SDSU soccer player keeps hope alive after disappearance of sister

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The details of where Morgan Sacco can be found are on the San Diego State men's soccer schedule.

Last weekend the sophomore midfielder and his Aztec teammates were in Tulsa, then in Houston. This week, he is back in San Diego.

But the schedule doesn't pinpoint Sacco's true location.

Which is in limbo.

"That's a good word to describe it," he said.

Sacco and his family have been stuck in a dark purgatory ever since April 22, 2010. That's the day that Sacco's older sister, Aubrey, vanished in Nepal as though plucked from the face of the earth.

"It's extremely hard for me to think about what could have happened," Morgan said. "We can't rule anything out."

Exuberant and artistic, Aubrey Sacco was on one of her many adventures. At 23 and already an experienced world traveler, Aubrey was on the last leg of a five-month journey through Asia -- from Sri Lanka, where she taught yoga, to India, where she volunteered in schools, and finally to Nepal, where she was going to trek the Langtang Valley before coming home.

The Colorado University graduate kept in regular touch with her parents and brothers by email and Skype. In their last conversation, Aubrey told her parents she was doing a popular "teahouse" trek from village to village, and that she'd be out of cell phone range for a week or so. Her parents asked her to get a guide, but Aubrey was assured it was safe so she decided to go alone.

And that was the last time they spoke to her.

Seventeen months later, the Saccos have no idea what happened to Aubrey. Except that they continue to believe that she's alive. "I just feel like we would know, we would have a gut feeling," Morgan said.

After Aubrey remained out of touch for two weeks, her father and older brother, Crofton, went to Nepal to search for her. Morgan was recuperating from surgery on his ankle and couldn't join them. They interviewed people who remembered seeing Aubrey along the trail. But they came home empty-handed.

The weeks of waiting turned into months. The months into a year. As devastating as the disappearance of Aubrey is, the Sacco's pain has been compounded by what they say is an inability to get adequate help from the U.S. State Department. They asked their congressmen for assistance. They mounted a letter-writing campaign -- aided by a Facebook page -- resulting in more than 8,000 missives on Aubrey's behalf. They drove a billboard through Washington, D.C., asking Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to "Hear Our Plea."

But the Saccos have not been satisfied with the response. "It's sickening really," Paul Sacco said. "We think of our government as competent and strong. Here's a little girl, 23 years old, lost in a foreign country and we can't get the Secretary of State to do a damn thing."

State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said that Secretary of State Clinton is aware of the situation and that the State Department is working with the U.S. embassy in Nepal.

"We continue to express our sympathies to the family," Thompson said. "We have been in contact with the family. We continue to follow up and to work with the authorities."

The Saccos have also been working closely with the American embassy and met with authorities again this summer on another trip to Nepal. This time Morgan, 21, and his mother, Connie, accompanied Paul. Despite visions of sheer Himalayan cliffs or deep mountain crevasses, they found a well-traveled path through a rain forest, far less treacherous than the kind of hiking Aubrey tackled in Colorado.

They passed out fliers, hired translators, interviewed some of the same people Paul had met in 2010. Some had changed their story, raising a red flag of concern. The Saccos have made connections with local police, with a high-ranking general in the Nepalese army, with groups that help women at risk, with spiritual leaders who tell them Aubrey is alive.

But they say progress is stalled in red tape and jurisdictional issues. The Saccos believe they need more help from the State Department.

"Of all the things that make us cry and whimper, knowing our government won't help is the worst," Paul said.

The family returned with some good connections but no solid leads. Morgan rejoined his San Diego State team, ready to play for the first time since his sister vanished, having taken a redshirt year last fall. He's playing his way back into game shape and is fighting through the pain in his ankle.

"He's playing very, very well," said SDSU coach Lev Kirshner. "I think having that release, that escape, is healthy for him. He's around the guys, can have a laugh, have a distraction."

Morgan says Aubrey taught him to walk, and later to read. She, too, was a soccer player -- a fearless 5-foot tall stopper who never backed down from a larger opponent. But her baby brother surpassed her and was named the Colorado High School Player of the Year in 2007. He was recruited by several schools and felt San Diego State fit his needs.

The Aztecs wear armbands with Aubrey's name. They have rubber bracelets with stamped on them: the website her family created to help aid with their search. Though Morgan struggled at times with being away from his family at such a difficult time, he decided it was best to stay in San Diego.

"He has wonderful support there," Connie said. "As hard as it is, he needs to move on with life."

But that's a challenge, trying to move forward while stuck in limbo.

"It feels like life is existing around us," Morgan said. "We're trying to stay patient, figure this out.

"And hold onto hope."