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Only on AP: Family – and journalist – rewarded with answers in 40-year-old cold case

Ruby Williams, second from left, talks about her missing daughter Brenda, with her other daughters, from left, Sandra Walker, Sharon Scott and Sheila Williams, as they hold a photo of Brenda, in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 23, 2017. After decades of waiting to know what happened to Brenda, Tampa Police officials told the family that they found a DNA match in a jawbone found in 1986. Brenda Williams, a young mother of two, went missing in 1978. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

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Resolving cold cases can be thankless work for law enforcement – and an endless emotional journey for the families affected. Tamara Lush used the lens of one Florida cold case, and the relatives of a long-missing woman, to give life to the backlog of such cases nationwide.

After the publication of her first big takeout on an exhumation in a cold case, Lush turned her attention to two sisters who played just a small role in that piece. Lush met the sisters of Brenda Williams at a symposium on cold cases. They’d attended on a whim and become convinced that one of the cases highlighted there was that of their sister,Brenda, who’d been missing for 40 years. Lush was struck by how emotional the sisters became when they saw a bust that so closely resembled Brenda.

Lush set out to tell the story of Brenda and her family – and whether relatives had truly found the answer to the mystery of their missing sister. Over the course of several months,Lush met with the family numerous times – she was with them every step of the way through the drawn-out process of DNA tests,results,periods of silence from police,the day they finally got some answers about Brenda,and the moment they shared that news with their mother. Lush and photographer Chris O’Meara captured these moments for all formats – text,photo,video. Even when it seemed the family would never get an answer,Lush stayed in touch, texting the sisters and reaching out to her contacts in the police department and the University of South Florida forensics department.

The story led engagement for AP on the day it published. It appeared on nearly 350 websites and had more than 4,000 engagements on Facebook alone.

Her persistence and patience with the family and all involved paid off – the narrative story,teeming with emotion and details,can’t be matched by any competitor. It led in engagement for AP stories the day it published,keeping readers’ attention for about 1.5 minutes. It appeared on nearly 350 websites in its abridged and longer forms and had more than 4,000 engagements on Facebook alone. The story earned a rare front-and-center spot on the Tampa Bay Times’ website and was featured in the print product the next day. Florida TV stations rushed to try to match the story for their newscasts in the following days.

For her Only on AP story that gave a face to the national backlog of cold cases, Lush wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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