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GARY — Police combed parts of the city Thursday for clues in the disappearance of two women last seen together on social media.

Jessica Flores, 36, of South Chicago Heights, and Melina Cottrell, 26, of Gary, have been missing since late February, police said.

Police conducted a ground and aerial search Thursday in areas east of Clark Road and along Fifth Avenue, Gary police Cmdr. Jack Hamady said.

Officers from Gary, South Chicago Heights, Steger and the Lake County Sheriff's Department focused on vacant areas, railroad corridors and other areas, he said.

Some of the areas were searched previously, but Hamady wanted to revisit them now that some of the snow has melted.

Officers regrouped mid-day and planned to go back out Thursday afternoon to continue, he said.

The Lake County Sheriff's Department assisted with a helicopter and drone.

Burned-out car found

Flores was last seen in South Chicago Heights on Feb. 24 and reported missing Feb. 26 by her boyfriend, who told police she took his 2010 Nissan and did not return within a day or two as expected, police said.

When South Chicago Heights police entered the Nissan's license plate number into a national database, they learned it had been found Feb. 26 damaged by fire in Chicago, Police Chief Bill Joyce said.

The car was found in an alley in the 8200 block of Ridgeland Avenue, which is in the shadow of the Chicago Skyway in the Avalon Park neighborhood. Chicago police processed the car and discovered some of Flores' belongings inside, Joyce said.

South Chicago Heights police learned during their investigation that Flores had last been seen on social media with Cottrell, he said. 

"We're trying to put the pieces together to find out where they have been and where they are," he said.

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Cottrell was last seen Feb. 25 in Gary, police said.

'I believe my sister is alive'

Flores' sister, Maddy Perez, of South Chicago Heights, said she has been in close contact with detectives during their searches of the Gary area. She went before the Gary City Council on Tuesday night pleading for information. 

“We still think she’s in Gary. Not a doubt,” Perez said Thursday.

She said she and her family were a bit “shaken up” after the body of a female was found in Burnham, Illinois, about 15 minutes from where Flores' boyfriend's burned-out vehicle was found.

“We did get an update that it’s not my sister. Thank God. I pray for the woman found and her family. What a tragedy,” Perez said.

She described Flores as a free spirit who loves to party, make people laugh and trusts easily. Flores and Cottrell recently met and barely knew each other, she said.

Perez said Thursday her sister struggles with drug addiction. 

“I believe my sister is alive. I cling onto that hope, that we’re going to get to her. And we’re not going to stop until we find her,” Perez said. “I may not agree with the circle of friends she has and her decisions, but she’s still my sister. She has children and is a good person.”  

Anyone with information about Flores should contact Detective Kris Adams, of the Lake County/Gary Homicide Unit, at 219-755-3855 or South Chicago Heights Detective Sgt. Jake Kozinski at 708-755-3521.

Anyone with information about Cottrell should contact Sgt. Mark Salazar at 219-881-1209. To remain anonymous, call 866-CRIME-GP.

Check back at nwi.com for updates to this story.

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