weeks earlier.

“She and her friends were going down to testify,” Collins said. “She kissed me goodnight at 11:30. She came into my room like she did every night. It was like her putting mom to bed. We chit-chatted and watched TV. I went to bed and she went to bed and that was it.”

Collins went to Brair’s room early the next morning to wake her up, but her daughter was gone.

“I thought she went outside to sneak a cigarette or went out to buy a pack. The only thing that wasn’t there were her purse, her keys and her phones,” Collins said.

Brair had one “chirp” phone to link up with friends and a second phone on her mother’s family plan, Collins explained. She left her phone charger behind, so Collins figured that she would return soon.

“Thirty minutes go by. Then forty-five minutes go by and I started riding around the neighborhood,” Collins said. “I went to her friend’s house where she was that night. I called a couple of her friends and nobody said they had seen her.”

When Collins last spoke to Brair, the teen hadn’t seemed overly concerned about testifying in court against the alleged robber, although a gun was involved in the crime.

“I asked her if she was worried about the guy and she said, ‘No, it was stupid. There were two of them, they took the money and ran off,’” Collins recalled.

Brair and her companion flagged down a police officer to report the crime. Police found the suspects and arrested them a short time later.

“She was the kind of kid if something was wrong, she would tell you,” Collins said.

• • •

After searching the neighborhood for Briar for about two hours, Collins went to the police station at Harbison Avenue and Levick Street to file a missing person’s report. An officer followed her home to inspect the girls belongings then explained that the case didn’t immediately qualify as a missing person situation.

Brair legally was an adult. There was no evidence of foul play. But Collins knew it was out of Brair’s character to leave without a word.

The mother and daughter fought sometimes, but they always worked it out.

“We never went to bed angry. I don’t think there was ever one time we held a grudge,” Collins said. “She saw too many of her friends have trouble like that.”

When she wasn’t home, Brair would call her mom to report her whereabouts or her grandmother to pass along a message to Collins. Brair had a close, positive relationship with her grandmother.

But she also had potentially unhealthy relationships, according to her mother.

“She was hanging around with kids I didn’t particularly care for,” Collins said. “I said (to her), ‘Watch out. You may not think you can be influenced by other kids, but you can be influenced.’”

Brair was strong-willed and a friend to many at Frankford High.

“They used to call her The Counselor,” Collins said.

Brair loved to watch the “CSI shows” and wanted to start a career in forensics. But she also wanted to be a bartender and wanted to pursue massage therapy.

“She and I had gone up to ITT for an interview for massage therapy (school),” Collins said. “That was probably the first (choice) because she was good at it.”

• • •

As the days elapsed, Collins continued looking and Brair’s natural father traveled to Philadelphia from Texas to assist. Collins didn’t hear much progress from the police investigation.

“I had a phone number for people to leave messages. If that phone rang, I dropped whatever I was doing. If somebody said she was somewhere, I was going (there),” she said.

“Some days, I’d get three, four, five calls; some days, one or two. I think half of them, the anonymous ones, were people who knew (something) and were giving false information.”

A man who works at a nearby building found Brair on April 16, 2007. In a later TV news interview, Detective Ken Rossiter of the homicide unit described her violent death, saying that she had 40 stab wounds, including what appeared to be “defensive wounds” of the hands or arms.

Phone records provided another important set of clues.

“We have some people calling her repeatedly after midnight (on the night of her disappearance) at her house,” Rossiter said on camera.

No messages were left for most of the suspicious calls, Collins said, but one unknown caller made reference to Brair’s imminent court appearance.

Detectives also believe that the body had been carried into the woods.

Collins noted that the condition of the corpse seemed to indicate a relatively recent death, compared to the length of time that Brair had been missing.

“Why was her body not deteriorated? It was (mostly) warm weather,” Collins said. “The day she went missing, there was an ice storm and the day before they found her body was an ice storm, but it melted quickly.”

Police did not find Brair’s identification or her two phones. An autopsy showed no illicit drugs in Brair’s system, Collins said, only prescription painkillers that she took for her back and an antihistamine.

• • •

The last time Collins had a fund-raiser for her daughter was in 2008. The family put together a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Since then, the city has posted a standing $20,000 reward for similar information in all unsolved homicide cases. Brair’s case qualifies for that, according to a police department spokeswoman.

Collins hopes to raise more on Friday night.

“I’m hoping that someone who knows something comes forward,” she said. “I feel this year something’s going to pop.”

She has many reasons to continue her fight.

“My number one thing is so they can’t do it to somebody else,” Collins said. “I belong to a group, Parents With Murdered Children. We don’t want new members, but we’ll welcome them with open arms and heavy hearts.

“I get pissed off at what they took from me and that she’ll never get to live her life,” Collins added. “She never got to go to her prom. She never got to go to graduation. She never got to have children.” ••

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