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Teen's disappearance, death shook Miller neighborhood

GARY | It was a walk she was used to taking many days in the summer of 1973.

Brenda Kaye Banaski, 14, lived in Gary's Miller neighborhood in the 6800 block of East Third Avenue less than a mile away from Wirt High School, where she worked over the summer and was going to start as a freshman in the fall.

Her mom, Betty Moore, said she remembers that about 3 p.m. July 25, it was almost time for her daughter to come home when one of her friends called. Her friend kept calling back waiting for Banaski, but she never arrived. Moore called the school and was told Banaski never arrived to work. Moore's heart sunk because she knew her daughter was in trouble.

The search for Banaski started the afternoon of her disappearance. It continued nearly three weeks until a man from the Sunrise subdivision found her body aside railroad tracks near a wooded area between Ind. 51 and County Line Road.

Banaski was found the morning of Aug. 11 with a skull fracture and brain damage resulting from a trauma, her death certificate states.

The search for Moore's strength continues because when she begins talking about her daughter, tears well up in her eyes.

"She was as close to perfection as you could be," Moore said.

Moore said when she first reached out to police, they told her to wait 72 hours before filing a report because they thought that Banaski may have run away or went to hang out with friends without telling anyone. Moore said acts like those weren't in her daughter's character.

"It made me so upset that everyone kept putting me off," Moore said about police.

Retired Gary police Sgt. Joseph Matan Sr. was one of the detectives assigned to the Banaski case and he put in extra effort during the investigation because he grew up with Banaski's relatives.

Matan remembers that, aside from her body, there was very little physical evidence at the scene providing details about the crime. Matan said all detectives could do is do interviews.

"You just keep after the people that knew her," Matan said. "We interviewed a lot of people. We talked to the family and asked who her friends were. ... None of them could come up with anybody who would want to do anything to her. It was like running into a blank, stone wall. There was no logical reason."

No one has been charged in connection with Banaski's death. The Gary Police Department couldn't provide an update on the status of the case before this article was published. Matan said the file may not be found because it could have been destroyed in a fire at the old police station in the late 1980s.

Banaski was a star softball player and was a straight-A student, her sister Cindy Michael said. Michael said she lost her best friend when someone killed Banaski, who was 11 months younger than her. Her friend Karen Crawford described Banaski as "always smiling, always funny."

Crawford said during the search, people scoured many areas around Miller, but nothing came of searches in the woods. When Crawford learned about Banaski's death, she was heartbroken but she vowed to find her friend's killer.

"I was beside myself," Crawford said. "I was angry. I cried a lot. I put myself in my room, and I stayed there."

Crawford named her daughter Banaski in memory of her best friend.

Banaski's murder had a strong affect in Miller because of the publicity it received and how the homicide touched many people in the community, Crawford said.

"Because everybody knew her, to have that happen to someone's daughter, it started making people think," Crawford said. "Everybody locked their doors. They didn't let their kids outdoors. That's when people started moving away."