Kamelia Spencer Missing Since 1999 When She Was 3; Her Dad & Grandma Still Wanted

Kamelia, who's now 21, has not had contact with her mother or other family since she was a toddler.

March 19, 2019
Kamelia Spencer, age 3; enhanced image at 19 [NCMEC]

Photo by: Kamelia Spencer, age 3; enhanced image at 19 [NCMEC]

Kamelia Spencer, age 3; enhanced image at 19 [NCMEC]

By: Michelle Sigona

Related To:

PALMDALE, CA — Five days before Christmas in 1999, three-year-old Kamelia Spencer disappeared.

In the midst of her parents’ custody battle, a court-appointed social worker took Kamelia to an arcade for a supervised visit with her father. That’s when, the FBI says, the child’s dad and grandmother whisked her away and went on the run — where they have remained ever since.

Derek Spencer, now 46, and Helen Gruning, now 71, face federal charges for the alleged kidnapping.

Kamelia, who’s now 21, has not had contact with her mother or other family since she was a toddler.

Prior to the alleged abduction, Sonia Coppolecchia, Kamelia’s mother, says she fought an intense and exhaustive custody battle with Spencer and Gruning, dating back to when her daughter was an infant. At one point, accusations landed Coppolecchia behind bars, but the charges were summarily dismissed and she was released.

As 1999 drew to a close, the custody fight had reportedly turned in Coppolecchia’s favor. That’s when, law-enforcement agents believe, Spencer and Gruning plotted to grab Kamelia and flee.

Talking to the press, Coppolecchia said, “I have had no relief. It’s been a chronic state of the worst agony a parent could ever dream of because not only do I not know where my child is, I do not have the knowledge of her being safe.”

Authorities believe Spencer and Gruning may have taken Kamelia to Las Vegas and then possibly left the country, at least temporarily.

Detective Steven Lankford with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department added, “I believe they’re back in the United States. I think they might have left for a short period of time. I think they got back into the United States before 9/11. If they used their passports after 9/11, I think we might have some indication. I also believe they are not using their true names.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created an age-enhanced photo of what Kamelia would look like at the age of 18. The other age-progressed photos are of Derek at 43 and Helen at 68. The California Attorney General’s office says Spencer has warrants totaling $350,000 for his arrest and Gruning has a $350,000 warrant for her alleged involvement.

Coppolecchia is asking the public for help. She said, “Somebody has to step up to the plate to get her home. It has to be the public. Somebody out there in this country knows where they’re at.”


Kamelia Spencer:

  • Weight at time of disappearance: 45 pounds
  • Height at time of disappearance: 3 feet tall
  • Sex: Female
  • Race: Biracial, Hispanic/Caucasian
  • Nickname: Sweet Pea
  • Current age: 21
  • Date of birth: January 7, 1997
  • Missing since: December 20, 1999
  • Missing from: Palmdale, CA
Derek Spencer [NCMEC]

Photo by: Derek Spencer [NCMEC]

Derek Spencer [NCMEC]

Derek Spencer:

  • Weight: 160 pounds
  • Height: 5 feet, 8 inches
  • Sex: Male
  • Race: Caucasian
  • Hair: Sandy
  • Eyes: Green
  • May use the last name Gruning
  • Has “Derek” tattooed on his arm
Helen Barbara Gruning [NCMEC]

Photo by: Helen Barbara Gruning [NCMEC]

Helen Barbara Gruning [NCMEC]

Helen Barbara Gruning:

  • Weight: 105 pounds
  • Height: 5 feet, 5 inches
  • Sex: Female
  • Race: Caucasian
  • Hair: Red
  • Eyes: Green
  • Date of birth: April 24, 1947
  • known to wear wigs

If you know anything about this case, please contact our hotline (833-3-PURSUE) or submit a tip online.

For more on this case, watch the “Deadly Daughter” episode of In Pursuit With John Walsh on Wednesday, March 20 at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery! Or catch up on ID GO.

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