Christian Gonzalez, 23, went missing in 2012. After years of searching, his sister, Zaira Marina Gonzalez, found an unidentified person matching her brother's description in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Christian's identity was confirmed by DNA tests on Jan. 5, 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of Zaira Marina Gonzalez)

The picture of those shoes, those bright shoes found years before in the desert, nearly stopped her heart.

Zaira Marina Gonzalez had never given up on her brother Christian, missing six years before in a rural part of Texas and trying to make his way back home. He disappeared without a trace, after his last tearful phone call with his parents on Sept. 6, 2012.

They waited for the 23-year-old’s call that never came. They never had any answers at all. But that changed when Gonzalez found the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, last July. The database is available to the public—including grieving families with mysteries yet to solve.

Here, she thought, was a way to do something.  

She combed through hundreds of cases of the unidentified people found dead in and around Brooks County, starting in 2012. It was like an obsession, entry after entry, picture after picture, sketch after sketch, and clothing item after clothing.

And late one night last summer, after hours of searching, she was ready to stop for the night. But she told herself she would try just one more case, just one more click.

It was case #14039-0383, and it was different than all the ones that had come before.

“I started feeling pressure on my chest,” Gonzalez recalls. “I knew something was not right. They had a picture and description of the shoes that were found.”

They were Nike blue-black shoes with a silver swoosh. They were the exact kind that she had bought for him, shortly before he disappeared in summer 2012.

The Nike sneakers found with the unidentified person listed as case #14039-0383 in the NamUs database. (Photo: Courtesy of NamUs)

“I remember actually going myself to the store and buying them and him telling me, make sure they are blue,” she recalls. “I sent him multiple pictures via messenger to make sure he would like them.”

There was also the belt, which looked identical to the one his mother had brought for him for a wedding months before his disappearance. The jeans brand, and size, matched. So too did the Nintendo Pokemon games.

Although it was 3 a.m., the sister sent an email to the people listed on the NamUs entry, explaining her hunch, complete with a picture of Christian Gonzalez in life wearing the very same kind of sneakers.

Two days later, an investigator responded and started asking questions. After officially declaring him missing with the local Palestine (Tx.) Police Department, the family submitted a full set of DNA samples.

Five months later, on Jan. 5, 2018, the Gonzalez family got the results—and something approximating closure.

A picture of Christian Gonzalez wearing the blue Nike sneakers that matched the sneakers found with NamUs case #14039-0383. The familiar sneakers, along with several other items, allowed Christian's sister and investigators to put together the pieces of what happened to the missing 23-year-old. (Photo: Courtesy of Zaira Marina Gonzalez)

Christian Gonzalez was the body found on Sept. 14, 2012 at La India Ranch, and buried without a name in Brooks County, near the Mexican border, 400 miles from home.

“This is not the way we wanted this to end, but after almost six years of not knowing anything, we can allow our hearts to rest,” she said. “Not knowing anything hurts way more than everything else.”

The Gonzalez family story is not unique, though it is rare, said J. Todd Matthews, the case management and communications director for NamUs.

The resilience of the families, who keep digging and digging, are the ones who often make the most of the information provided through the NamUs database, Matthews said.

“This is one of the reasons it’s open to the public,” said Matthews. “The person who bought those shoes, or that necklace—they’re the ones who are going to make that connection. We have the science, but they have that emotional tie to these cases.”

Zaira Marina Gonzalez said the last phone call, on Sept. 4, 2012, was a fateful one that always had the family thinking the worst. Christian Gonzalez had been in the United States since the age of 8, and had graduated with honors in 2007 from Palestine High School, where he played soccer and run cross-country. In May of 2012, at the age of 22, he was deported to Mexico—but he had no real connections to that country.

So he told his family he had made a decision. He would make the trek back across the border in mid-August of that year—on foot. The call came from Falfurrias, Texas—and it was distressing.

A prayer bracelet found with Christian Gonzalez's body in Brooks County, Texas, near the Mexican border. (Photo: Courtesy of NamUs)

It was the hottest time of year, and Christian told his father he wasn’t sure if he would make it back home.

“Dad, I don’t know how people do this,” the sister recalls Christian saying. “I’m tired. I can’t anymore …”

The Gonzalez parents urged him onward, telling him he was almost home—he just needed to make it past the last checkpoint.

But that was the last call.

The cause and manner of death of her brother were not determined, according to Marina Gonzalez. But they have a hunch, considering the distress he was in at the time of the year in the southernmost part of summertime Texas.

“At the moment we do not know his cause of death, but he was walking down the south of Texas during one of the hottest times of year,” she told Forensic Magazine. “My thoughts are dehydration. But I am not sure.”

Christian Gonzalez always told his sister to “seize the day.” So last year, on Christian’s birthday, she got a tattoo of “Carpe Diem” on her arm. And she tries to honor that maxim, she said.

“Our hearts are so heavy right now … words can’t explain,” the sister said. “But he is in a much better place and he will be brought back home soon.

“I am my brother’s keeper.”