Nearly three decades ago, Norine Higuchi Brown made a late-night supermarket run near her New Hyde Park home for ingredients to make Christmas cookies.
The mother of two — an 18-month-old and a 5-month-old — was never heard from again.
What happened? Did she run off? Was she abducted?
The questions, 28 years later, are still unanswered. But her friends and family haven't given up on finding out what happened to Brown on Dec. 12, 1990, the eve of her 32nd birthday.
In the past year, after Brown's classmates at Uniondale High School came back together for their 40-year reunion, Brown's sister and her closest friends renewed their push to learn whatever they could about the case. They reached out on social media for clues and they peppered the Nassau County Police Department with requests for information.
Now, they are asking the public to help bring attention back to Brown's disappearance.
"We need closure and Norine's kids deserve to know that she would have never run off," said childhood friend Susan Dimino, who works in Las Vegas as a housing inspector. "Those kids were her whole life. All she cared about were those kids."
The Nassau County Police Department's Missing Persons Squad is still "actively" investigating Brown's disappearance, said department spokesman Lt. Richard LeBrun. He declined to make a Missing Persons detective available to discuss the case.
Without a trace
Norine Higuchi grew up in Uniondale, the second of the four children of Margot Higuchi, a German immigrant who worked as a seamstress and a housekeeper, and Don Higuchi, who owned a carpeting store, said Susan Higuchi Mule, Brown's younger sister.
She was popular and friendly — and a strong athlete who excelled at swimming, gymnastics, skiing and judo, Mule recalled.
"Everyone loved Norine," said Mule, who lives in Phoenix.
After graduating from Uniondale High School, Norine Higuchi briefly worked in an office and a bank before she married John Brown, an FDNY firefighter. The Browns had two children: Anthony was 18 months old when his mother vanished; Alexa was just 5 months old, public records show.
On that Wednesday in December 1990, Norine Brown spent the day with Anthony, Alexa and Mule, who had a newborn. They went Christmas shopping and took pictures with Santa Claus, Mule said. In the evening, Brown drove her sister home to Franklin Square and she returned to New Hyde Park, she said.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Brown told her husband she was going to Pathmark on New Hyde Park Road to buy ingredients for cookies, police said. She liked to avoid stores when they were crowded, friends said. Brown had about $45 in her pocketbook but left her wallet and identification at home, police said.
Whether Brown ever went inside the supermarket wasn't clear, police said at the time.
John Brown told police that he fell asleep on the couch and didn't wake up until 5 a.m. Thursday, according a news report. When he noticed his wife hadn't returned, he called a friend who lived near the grocery store and asked him to look for her station wagon, police said at the time. When the friend found the car in the parking lot, John Brown called police to report his wife missing, authorities said.
Lt. Gerald Looney, the commander of the Missing Persons Squad, told Newsday in 1990 that a Pathmark employee recalled seeing the car in the parking lot shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday, but no one remembered seeing Brown.
She was wearing red slacks, a dark woolen coat and white sneakers.
Looking for clues
The following days, friends and family said, were filled with confusion, sadness and frustration.
Organized search parties hunted for any sign of Brown, friends and family said. A psychic instructed the family to look in Manhattan, specifically Central Park, Mule said. The search there turned up nothing.
As the days turned into weeks and months, Brown's disappearance went cold and John Brown had his wife declared deceased and cut off all ties with the Higuchi family, Mule said.
John Brown later remarried and had two more children, public records show.
Norine Brown's mother, Margot Higuchi, went to court to maintain ties with her grandchildren but lost, Mule said. To this day, they have no relationship with the Higuchi family, she said.
Today, John Brown is retired from the FDNY but still serves as a volunteer firefighter in New Hyde Park, where he was elected fire commissioner in 2007, public records show.
John Brown declined to discuss the case. "It's not an easy subject for me," he said.
Norine Brown's children still live on Long Island. Anthony Brown, now 29, of New Hyde Park, declined to discuss the case. "Let's not open wounds," he said.
Alexa Brown, 28, also of New Hyde Park, couldn't be reached for comment.
High school classmate Maria Agusta said she is hopeful that someone will remember details of Brown's disappearance and will come forward to police.
"We owe it to Norine to keep trying," said Agusta, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she previously ran a school for at-risk teens. "We are just hoping that somebody has heard something that could lead us to what happened to her."