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What Happened to Pearl Pinson Remains a Haunting Mystery One Year Later

Vallejo teenager disappeared May 25, 2016, and clues to her whereabouts died with her suspected kidnapper, killed in a Solvang shootout the next day

A gold Saturn sedan driven by suspected kidnapper Fernando Castro is pursued by authorities on southbound Highway 101 north of Buellton on May 26, 2016. Castro was wanted in connection with the abduction of Pearl Pinson, a 15-year-old Vallejo girl, the previous day. Castro was later gunned down in a Solvang shoot-out with Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies.
A gold Saturn sedan driven by suspected kidnapper Fernando Castro is pursued by authorities on southbound Highway 101 north of Buellton on May 26, 2016. Castro was wanted in connection with the abduction of Pearl Pinson, a 15-year-old Vallejo girl, the previous day. Castro was later gunned down in a Solvang shoot-out with Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

A year after a Bay Area teenager’s alleged kidnapper died in a Solvang shoot-out, the girl’s whereabouts remain a mystery as her family fights to ensure she is not forgotten.

May 25 will mark the first anniversary of 15-year-old Pearl Pinson’s mysterious disappearance while on her way to school in Vallejo. Witnesses that morning reported seeing an armed man dragging a bleeding and screaming Pinson off a freeway overpass near her bus stop.

An Amber Alert was issued and, a day later, authorities spotted the car of her alleged abductor, 19-year-old Fernando Castro, traveling south on Highway 101 north of Los Alamos.

A chase ensued and, after exiting the freeway in Buellton, Castro exchanged fire with Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies who had cornered him in a Solvang neighborhood. He died of gunshot wounds at the scene.

So the man with the answers is dead, and Pinson’s whereabouts still are not known. All of it adds up to continued anguish for her family and friends.

Each month, on the 25th, the tight-knit group — joined by complete strangers — has participated in prayer vigils and walks to ensure people don’t forget Pinson’s plight.

“It’s honestly hard for us each day because we don’t know where she’s at, or even if she’s OK,” said Rose Pinson, her 18-year-old older sister.

“It’s hard for our family because we don’t have the answers that we need.”

Thousands of fliers and banners have been distributed throughout California in an effort to bring Pinson home. Rose Pinson has made multiple posts on social media sites centered on her missing sister.

“When I wake up until the time I go to bed, I’m always on it,” she said. “Always.”

People can help by sharing posts and distributing fliers, she said.

“If you see somebody who looks like her, call somebody and let them know,” she said. “Anything can help.”

On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, Pinson’s family will gather for a prayer gathering at her favorite spot: the Vallejo Little League baseball field.

A reward poster for missing Vallejo teenager Pearl Pinson has been distributed throughout California. The man who allegedly abducted her was killed in a shoot-out with Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies in Solvang. Click to view larger
A reward poster for missing Vallejo teenager Pearl Pinson has been distributed throughout California. The man who allegedly abducted her was killed in a shoot-out with Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies in Solvang.

“The family’s done a pretty good job in keeping her name out there,” Solano County sheriff’s Detective Sean Mattson said.

“At this point, it’s just keeping her name out there and, hopefully, somebody sees something, or knows something, and then contacts us and we can follow up and try to find her.”

Pinson has not been seen since 7 a.m. May 25, 2016, when Solano County sheriff’s deputies responded to reports of gunshots fired on a pedestrian overpass.

A witness reported seeing the girl, with blood on her face and yelling for help, being pulled by a man with a gun. Investigators later found what appeared to be blood on the ground at the scene.

The Amber Alert identified the suspect’s car as an older model gold Saturn. Just after 3 p.m. May 26, a California Highway Patrol officer spotted the vehicle near Los Alamos and gave chase.

The driver got off the freeway in Buellton and headed east on Highway 246 into Solvang. After crashing the car into a barricade near Rancho Santa Ynez Mobile Estates in the 100 block of Val Verde, the man shot at pursuing deputies and broke into a mobile home as the resident fled, uninjured.

About 4 p.m., the suspect stole a pickup truck from the neighborhood and started driving back to Fjord Drive, where he again exchanged shots with authorities before slumping over the steering wheel.

Castro was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds inside the stolen truck.​

Seven sheriff’s deputies were placed on administrative leave following the shootout. The District Attorney’s Office analysis of the shooting is pending.

“We have so many mixed emotions about this because, one, he had answers and the police knew that,” Rose Pinson said of Castro.

“Two, unfortunately he did get what he deserved. But at the same time, it should not have been right away because of my sister and her whereabouts.”

Pinson, who would now be 16, is described as a 5-foot-3 white female, with brown hair dyed green and green eyes. She has a lower lip piercing and was last seen wearing a gray sweater and black leggings, and had a black and turquoise backpack.

Thanks to a donation, a $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to her whereabouts.

Months after her disappearance, investigators have not found any prior connections between Castro and Pinson.

“Going through her phone and his phone they found nothing at all,” Rose Pinson said. “No contact, no social media information, nothing that they knew each other at all.”

Mattson agreed.

“It’s just a mystery as to why her,” he said. “There’s just no connection.”

Although investigators have exhausted prior tips, they continue to chase new ones and review old information. Mattson said he recently received a photo from a woman who thought she had seen the girl in Fontana. It turned out it was not her.

After the alleged abduction, investigators determined that Castro apparently drove to Sonoma County. The next morning, he was seen at a gas station in Bodega Bay.

“I believe he went up there,” Mattson said. “I just don’t know precisely where he may have taken her.”

In the days after the kidnapping, the search centered on Jenner, a rural coastal village near the mouth of the Russian River, but there was no sign of Pinson.

Tests later revealed that tiny drops of blood found in the trunk of Castro’s car belonged to Pinson, her sister said.

Investigators don’t know if they’re looking for a live victim or a dead one.

“I hope she is (alive),” Mattson said. “I don’t have evidence that’s she’s not. I think as time goes on it seems less likely.”

While he believes it’s important to hold out hope that she is alive, he said it’s also important to be realistic.

“His whole response to everything indicates he did something pretty severe,” Mattson said of Castro.

Rose Pinson said she suspects her sister is in the possession of human traffickers, contending young girls who get taken end up forced into prostitution.

“I’d rather have my sister in sex trafficking and alive than somewhere dead,” she said. “That’s my hope.”

But Mattson said no evidence exists to support the sex trafficking theory. There’s also no evidence anyone else was involved.

Why Castro headed south remains unknown, but he reportedly previously lived in San Diego and has family there.

The man had a minimal criminal history, but nothing that suggested stalking or similar crimes, Mattson said.

Castro’s family has been “more cooperative than I could have expected,” he said.

“They just were also very blindsided by it,” he said. “They’ve expressed a concern and a desire to have Pearl found as well.”

Pinson, the middle of three children of Joyce Mitchell and James Pinson of Vallejo, is described by her sister as honest and who loved to surround herself with friends.

“She was a tomboy, but also a girly-girl type of person,” Rose Pinson said. “She loved to skateboard all the time. She was an amazing artist. She just looked at a picture and she’d draw it right up.

“She loved to go to the beach all the time,” she added. “She was always outside. If she wasn’t outside she didn’t feel complete.”

Doing hair, makeup and manicures were favorite pastimes, she said.

“If I was able to talk to Pearl, I’d tell her that I love her and to stay strong and that I will find her,” Rose Pinson said, her voice breaking with emotion.

Usual steps taken to solve similar investigations have not panned out for this case, Mattson said, adding that his agency wants to find Pinson “very badly.”

Anyone who thinks they have spotted the girl is asked to call 9-1-1. Anyone with a tip in the case is asked to call the Solano County Sheriff’s Department at 707.421.7090.

“It’s going to take a community effort,” Mattson said. “That’s what it comes down to. Someone’s going to have to know something and then I can do all the legal legwork I need to do.

“Someone’s going to have to crack the door open a little bit so we can open it up.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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