On December 20, 2021, between 4 and 5 p.m., a season of joy was rattled for one San Antonio family. A 3-year-old girl named Lina Sardar Khil vanished from her apartment's playground.
She remains a missing person to this day.
In this episode of Unsolved SA, KENS 5 is taking a deep look at this case and how it has affected her family, the investigators and the San Antonio community.
As we look back at the last year, we hope to move forward and hopefully inspire answers to bring Lina home.
The full report is available in the video link below:
The search begins:
Her disappearance came five days before Christmas in December 2021 from her apartment, Villas del Cabo in the Medical Center. The now 4-year-old wandered out of her mother’s sight and disappeared. Lina was 3 years old at the time of her disappearance. She's 4 feet tall and weighs 55 pounds. She was wearing a red dress, black jacket and black shoes when she went missing.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus remembers those first hours when the chances for a good outcome were at their highest.
"The beginning hours, the beginning moments of her going missing...I mean, we started fast. We had resources on the scene from the Federal Bureau of Investigations," McManus said. "We checked everywhere. We checked dumpsters, we checked closets. We searched every single apartment in that complex, some more than once. We had cadaver dogs going through that apartment complex."
Law enforcement even checked every vehicle coming in and out of the complex.
"We didn't want anything to get in or out of that complex without us knowing what was in that vehicle."
McManus also remembers when the hope began to fade.
"Then, when nobody was coming up with anything, it was like you're kind of left shaking your head, you know? When is something going to give, when is this going to break?"
At one point, there was a person of interest, McManus says.
"I don't want to go into too much detail about that. But there was [a person of interest]. And all of the areas and individuals that have attracted more attention from us, we've checked them out thoroughly to make sure we were not missing anything. But right now, we're left empty handed."
SAPD brought in the investigative muscle of the FBI.
"They brought in resources that we don't have. For example, the dive team," McManus said. "They have contacts all over the country that can assist if we need to follow our lead out that far. They brought in a team of profilers to figure out who might have been involved in this."
Even with the help of the FBI, days turned into months and now months have become a year. Law enforcement is still no closer to knowing what happened to Lina.
"We were getting a lot of leads, a lot of tips, a lot of information early and for several months after that," McManus said. "Then, as time passed, those calls came in less and less. And today, you know, for the last few months, we've maybe [gotten] three or four a month. And we have checked them out, and none of them have produced any information that would help us close this case."
A father's pain:
Riaz Sardar Khil is Lina's father, as well as father to 3-year-old Rayhan and 5-month-old Saud.
Speaking through translator Essa Yousafzai, he recalls the last time he saw his daughter and the frantic first hours of the search.
"It was the same day she disappeared. It was about 1 or 2 in the afternoon," Yousafzai said. "He says he recently returned from work and she was in his lap. She was playing with him. That was the last time he saw her."
Yousafzai says Khil's first thoughts were that someone in the immigrant community had spotted her and took her in.
"He says this whole area is occupied by Afghan refugees, himself included. Initially, he thought she may have been taken by one of the Afghan families. It's very normal back in the country. If one of the kids is missing, someone will take them. And if they see the news that someone is missing, they will gladly bring the kid back to the family. So he thought definitely somebody was going to get back to them, maybe until morning," Yousafzai said. "Then when it didn't happen during the day until like 12, then he told the FBI people it seems like she's been kidnapped. She's not coming back because no one has reached out to the families."
Last pictured in a red dress, Lina and her family were expecting relatives the day she vanished. There was to be a celebration, and the child’s disappearance changed that.
According to the New York Times, Lina and her mother escaped the blast of a suicide bomber. The family thought the United States would be safer.
"He thought that he would have a better life when he comes to the states from Afghanistan. If he was in Afghanistan, then maybe Lina might have been with him," Yousafzai said.
He also says the updates from police began to slow down after those first days.
"Anytime they would try to get in touch with them, they would give him a week. Then two weeks and then three...and nothing happened and nobody would get back to him," Yousafzai said. "He says if he contacts them, maybe they will talk to him, but they have never reached back to him themselves."
Yousafzai said Lina's family is no longer receiving updates, but Chief McManus has asked the family to contact him directly with any questions or concerns.
Abel Mark Pena is a retired FBI agent who runs Project Absentis. At no cost to him, his team of agents are helping Lina's family. Pena says he passes their findings on to SAPD and the FBI.
"I believe that there was a sense of frustration on [Khil's] part. However, it's not unusual for families, especially victim's families or missing children or missing persons, to go ahead and hire someone on the outside," Pena said. "And we got involved shortly after Lina disappeared the following year, which would have been January of this year."
His digging has led him to more questions than answers.
"I think what we determined is that she did leave voluntarily. She walked away with individuals. But, we don't know after that what happened. There were witnesses that saw her, you know, walking with various people throughout the day," Pena said. "I think she walked off with perhaps individuals she knew or at least were familiar with, but there was no indication that she was forced or taken away."
But the reasons why someone may have walked away with her are still anyone's guess.
"We do not believe that anybody was lurking in the shadows that evening and snatched her," Pena said. "Their reasoning behind that could have been more sinister or nefarious in that they maybe lured her away from that apartment complex and perhaps taken her somewhere else."
Like many people in San Antonio and around the country, the case has touched Pena's heart.
"I've worked a lot of these types of cases. This one is very frustrating in that, you know, here's a young child and she's just starting out her life," Pena said. "On the one hand, I'm hopeful that she's still here in San Antonio. I'm hopeful that she's alive and being taken care of in the hands of whoever has her. I do not believe she has left the United States. She could have left the state of Texas. But, we are very hopeful. We're still here, we're still pursuing leads here in San Antonio."
Pam Allen, CEO of Eagles Flight Advocacy and Outreach, has visited with the Khil family many times, offering her assistance any way she could.
"As a case manager for refugees, it's been even harder to see how they don't understand the system. They don't know culturally what do to and what to say," Allen said.
In the early months of Lina's disappearance, Allen organized vigils and search efforts with volunteers.
"Within that first month, so many people were calling, [saying] 'She's in the back of a car. I'm following that car," Allen said. "SAPD told me to stop, but I'm following that car because I'm waiting for SAPD to show up."
Allen says the case has brought out some of the worst in humanity, but also some of the best.
"When people first heard this, there was like a 50/50 of 'Oh, they probably sold the baby or she's a child bride somewhere.' You saw some vicious things being said, " Allen recalled. "Then, you saw the other half saying, 'Wait a minute, there's a baby girl and we need to pray.' You saw the faith of some come out and say, 'We need to help this family.'"
Some of that negativity was directed at the family, Allen says, during a time of unimaginable confusion and grief.
"In public, being scrutinized, him having to be afraid to take his family in public. And then when people attack him, even at his own front door, it's been disheartening because they're going through so much," Allen said.
In her attempts to help find Lina and help the family navigate their difficulties, Allen found herself the target of some bizarre claims.
"Because there was a conspiracy theory that I had something to do with it," Allen said."So I started getting followed. My family, even my mother, who was inside of her house dying of leukemia, her house was being stalked.They went to my son's property in Floresville and started harassing him, screaming on a Facebook live feed, 'We found Lina, we found Lina." And it was my son's home. Because they felt I had something to do with it."
No Lina, no relief:
Lina's mother, Zarmeena, gave birth to a son in June 2022. His name is Saud.
"When he was born, they could not celebrate the way should because Lina was not there. It was extremely difficult for them to see this whole thing," Yousafzai said. "They were happy to see their child born sound and safe and well. But, in the meantime, they could not celebrate it."
Chief McManus shared his thoughts about the case remaining unsolved a year later.
"When I think about this case, I think about the family, the utter despair. I mean, if you have kids, you can understand. Anyone with kids can understand that. Just the utter devastation to a family by having their little girl, to just disappear," McManus said. "I, like most people, am at a loss. I've said it before, when I've been asked, 'What do you think happened?' And one of my responses is that no one disappears into thin air. Something happened to her and we just don't know what it is."
He says the FBI is still actively involved in the case and there is a dedicated SAPD team.
"We have our Special Victims Unit. There's two detectives down there that have this case. They were dedicated up front to nothing but working this missing person's case," McManus said.
Meanwhile, for Lina's father, the pain has no end.
"He says he can't say it in words how he would feel that day. But 80 percent of their lives was around Lina when she was at home," Yousafzai said. "Just imagine 80 percent of life if sort of messed up when she's not at home. He can't think straight. The home feels lonely and empty when she's not here. But, he can't imagine when she's back or when he gets that good call--about the good news that she is back. He can't describe it in words, but he will definitely thank God and thank who have helped finding her."
If you have any information about the child's disappearance, the Missing Person Unit's phone number is 210-207-7660. They answer the phone 24 hours a day.