In December 1996, Celina Mays vanished without a trace from her New Jersey home just two weeks before she was due to give birth — and she hasn’t been seen since.
On a cold December night in 1996, 12-year-old Celina Janette Mays kissed her family goodnight, put her dishes in the sink, and went to bed. According to her family, it had been a perfectly normal evening, and nothing about her behavior had seemed suspicious. But that night, Celina vanished from her Willingboro, New Jersey home, never to be seen again.
At the time of her disappearance, Celina had been nine months pregnant. She had insisted on keeping the father’s identity a secret, and some of her family members have speculated that the young girl may have run away from home so a paternity test could not be performed on her baby
Others believe she was kidnapped, possibly by someone in her own family. And to this day, police suspect that the church Celina’s family attended may have played a role in her disappearance.
But despite more than 25 years of intensive investigation, Celina Mays’ fate remains a baffling mystery.
The Night Of Celina Mays’ Disappearance
Dec. 15, 1996 had been a day like any other. According to The Burlington County Times, Celina Mays had attended church, enjoyed ice cream at home with her family, and gone to bed around 11 p.m. Before heading to her bedroom, she kissed everyone goodnight.
But the next morning, Celina’s four-year-old stepsister went into Celina’s room to her wake her up and made a shocking discovery.
Celina was gone.
Her pillows and blankets had been made up to give the impression that she was still in bed sleeping, and all of her personal belongings had been left behind. She hadn’t taken anything with her — not even her purse or the prenatal vitamins she was taking for her pregnancy.
Celina’s family would later tell police that they hadn’t noticed anything suspicious the night of her disappearance. However, Celina’s stepmother, Evette Mays, recalled Celina saying, “Thanks for everything” before going to bed. Only in retrospect did it occur to the family that this may have been her way of saying goodbye.
On Dec. 17, Celina Mays’ father called the police to report her missing.
Countless Leads And Dead Ends
For weeks, police searched Burlington County for Celina Mays, appealing to the community to keep an eye out for the missing young girl. However, they received only a handful of tips, none of which were very promising.
As Celina’s December due date approached, Police worried for her safety, realizing that, due to her age, she’d likely need a caesarean section. Investigators began contacting hospitals in the surrounding area to see if Celina had been admitted, but none of the medical facilities had seen her.
Over the years, authorities have received more than 250 leads in her case. One particularly promising lead emerged in January 1997 when the owner of a local restaurant in Howell, New Jersey reported seeing Celina in his establishment.
The owner said the young girl had been in the company of a pastor and several other people. He also said she did not look pregnant.
However, an investigation quickly determined that the girl was not Celina. The police were back at square one.
Suspicions Fall Upon Celina’s Family
Celina Mays’ family history further complicated the mystery behind her disappearance. Born in Miami, Florida in 1984 to parents C.J. Mays and Lynn Vitale, Celina moved with her parents to Palmyra, New Jersey in 1986. Tragically, in 1994, Celina lost her mother to a fatal aneurysm. This led to a heated custody battle between Vitale’s family and Celina’s father.
C.J. Mays reportedly had a criminal record from his time in Florida involving drug use and domestic abuse, and Vitale’s family used this to make a case that he was an unfit father. However, C.J. insisted he had left that life behind him.
In the end, C.J. won custody of Celina, and she moved into his home in the quiet suburb of Willingboro, where they lived with Celina’s stepmother and several other family members.
After Celina disappeared, both sides of her family accused the other of having had something to do with it. Her mother’s family accused her paternal side of hiding her, and even suspected foul play. The Mays family maintained their innocence, and in turn accused Celina’s mother’s side of kidnapping Celina because they still wanted custody of her.
Many of Celina’s family members were reportedly uncooperative during the investigation; what’s more, a judge denied a police request for a warrant to search the Mays home.
In the years since Celina’s disappearance, many of her family members have died, including her father, C.J. Mays, leaving countless questions unanswered.
Celina Mays’ Church Is Suspected To Have Played A Role In The Mystery
Police have long suspected that the church the Mays family belonged to may have had something to do with Celina’s disappearance.
After the family moved to New Jersey, C.J. Mays joined the Gospel of Christ Ministry in Mount Holly, and soon, the whole family became enfolded into the organization, including Celina. Rather than send Celina to a public school, C.J. decided to homeschool her at the Church.
By all accounts, Celina was happy attending Gospel of Christ and even sang in the choir. Faith played a significant role in her life, and it may have been the reason her family never considered getting her an abortion, despite her young age.
Because Celina spent so much time at the church, many speculated that the father of her baby must be a congregation member as well. However, Celina was reportedly determined to keep the father’s identity a secret. C.J. claimed that Celina had told him only that he was a 16-year-old boy and was not a member of Gospel of Christ.
Notably, C.J. also reported that Celina had been upset when she learned that a blood test could determine the father of her baby. C.J. believed his daughter likely ran away before baby was born to protect the father’s identity.
After Celina went missing, unsettling rumors about her church began to surface. The small Pentecostal congregation was led by Celina’s aunt, Cerita Smith. In the years preceding Celina’s disappearance, the church had faced several complaints from former members who claimed Smith ran the Church with an “authoritarian style.” Later, congregants would say Smith seemed to control every aspect of the Mays family’s lives.
Investigators have reported that many members of the congregation refused to cooperate with the police after Celina Mays vanished, and Smith herself reportedly declined police requests to search the church.
The Search For Celina Mays Continues
To this day, investigators still don’t know what happened to Celina Mays or her child. Many of the people involved in the case have since died, and the Gospel of Christ church has shut down. But nearly 30 years after Celina’s disappearance, police have not given up hope.
In 2021, Willingboro Police Department made a statement about the future of their investigation.
“In 1996 we had limited resources to communicate with the public and acquire details regarding missing persons,” they said. “Social media has evolved greatly and can now reach a wide variety of people quickly through many platforms.
“We are using social media to distribute information about Celina to raise awareness of her case. We are hopeful that social media will be a beneficial tool in finding new information about the disappearance of Celina Mays.”
Investigators still suspect there may be a connection between Gospel of Christ and Celina’s disappearance.
“We have many theories,” detective Monica Pogorzelski told CBS News in 2022, noting that they’re currently investigating four new leads. “We are hoping she is alive and that we can find her.”
If you have any information about this case or the whereabouts of Celina Mays, please contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or call the Willingboro Police Department at 609-877-3001.
After reading about Celina Mays, discover the story of Bethany Decker, the pregnant 21-year-old who mysteriously vanished in 2011. Then, read about the baffling disappearance of child star Joe Pichler.