Two Panola County pastors are hoping to keep the missing persons cases of Joe Roy McMillian and Bettie Smith in the forefront of people's minds.
Both McMillian and Smith have been missing for weeks, with searched spread out in the western part of the county where they went missing — and in McMillian's case, further south in the Lufkin area where he may have driven.
The Rev. James H. Walls Jr. of Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Smith's church, and Bishop Hubert Owens of First Assembly of God in Christ, McMillian's church, have taken to social media and appeared on KGAS Radio's Panola Pride show to keep the cases alive.
"We just want to encourage the community to help us be vigilant," Walls said. "If anybody knows anything, they can share what they know and maybe some information may lead to what happened to them and where they are."
A communitywide prayer and candle-lighting vigil is planned Wednesday at 7 p.m. for Smith and McMillian, as well as Panola County's other missing persons Lauren Thompson, Doris McIntosh and Jeanie Lofton. Organizers ask that people light a candle in their home and pray.
Smith was reported missing June 8. She is a 72-year-old black woman. She is 5’8 and about 110 pounds. It was reported that when last seen, Smith was wearing white pants, black and white tennis shoes, and a possible pastel colored shirt.
Smith is reported to have advanced stages of dementia, and the sheriff’s office says she has walked away from her residence on previous occasions, but was always located a short time later.
Panola County dispatch received a call June 8 at 11 p.m. reporting that she had wandered off from her residence on County Road 158 in the Longbranch area and had not been seen for about three hours, the sheriff’s office said.
McMillian was last seen at 1:30 p.m. on May 21 at 2119 FM 1970 in Carthage, driving a blue 2004 GMC Sierra, with Texas license plate DMK2975. He left his residence off County Road 302 to run errands and never returned, the sheriff’s office said.
His truck was seen in the Nacogdoches area later that same day, and law enforcement officials have been working to follow any potential leads from that area.
He is a black man, 79-years-old, 5-foot 11 inches tall, weighing about 280 pounds. He has black hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a red shirt and blue jeans. He is diabetic and showing early signs of dementia.
Anyone with information on Smith or McMillian’s whereabouts should contact the Panola County Sheriff’s Office at (903) 693-0333.
Walls said Smith's and McMillian's disappearances give them pause, and they didn't want the community to move along and forget them.
Walls described Smith as a dedicated church and community member. When Hurricane Rita hit, weeks after Hurricane Katrina, and forced New Orleans refugees to come north to East Texas, Smith was one helping Shady Grove take care of about 112 people.
Walls said Smith's doors were always open to people needing help.
"Bettie pretty much spearheaded the food part of keeping them," Walls said, adding "She and her husband were big cooks. They pride themselves in cooking."
"Just to see her just disappear, it's just so unreal and unbelievable that somebody can just vanish," Walls said.
— "Kind of heartbreaking," Owens added.
Owens recalled how Jesus used to call his beloved disciples his "little children."
"Not that they were my little children, but as a pastor, you know you just bond with the flock," Owens said. "They become your brothers and your sisters and then you help them raise their children and their grandchildren. We all just become one big family, and in this situation here, I know Sister Bettie was not a member of our church, but I've known them since 1979, the family and the children. Coming up in Panola County, they were just good people."
Walls said he's known McMillian all of his life as well. McMillian used to stand on the sidelines at the Turner High School football games in the '60s as Walls played.
"You'd thought he was one of the coaches. He was just rooting for us and pushing us," Walls said.
Owens said McMillian was one of the most faithful people at his church.
"He's the kind of person that just about anybody would want to say that's my father, that's my grandpa, that's my uncle. That's the kind of person — he was just a role model for Panola County," Owens said, adding "Anybody that would meet him and get to know him, you would just love him."
Both men hope Smith and McMillian's cases can be resolved.
"When you have people like that that's so valuable to the community, really we don't want it to become a cold case," Owens said. "And to keep it from becoming a cold case, we want to keep it before the people throughout Texas. We don't really know where they are, but we do know they're out there somewhere.
"If we can just keep it out there, maybe somebody will see what's going on, may pick up the newspaper, may see us on social media and say hey, look, I've seen them somewhere. We're just looking for something, anything that we can use to be able to keep hope alive."