Little mystery surrounded so much of Sharon Miller's life.
Family members described the 34-year-old Ferndale-area resident and mother of two as outgoing and friendly, to a fault at times.While she struggled with drugs and alcohol or keeping jobs, she was always committed to loving her family, said her younger sister, Rita Ralph.
"She was relentless in her pursuit of happiness," Ralph said. "In everything she did it was to the fullest."
Even at the deepest pits of her addictions, when she couldn't be present for her children's birthdays, Miller still let them know she cared for them. She left them gifts in mailboxes outside their house, Ralph said.
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More importantly, she always let her family know where she was.
So when she disappeared Thursday, July 2, 2009, her family reacted with worry and a sense of foreboding.
"Sharon always called when she wasn't coming home," said her father, Joe Ralph. "We had just assumed she had taken off for the weekend, but she just never came back."
When Miller's daughter's birthday passed in November with still no word, her family began to expect the worst.
Their fears were confirmed a month later: On Dec. 21, hunters found the skeletal remains of Miller covered by a blanket in a ravine off of North Star Road at Mountain View Road, five miles from where she lived in a motor home on her parents' property.
It's one of few facts Whatcom County Sheriff's detectives have in explaining her disappearance and death. Her body was positioned in such a way that they believe she was alive when she went into the ravine.
Despite the investigative efforts of the Sheriff's Office, questions of how Miller got to the ravine, why she left home, how she died - and if there is another person responsible - remain unanswered.
Her death remains an active case in the Sheriff's Office, but not for much longer. Barring new developments, the case will become inactive as a suspicious but ultimately unexplained death, said Sgt. Sean Crisp, who oversees the detective unit.
"We wanted to do our best to get answers if they were there," Crisp said. "At this point we have no official cause of death. We don't have the 'how,' so it makes it pretty difficult to do much more."
Rita Ralph said her family needs more answers.
"We're not necessarily looking for a conviction," Ralph said. "We're looking for answers. We need to know what happened to her. She did leave behind two children who are just devastated by this."
The Sheriff's Office began investigating Miller's death as a homicide due to its suspicious nature.
Her body was found partially clothed - she had a T-shirt on but no pants or underwear - and covered by the blanket from her bed in her father's motor home.
It's unknown if she was wearing more clothing when she left the motor home.
Crisp said the position of Miller's body leads him to believe that she was attempting to crawl out of the ravine when she died."It was strange how natural of a position it was," Crisp said. "It almost looked like someone fell in."
Crisp said Miller's skeleton was almost completely intact when it was found. Her remains were sent to the King County Medical Examiner's Office, where forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor examined them.
Taylor found no indication of trauma on Miller's bones, Crisp said. That allowed detectives to rule out the possibility that she had been beaten, stabbed or shot.
Without evidence of foul play, Crisp said the detectives re-classified their investigation as a suspicious death probe.
"People assume we have evidence of foul play, but that's not necessarily the case," Crisp said. "This is a death investigation, not necessarily a homicide investigation."
POSSIBILITY OF HARM
Rita Ralph said she believes something sinister happened to her sister.
Miller had been to this property before. Throughout her years in high school, Miller had friends who lived in a house there, Ralph said.
It's since been sold to Intalco, but the house remains, she said. Miller didn't have a car to drive and likely wouldn't have walked 5 miles to the property.
"She didn't get there on her own," Ralph said. "I know if she was in trouble she would have gone to that house and would have gone inside. She would not have gone where she was."
Ralph believes someone drove up to a gate on that property and left her sister in the ravine 20 feet away.
The blanket that was found covering Miller supports her belief. Joe Ralph said when he checked the motor home the day Miller disappeared, the blanket was there.
When he checked days later, it was gone. Her pants were still in the motor home, but her purse was gone and a garbage can was knocked over. The purse has not been found.
Other belongings remained. If she was planning on going somewhere, she would have packed more of her things, Rita Ralph said.
"It just seemed normal and undisturbed, just like she had come in and undressed for bed," Joe Ralph said. "If she had gotten up to go somewhere she would have gotten dressed. It was just so weird."
Rita Ralph said her sister had a history of associating with sketchy men. The family had heard rumors that she was dating a heroin addict.
"I really feel that somebody harmed her," Ralph said. "She was alive when she was put there. Due to somebody's blatant negligence, she died and that's really hard to come to terms with.
"She was flirty and fun and men longed for her. Somehow she got in the hands of the wrong one."
Joe Ralph said he did everything possible to find his daughter once she disappeared. He called everyone he knew she hung out with, but no one knew where she was.
"It's pretty troubling to everybody," Joe Ralph said. "It's just dumbfounding. Nobody knew anything. Nobody had seen her."
While she had struggled in the past, Miller was doing much better in the months prior to her death, her father said. She had been living in the motor home for about a year and a half and moved in after being laid off from her job.
"She fell on hard times," Joe Ralph said. "I think it got the best of her. After the economy broke she just did what she could. A little bit here, a little bit there."
But for her to just run away from the home and her family on one day in July is something Rita Ralph cannot reconcile.
"She was doing really well," Rita Ralph said. "She didn't have any reason to run off."
Coping with Miller's death has been difficult for her sister and father. Talking about it can still bring tears. The death has been especially hard on her son, 15, and daughter, 12. Her daughter has set up a shrine to her mother, Rita Ralph said.
But memories of her help. Memories of how every year on her aunt's birthday, Miller would go and prune her rose bushes.
Memories of how, on her sister's birthday, Miller insisted on being with her, even though there was a substantial amount of snow on the road. Miller was undeterred and drove out to Rita Ralph's house on bald tires, only to get stuck once she arrived.
"She was there for a lot of people in ways I never realized," Joe Ralph said.
What would help most of all, however, would be to know how and why she died, Joe Ralph said.
Without that, the mystery of her death looms over a life that knew so little ambiguity.
"I'd really like to put some closure on this and find out what happened to her," Joe Ralph said.