(WJLA) - Along Route 29 in Culpeper, Virginia, lies a wooden cross weathered by time, and some artificial flowers.
“All we can do is pray for her,” says Annie Taylor quietly.
The items mark the place where Alicia Reynolds was last seen alive – 18 years ago.
“I never lose hope in being able to solve this case,” declares Virginia State Police Special Agent Richard Hankins.
But for Hankins, this is no ordinary investigation. It’s a tragic and terrible unsolved murder that he lives with each and every day.
“You always ‘what if’ the situation in your head,” he says. “I don’t want to be the type to go to work, be involved with something, and then just shut it off like they don’t matter. They do matter.”
In 1996, Alicia Reynolds was living her dream. At 25 years old, she had been married about a year before, and was studying to get her PhD in pharmacology at Johns Hopkins.
"She always had a wonderful giggle, and a wonderful smile," says Sadie Showalter, Reynolds' mother.
But when Reynolds never showed up for a March 2 shopping date with Showalter, her family became alarmed. Later that day, Reynolds' car was found abandoned along Route 29 with its hood up. Witnesses told police they saw her getting into a Nissan pickup.
"It was kind of dangerous going out," recalls Taylor, who lives along Route 29.
All these years later, she remembers seeing Reynolds' car parked across the highway from her house. Taylor believes she is among those who almost encountered the man referred to in media reports as the “Route 29 stalker” – a man who police say stopped or attempted to stop up to 20 women drivers during that time.
"I remember once I was coming down the road," Taylor recalls, "and this car kept blinking its lights at me, but I didn't stop."
For Reynolds' family, the discovery of her car was a frightening development.
"I just knew instinctively she was gone," Showalter says. "The really rough times were from March 2 to May 7, when her body was found."
Reynolds' remains were found in a rural field in Lignum, Virginia. The discovery ended one chapter of the investigation, and opened another: the mystery of who killed this young woman.
Police won't say exactly how Reynolds died, and they're not giving specifics on DNA or other evidence. Investigators have issued a composite sketch, but say the 1996 rendering is likely dated and that the suspect might now look very different.
Meanwhile, state authorities have received more than 10,000 tips.
"I begin every day with this case," says Hankins, the fifth consecutive special agent to handle the Reynolds murder. Beginning as an assistant in 2010, he has been the lead investigator since 2012. He and the Showalters continue to stay in close touch, talking at least once a month.
"Certainly knowing the mother and father of a victim in this case, it keeps me grounded, and gives me motivation to go forward,” he says.
"I think he's doing a very good job of going back through the file, meticulously, and looking at what they've collected throughout the years," Showalter says.
Had she lived, Alicia Reynolds would be in her 40’s. She had plans to have children and raise a family, and while visiting her daughter's grave, Showater often thinks of what might have been.
"There's that empty space and you miss her every day," she says. "But you keep on, and you have other things to give you joy and give you hope."
For Hankins, the case is always there – it’s something he grapples with every day.
"You can't give up faith, because if there was no hope, there would be no use looking into it," he says.
Faith and hope: two things Hankins and the Showalters believe in. That someday, this mystery of who killed Alicia Reynolds will finally be solved.