Celina Mays: Found or Missing? Is She Dead or Alive?

Image Credit: The Charley Project

Celina Mays was only 12-years-old when she seemingly vanished from her bedroom in Willingboro, New Jersey, in December 1996. In the years that followed, loved ones and authorities continued to look for her. Celina’s story is one of the two cases featured on Investigation Discovery’s ‘In Pursuit With John Walsh: Unforgotten.’ The viewers learn the circumstances leading up to her disappearance and the various avenues the police followed. So, let’s find out more about this case then, shall we?

What Happened to Celina Mays?

Celina Janette Mays was born in May 1984 to CJ Mays and Lynn Vitale. At the time of the incident, Celina was living with her father’s family in Willingboro, New Jersey, and grew up in a sheltered and religious environment; she was homeschooled. By all accounts, the 12-year-old seemed like a happy kid living in the suburbs who sang in the church choir. However, at the time of her disappearance, Celina was nine months pregnant and was due to give birth in two weeks.

Image Credit: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children/ABC 6 News

On December 15, 1996, Celina and the rest of the family attended church. Once they returned, they proceeded to have ice cream, and the young girl went to her bedroom sometime around 11 pm. Until then, everything seemed normal. But when Celina’s stepsister went to wake her up the following day, she was nowhere to be seen. Pillows were placed under the blanket to make it seem like someone was sleeping, and all of her belongings were left behind. Celina seemingly disappeared into the night with only the clothes on her back.

Is Celina Mays Dead or Alive?

Initially, the authorities looked into finding the identity of Celina’s unborn child’s father. According to the family, she never mentioned who it was, only saying it was a 16-year-old and not a member of the church they were a part of. CJ stated that Celina didn’t want the identity to be known and was angry upon learning the baby’s blood tests could reveal it. At one point, he believed that Celina planned on leaving home. Even though Celina was only 12, abortion was not an option, given the family’s religious beliefs.

The Mays were part of the Gospel of Christ Ministry, with CJ’s sister, Serita Smith, being the pastor. Church dominated the family’s lives, and there were reports that Serita was controlling and oversaw every detail of the church and family. Furthermore, the Mays and Serita weren’t cooperative with the authorities. They also learned of the issues between CJ and Lynn’s families. When Lynn died in 1994, her family tried to gain custody of Celina; they said that CJ had a criminal history, used drugs, and was involved in domestic violence. However, CJ claimed that he was a changed man after finding religion.

Ultimately, the court ruled that CJ would get Celina’s custody. After Celina disappeared, her maternal aunt, Cindy Cram, accused the Mays of hiding the young girl and said there was foul play. In turn, the Mays claimed that Lynn’s family hid Celina and possibly took her to Florida or Michigan because they wanted to gain custody. In 2021, Cindy said, “My feeling about it right away was she’s (Celina) not alive. Sometimes, you go with your gut feeling. And I still don’t feel that she was alive. I think they shut her up.”

While the authorities have continued to investigate Celina’s disappearance as a missing person case and not a homicide, several theories and rumors have been floated over the years. One of Celina’s relatives felt that the baby’s father killed her or that she possibly died because of an amateur abortion. Another rumor was that the baby’s father was one of Celina’s cousins. However, there has been no concrete proof, and all of these have remained mere speculation.

The authorities were puzzled because there was little evidence to indicate where Celina went. In January 1997, there was a possible sighting of Celina at a restaurant, but that was ultimately confirmed not to be her. Furthermore, reports of her sightings in Lacey Township and Hopewell Township surfaced, but they were unconfirmed. The police have chased more than 200 leads over the years and hope advancements in age-progression photo technology and the prevalence of social media will help bring new information regarding the case. If alive, Celina would be in her late 30s with a child about 25-years-old.

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