TACOMA, Wash. -- It has been 21 years since 2-year-old Teekah Lewis vanished from a Tacoma bowling alley. For the first time, a witness from that night is telling his story publicly about a man he saw with Teekah.
Detectives feel this could be the lead that might break the case wide open.
The witness, who Q13 News is calling John, was 17 when he and his family spent their Saturday night at New Frontiers Bowling Alley in Tacoma.
“We’d gone to that bowling alley plenty of times. It’s the kind of place where people can go with their families and kids just roam,” says John.
New Frontiers was often crowded, especially on weekends, but in a sea of people, one was memorable to John.
“I had to use the restroom, so I went towards where the restrooms were. This rude guy bumped into me, with this little girl, and he was white - the little girl was mixed ... I just thought it was a father rushing his daughter to the restroom.”
John says the moment stuck with him because the man bumped into his shoulder hard but didn’t apologize. He seemed to be in a rush. The rest of the night went on and seemed normal until John and his family walked out to leave and noticed police in the parking lot.
But John says officers didn’t disclose what, or who, they were looking for.
A couple of days later, John saw the little girl from the bowling alley plastered all over the news. That was when he realized the man he’d seen with the child he’d later know to be Teekah Lewis was not her father.
Now the 2-year-old was gone and John felt helpless, but he knew he had to say something. He was interviewed by police in January 1999 but never heard anything after that.
He often wondered if his information was irrelevant or not useful to law enforcement.
It wasn’t until two decades later that a cold case investigator combing through thousands of pages in the case file came across John’s information and instantly knew it was significant.
“This witness actually describes an encounter with Teekah by this individual and the description of the individual is not generic. It’s specific and it’s detailed and unique enough that the description can maybe identify the last person who maybe had contact with Teekah,” says Det. Steven Reopelle.
When Reopelle contacted John, his memory of the man’s face remained the same.
“A gentleman with pockmarks ... he was holding this little girl’s hand when he bumped into me and I was thinking 'this is the rudest person in the world,'” says John.
Pockmarks could be the key.
“I was unfamiliar with this individual with the pockmarked face, so as I was reading through the file and I saw that I did think it was important right away and I thought maybe this is the one piece of information that could break this case open,” says Reopelle.
And when the detective kept combing through the file, he found another tip that stuck out to him. This one came in while a news crew was out at the bowling alley.
“About a week after Teekah’s disappearance they were filming a reenactment down at the bowling alley and someone who was standing there watching noticed a person with a pockmarked face who was also watching the reenactment, and the witness who called in thought he was acting strangely,” says Reopelle.
At that time there would’ve been no way for the caller to know a man with pockmarks had come up in the investigation.
Det. Reopelle says the man they’re looking to identify is white, 5 feet 11 inches tall with a husky build. He’s described as having shoulder length curly brown hair with a thick mustache and a heavily pockmarked face.
The night of Teekah’s disappearance he was wearing a blue plaid shirt and faded jeans.
When asked where he gets his determination on a case that's already been worked by many of his predecessors, Reopelle's answer is simple: Teekah's mother Theresa Lewis.
"It really makes it easy to try to keep the case alive for her and try to find her some answers," he said. "She has never given up on her daughter, finding her daughter, and I really admire that."
Theresa Lewis says she finally feels she has a detective who will get answers, but she knows the answers may be darker and more earth-shattering than she's ever before allowed herself to consider.
"Nobody will know the pain that I've felt when he told me this, nobody," she said.
For decades, Theresa has held onto hope that whoever took Teekah took her to raise her and lover her. She says the information Reopelle has shared with her about the witness account of the pockmarked man has forced her to confront a horrific reality.
"That man went in to find somebody - to find a child and harm that child," she said. "And that man took my child, my everything. That was my world right there."
Twenty-one years later, Theresa's world is still shattered. Memories -- Teekah's coat that she wore to the bowling alley that night, the Pooh bear she was so attached to -- are all she has left.
"I've lived 21 years in a nightmare, and I think it has to come to an end," she said. "I want to bring her home, regardless of if she's here or not, it's time to bring her home."
In addition to identifying the man with the pockmarked face, investigators are still trying to find more information on a '90s Pontiac Grand Am that was maroon or purple in color with a spoiler on the back. It was seen speeding out of the bowling alley parking lot around the time Teekah disappeared.
Investigators have never been able to find the car or tie anyone to it.
If you have information on this case, contact Crime Stoppers for a $1,000 cash reward. Use the P3 Tips App on your smart phone or call the hot line at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).