Nearly 20 years after a Michigan woman vanished, authorities descended Friday on a coney island restaurant in Detroit to execute a search warrant in the hunt for her remains.
Investigators had probable cause to believe Aferdita “Rita” Gjergjaj was buried on the grounds of the Galaxy Coney Island “at some point in time,” Ryan Gagnon, deputy chief for the Auburn Hills Police Department, told reporters.
However, nothing was found there, and the case is ongoing.
“I want to ask the public’s help, if they know anything about this information, to bring closure to the family, if they know where the remains of Rita Gjergjaj are, to contact the Auburn Hills Police Department,” Gagnon said.
Gjergjaj has not been seen since Feb. 25, 2001. At about 7 p.m., in the parking lot of the Showcase Cinema near Opdyke in Auburn Hills, a surveillance camera recorded the 30-year-old as she exited her blue Escort and entered a second car. After a half-hour, that vehicle drove off with her inside. Her unlocked Ford was left along with a purse, keys and cell phone.
Relatives told police the Birmingham resident had been scheduled to meet with her ex-husband, Binak “Kola” Gjergjaj, to discuss custody of their son and daughter. She typically met him in public places to see the children, who were in his care after their divorce in 1999.
The next day, co-workers at Club Monaco, a Troy clothing boutique where she was the manager, reported Gjergjaj failed to show up as expected.
Meanwhile, Kola Gjergjaj, an Albanian immigrant who owned a coney in Flint, immediately fled overseas and did not attend a preliminary custody hearing at which prosecutors requested his children be removed from the Springfield Township home he shared with a brother and sister-in-law.
The FBI found him in 2002 in Kosovo but he wasn’t brought back, the Associated Press reported.
A murder warrant was issued, but there were issues before a treaty signed between the United States and Kosovo allowed for his extradition, Gagnon said.
Kola Gjergjaj, who had previously been charged with assault in the 1998 beating of his then-wife, was arrested in Kosovo but committed suicide on the same day as an extradition hearing last year, the deputy chief said.
Although he had denied involvement in his ex-wife’s disappearance, “it’s our belief that Kola Gjergjaj is the one responsible for her death,” Gagnon added.
The probe led to the Galaxy off Grand River on Friday, where the owner cooperated and allowed authorities to check the property.
Over several hours, the FBI helped dig in a basement, said Mara Schneider, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s Detroit office. City police officers also were on hand.