Celina Mays went to sleep around 11:00 pm on Sunday, December 15, 1996. The 12-year-old had been in a good mood when she headed off to bed and there had been no indications that anything was troubling her. When her stepsister went into Celina’s bedroom to wake her up on Monday morning, however, she was nowhere to be found. She never returned to her Willingboro, New Jersey home and she was never seen again.
Celina lived with her father, C.J. Mays, as well as her stepmother and several other relatives; she had moved in with them two years earlier after her mother died. It had been a big change for Celina; her father’s side of the family was deeply involved with the Gospel of Christ Ministries, and after C.J. obtained custody of Celina, he took her out of public school and started homeschooling her. There had been many complaints made against the church by former members who accused the organization of brainwashing, but Celina’s family insisted she had no problem with being raised in the church and wouldn’t have run away because of their strict religious beliefs.
At the time of her disappearance, Celina was heavily pregnant and just two weeks away from her December 29th due date. Despite her young age, Celina had been doing everything she could to ensure she had a healthy pregnancy. She regularly saw her obstetrician and never missed a dose of her prenatal vitamins. Although she refused to tell anyone who the father of her baby was, she told her obstetrician it was a 16-year-old boy who was not a member of her church.
It appeared that Celina had willingly left her home; she had stuffed some of her pillows underneath her blanket to make it look as if she were in bed sleeping. She didn’t take any of her belongings with her, however; her purse, clothing, favorite CD player, and her prenatal vitamins had all been left behind. On Tuesday, C.J. called the Willingboro Police Department and reported his daughter missing.
Investigators interviewed all of Celina’s relatives but none of them were able to shed any light on where she might have gone. They checked with area hospitals in case she had suddenly gone into labor and called various teen pregnancy clinics and shelters. None had any record of Celina.
Three weeks after Celina was last seen, detectives made a public appeal for information about her whereabouts. They noted that she should have had her baby by then, but they had been unable to find any evidence that she had given birth in New Jersey. Willingboro Police Capt. Gregory Rucker said that he wasn’t sure if Celina had been a victim of foul play or not. “Right now, we’re not ruling anything out. We’re not quite sure what the scenario is.”
C.J. believed his daughter had run away from home because he had threatened to have a paternity test done on her baby once it was born so he would know who the father was. He told reporters, “I’d like someone to call, that’s all I ask. I want to let Celina know her dad is concerned and whatever it is you want, we’ll support you.”
Willingboro Police Detective John Sweeney admitted that he was worried about Celina. “It’s kind of scary for me. I’m hoping that she’s safe, but I don’t know. It’s just not normal. She disappeared and nobody knows anything. I would assume a 12-year-old kid would certainly call home over Christmas.” He didn’t think that Celina would have been able to disappear without help. “It’s almost like she had somebody waiting for her to take her away.”
Celina had relatives in Michigan and Florida, but none of them had heard from the girl since she went missing. Cindy Cram, one of Celina’s maternal aunts living in Tampa stated, “If she’s alive, she needs to know her mother’s family wants her and her baby, no questions asked.” Cindy noted that Celina’s mother and father hadn’t been on good terms and no one from the maternal side of her family had any contact with her since she went to live with C.J. two years earlier.
Celina’s half-brother, Ben Benaglio, lived in Dryden, Michigan. He had tried to stay in contact with Celina after their mother died but had been prevented from doing so. “Her father won’t let me see her. He won’t let me talk to her on the phone.”
C.J. and Celina’s mother, Lynn Vitale, were never married and their relationship was tumultuous. C.J. claimed that Lynn’s family refused to accept him because he was black, while Lynn’s sister, Cindy, said C.J. referred to them as “white demons” and had no interest in getting to know them.
C.J. admitted that he was no angel; he had been in and out of jail when Celina was younger and both he and Lynn had abused alcohol. C.J. had been violent towards Lynn and the couple eventually decided to go their separate ways. When C.J. fell behind in his child support payments, Lynn had cut off his visitation with Celina. He ended up moving in with his sister, Cerita, and becoming involved in her church. He claimed this helped him turn his life around.
Lynn died of a brain hemorrhage in May 1994, and Celina’s aunt and uncle tried to obtain custody of Celina. Cindy noted, “When my sister died, her and Celina were alone…[C.J.] was nowhere to be found. He surfaced after my sister was d*ead for three weeks and he wanted Celina.” A bitter custody battle followed, with the court eventually awarding custody to C.J., who Celina hadn’t seen in years. C.J. refused to allow Celina to have any contact with her mother’s relatives. They didn’t know she was missing — or pregnant — until police contacted them.
C.J. was still living with his sister when he got custody of Celina and he had no plans to move out and get a place of his own. Celina moved into a house already crowded with relatives; in addition to her father and stepmother, her aunt, uncle, and five of their children — four teenagers and a 23-year-old — all lived there.
Celina’s life with her father was centered around the Gospel of Christ church in Mount Holly; Celina’s aunt, Cerita Smith, was the pastor of the church, her father was the bookkeeper, and her stepmother was the church secretary. The church was small, with around 30 members, and it didn’t have a great reputation in the Mount Holly community.
Residents of Mount Holly told reporters that they had lodged several complaints against the church because of excessive noise; Dan Aubrey, who had lived near the church, noted, “They would not listen to any request to quiet down. It was primal screaming, pure guttural.” After learning that neighbors were complaining, Cerita used a microphone to scream at them. “
Two former church members said that they had been charged with trespassing when they returned to church property in an attempt to remove their children from the church, which they claimed was a cult. Celina was homeschooled by the church and had limited interaction with anyone outside of the group.
If the father of Celina’s baby was indeed not a member of her church like she told her doctor, it was unclear where she might have met him. Former church member Mayo Goldman stated, “Celina had no contact with the outside world…they want to shut you off from outside communication.” Mayo left the church after Cerita tried to dictate who he could marry. “She has a controlling spirit that’s unreal…the littlest thing you can think of, she controls.”
Detectives wanted to identify the father of Celina’s baby because they believed he could have been involved in helping her disappear, but they also acknowledged that he wasn’t likely to willingly come forward. Since Celina had been only 11 years old when she got pregnant, the father of her baby faced felony sexual assault charges. Although she told her doctor the father was a 16-year-old, investigators weren’t sure if this was true. Detective Sweeney noted, “It’s possible she was trying to protect somebody.”
Former church members found it impossible to believe that no one knew who the baby’s father was. Tyrone Jackson, who had left the church in the late 1980s, told reporters, “I think it’s possible that C.J. doesn’t know. He’s just as brainwashed as everyone else. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Cerita knows. She controls everything in that house.”
Investigators were focused on finding Celina and said that any issues with the church were secondary. They spent weeks distributing missing person flyers throughout Burlington County and asking people to be on the lookout for Celina but received few tips. There were several potential sightings of Celina; detectives followed up on each one but were unable to confirm any of them. Willingboro Police Lt. Donna Dimitri admitted, “We were able to find other people who saw her…we’re thinking that a young girl nine months pregnant would be pretty recognizable.”
By the middle of January, investigators were no longer looking for a pregnant 12-year-old but a young mother and her baby. Lt. Dimitri said she didn’t believe Celina was still in the area. “There is no evidence she gave birth in a local hospital.” Due to her small size, Celina had been warned that she would have to deliver her baby by Caesarian section, eliminating the possibility of an unrecorded home birth.
Celina’s obstetrician, Dr. Delores Williams, told detectives that Celina was extremely mature for her age. Dr. Williams believed that Celina’s father and aunt truly had no idea who the father of her baby was, stating, “They were insistent about getting me to help them identify the person. They even wanted me to do a [blood] test. That doesn’t sound like a guilty party to me.” Dr. Williams thought that Celina had likely run away with her boyfriend in an act of rebellion against the strict rules of her church.
A month after Celina was last seen, officials with the Willingboro Police Department announced that they were offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to Celina’s whereabouts. They asked for the help of the FBI, as they believed that Celina had left the state of New Jersey. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had also been contacted and agreed to distribute Celina’s picture to hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country.
Two months after Celina vanished, detectives were still struggling to determine what had happened to her. Detective Sweeney stated, “I definitely believe she’s alive and is being kept somewhere.” Celina’s maternal relatives hoped this was the case, but found it harder to stay positive as weeks went by without any potential sightings of the missing girl.
C.J. told reporters that he believed Celina was either being hidden by her maternal relatives or had been abducted by members of the Mount Holly community who had a vendetta against the Gospel of Christ church. “They want to tear down this ministry. They may be using my daughter as a pawn.” Detectives said they had no evidence to suggest that this was the case.
Detectives noted that Celina’s maternal relatives had all cooperated in the investigation but the same couldn’t be said for her paternal relatives. Lt. Dimitri said that her requests for follow-up interviews with several members of the Mays family had been ignored. They also hadn’t been permitted to search the Willingboro home where Celina had lived, and a judge refused to grant a search warrant for the property, ruling that the family was considered to be a victim in this case. Detectives disagreed but couldn’t do anything about it. The case stalled and slowly went cold.
Cindy, one of Celina’s maternal aunts, believed that Celina was still in New Jersey. “It seems obvious to us. They’re not worried because they know where she is. We’re just concerned that the longer they have her, the more they can brainwash her.”
Months passed, and soon Celina had been missing for a year. Willingboro Police Capt. Gregory Rucker told reporters, “We’re still aggressively trying to pursue her whereabouts. There’s no evidence to suggest she’s d*ead, so we’re hoping she’s alive and will continue our efforts to find her.”
In January 1998, Celina’s cousin, 23-year-old Sean Smith, was charged with the aggravated sexual assault of two underage girls who were members of the Gospel of Christ church. Sean, who was Cerita’s son, had lived in the same house with Celina at the time of her disappearance and there had been rumors that he was the father of her unborn child. C.J. admitted that Sean had gotten two girls pregnant but denied he was the father of Celina’s baby. Detectives noted it was a possibility but they had no concrete evidence to prove it.
In July 1999, the Willingboro Police Department released a computer-enhanced picture showing what Celina might look like at age 15. Detectives were hopeful that Celina was still alive and that the new photo would help them locate her. A few tips trickled in but none led to Celina. Over the next two decades, several new age-progression photographs of Celina would be developed, first by the Willingboro Police and later by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Over the years, police have tracked down more than 250 leads but still have no idea what happened to Celina and her baby. It’s possible that she and the father of her child fled to some far-off state and have managed to live in obscurity. It’s also possible that she never made it out of Willingboro alive. If she is still alive, Celina will be celebrating her 39th birthday on May 28, 2023. Her baby would now be 26 years old.
Celina Janette Mays was just 12 years old — and nine months pregnant — when she vanished from Willingboro, New Jersey in December 1996. Detectives have no idea what happened to Celina and are unsure if she was a victim of foul play. Celina has brown eyes and black hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds. If you have any information about Celina, please contact the Willingboro Police Department at 609–877–2253.