SAN DIEGO -- Aubrey Sacco, an accomplished athlete, scholar, musician and artist, is the brightest star in her family's universe.
"Aubrey lights up a room when she enters it," said her younger brother, Morgan Sacco. "She's an effervescent person, full of life, and she totally loves glitter -- it reflects her personality."
But a year and a half ago, the "Glitter Girl," as her family and friends call her, mysteriously disappeared.
Aubrey, then 23, was nearing the end of a five-month journey of self-discovery through India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. She graduated from the University of Colorado in 2009, with a double major in art and psychology. She taught yoga, studied meditation and volunteered to teach children in one of the region's poorest schools on this trip.
Aubrey, who'd been everywhere from Costa Rica to Greece to Thailand, took a 45-hour train trip to Katmandu, Nepal, followed by a 10-hour bus trip to Syabrubesi to get to the western tip of Nepal's Langtang National Park. But she may have made a big, perhaps even fatal, mistake when she left her laptop and other items at a hotel and headed out on the popular Langtang Trek trail alone. It was the end of the trekking season and very few other backpackers were in the area.
That was in April 2010.
Ever since, Morgan, 21, an honors student and star midfielder on San Diego State University's soccer team, and the rest of the Sacco family have been on an impassioned, arduous and some might say quixotic quest to find Aubrey.
The family has spent tens of thousands of dollars in its unending search, doing everything from hiring an ex-FBI agent to working with local Tibetans to traveling overseas themselves to look for her.
But Morgan insists that finding his sister is not an impossible dream.
"I know it doesn't look good, it's been nearly a year and a half, but I truly believe she's alive," said Morgan, whose last contact with his sister was an April 19, 2010, email exchange in which they discussed taking a bike trip together over the summer. "I just feel her presence. We're very close, very connected."
Echoes Aubrey's father, Paul Sacco: "I just don't have the dread a father would feel if his daughter was dead. I know in my heart she is still alive, somewhere. It's ethereal and psychic, it's beyond wishful thinking."
Morgan; his parents, Paul and Connie Sacco; and his older brother, Crofton, have done everything possible to solve this painful mystery. They've put up websites and billboards; contacted politicians, the FBI and the State Department; alerted the media; spoken to police and other government officials in Nepal; posted videos on YouTube; created a Facebook page; and even visited Nepal twice.
This past August, the family made the second of two grueling 50-hour trips to the remote area of Nepal where Aubrey was last seen and retraced her steps on the trail, hoping to find any clues. It was the first visit to Nepal for Morgan, who desperately wanted to go on the first trip with his family last year but had a broken right ankle, which put him on crutches and forced him to redshirt his sophomore year.
He's back on the field this season.
"I lost soccer at the same time I lost my sister," said Morgan, who's had many sorrowful moments but is grateful he has his family and soccer to help him cope. "I think being an athlete has helped me get through this. Soccer is a huge part of my life. It's a huge part of Aubrey's life, too. We've both played the game our entire lives."
Morgan's teammates at San Diego State have been overwhelmingly supportive. Last season, all the players voluntarily wore black armbands on their uniforms that read, "Find Aubrey."
"My teammates and especially my coach have been there for me and still are," Morgan said. "I don't know what I would do without their support. They've kept me going even during the darkest times."
Lev Kirshner, Morgan's coach at San Diego State, said he had never seen anyone deal with so much adversity and still excel in his studies and life responsibilities.
"After going through surgery, rehab and finding out about his sister, Morgan remained resolute and achieved a 3.83 grade point average that semester," Kirshner said. "Very few human beings, especially at 19 or 20, have that type of inner strength. Morgan is an amazing person, simple."
An eternal optimist like everyone else in his family, Morgan said that, so far, there is no evidence that Aubrey has died and there could be any number of explanations for her disappearance.
Nepal has a reputation for being a spiritual place, populated by gentle people guided by beliefs in goodness and karma. People trekking there have even been known to not want to stay there. That doesn't fit Aubrey's profile, Morgan said, though he added, "but anything is possible."
Other possible scenarios are more horrific. It is a region of the world where young women are sometimes kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, a thought that sickens the Sacco family. But it seems very unlikely because of the rugged terrain and because there probably would have been witnesses to an abduction.
Another possibility is that the Nepalese army had something to do with Aubrey's disappearance.
"It's a corrupt country with a very corrupt army, and it's widely known that members of the army harass and even assault the female hikers on that particular trail," Morgan said.
During their last trip to Nepal, family members met with the second-in-command of Nepal's army, Gen. Gaurav Rana, who promised to conduct an internal investigation and do a wide search of the area. The family is waiting for the results of this investigation.
The Saccos have hired dozens of people in Nepal to search for Aubrey, comb the grounds, search the trail and the river that runs along it, check nearby villages and talk to the locals. They are even working with the Maoists, a far-left political party considered to be terrorists by the U.S. government, to search for Aubrey because of their access.
But the family has not hired an American private investigation firm. Many have come forward offering their services, but they have given the family some preposterous descriptions of how they could find Aubrey, including taking ATVs up the trail where she was last known to have been.
"You could never even get an ATV into that terrain," Connie Sacco said. "These investigators just want to grab our money. They have no idea how to even get to this remote area, let alone what to do once they are there. We learned quickly that, sadly, this isn't going to help us, even if we had the money they would charge us. We've learned that in Nepal if you send Americans in they don't get anywhere. The locals' mental doors close up. We've used Nepalis 95 percent of the time."
Curiously, residents of the area where Aubrey disappeared are conspicuously quiet now when asked by the family if they know anything. Some have even changed their stories.
"When we first talked to them, some seemed to remember seeing Aubrey on the trail, but now when we ask them for any information, they say they don't remember," said Morgan. "It's like someone has gotten to them. I think they know something."
The most likely scenario, Morgan believes, is that Aubrey was injured and someone helped her get off the trail, brought her to a remote village and then either she was held against her will or she got lost trying to find her way back.
"Taking Aubrey could have been some sort of spiritual thing -- some village may have needed to be revitalized with an American like Aubrey who has such energy and vitality," said Paul Sacco. "Our Nepali guide told me that Nepali people, who are among
the poorest in the world and have absolutely nothing, are fascinated with Americans.
"Aubrey could be valuable to them, almost godlike. I know that sounds far-fetched, but we aren't dismissing anything."
There aren't many clues. A picture of an unidentified man in Aubrey's camera, taken shortly before her disappearance, could provide some answers -- if her family ever discovers who he is.
And there's a woman, Danielle Fouche, a French citizen in her early 60s, who trekked the Langtang trail in Nepal at the same time as Aubrey.
"It's very possible [Fouche] saw Aubrey on the trail," Connie Sacco said. "We contacted the French government to ask if they could locate her for us but
got no cooperation. It's been one of many frustrations in our search."
But the family's biggest frustration isn't with the French or Nepali governments -- it's with the U.S. government. Although Aubrey's family and friends have sent more than 8,000 letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to get involved in the search for Aubrey, Clinton has to date not made a public comment about the case.
For the U.S. government not to put people on the ground in Nepal to look for Aubrey, a missing American citizen, is "unforgivable," said Paul Sacco.
"What is up with this country?" Paul Sacco said. "Our senators and Congress members in Colorado have busted their butts to get through to Hillary, but have gotten nowhere. It's a joke."
Andy Laine, a spokesman for the State Department, told espnW, "We have great sympathy for the Sacco family. The U.S. embassy in Katmandu is in close contact with the Nepali government and is working very closely with them to find Aubrey. They are continuing to work very closely on this."
When asked what "working closely" means, or if Secretary Clinton is aware of the 8,261 letters sent to her office asking her to get involved in Aubrey's case, Laine declined to comment.
Everyone in the Sacco family has a different way of coping with Aubrey's absence. For Morgan, it's delving into his soccer and his studies. For her father, Paul, it's music. In addition to being a lawyer, Paul is a singer-songwriter who used to sing and
write songs with Aubrey and has written numerous poignant songs about her since she went missing.
Music is a big part of Aubrey's life, as well. She started playing the violin as a little girl and was in the college orchestra, and taught herself guitar. Connie says Aubrey was
named after the bittersweet 1970s Bread hit "Aubrey," whose lyrics have proved almost eerily prophetic:
And Aubrey was her name ...
But God I miss the girl,
And I'd go a thousand times around the world just to be
Closer to her than to me.
"I've only recently had the courage to even listen to that song," said Connie. "It's so beautiful, but it's hard to hear now. Paul's songs about Aubrey are the same: They're beautiful, but so sad."
Older brother Crofton, 26, managed to finish law school over the past year and a half despite his sister's disappearance. He wanted to make a big statement about the little sister he loves so much -- on a huge rock that sits in the middle of a field alongside State Highway 257 north of Fort Collins, Colo.
The rock, sitting on private property behind a fence, is a popular yet illegal spot for the community to paint and draw statements about college sporting events and other things going on in the area.
Last year, the Sacco family and two friends went on a late-night drive to the rock, climbed the fence and were about to paint and douse it with glitter in loving tribute to Aubrey when the police showed up. With the red police lights flashing, the group fled like fugitives into the night, but came back a half hour later to paint and cover the rock with glitter as planned. The entire episode was captured on video and posted on YouTube.
"I didn't care about the police, I was beyond determined to do this for Aubrey," said Crofton. "Ever since that night, we've called it the Glitter Rock."
Meanwhile, each family member continues the search for Aubrey and clings to the hope this long nightmare will end happily, and their Glitter Girl will come home.
"We are all realistic, but we just feel it inside, all of us, that she is still alive. From a young age, Aubrey was destined for greatness. We feel like the world needs her," Paul Sacco said. "She has boundless energy, great intellect, goodness, driving ambition, and she really does brighten every room she enters. Aubrey makes sad people happy, she never has a bad thing to say about anybody and she's the most amazing artist I have ever seen ...
"She's traveled the world and is only 24. If there were only one word to describe her, it would be 'inspirational.' Everyone who knows her would tell you that. We will find her; we'll never give up."