Naomi Irion’s family refers to her as the “miracle birth.”
When her mother was pregnant in Houston with the now-18-year-old, there was “no amniotic fluid” for weeks before she delivered, Ms Irion’s big brother, Casey Valley, tells The Independent.
“ We were all expecting the worst,” says Mr Valley, who was 14 at the time and, along with family and doctors, concerned about the newborn’s respiratory and urinary systems. “She pulled through at the last minute … the first thing she did was pee and cry” – a welcome sign for those vital organ systems.
“She made it then, and she can make it now,” says Mr Valley, 32, of his little sister – who has been missing since 12 March, when surveillance footage captured the teen leaving in her car with a hooded suspect from a Walmart parking lot in Fernley, Nevada.
Mr Valley, a Navy veteran and Apple employee, moved to the state two years ago for work and was joined by his sister after she graduated from high school in Pretoria, South Africa, where she spent several years of her teens. Her father is a diplomat and her mother a teacher; Ms Irion grew up all over the world but was in a “sheltered environment in the diplomatic community – and she didn’t have a lot of freedom,” Mr Valley tells The Independent.
She viewed a move to Nevada as “basically a launchpad” to her adult life, he says – and she quickly got a job, car and social circle, both in Fernley and on the internet. At the time of her disappearance, she was saving up for her own place. A proud member of the LGBT community and proponent of women’s rights, she’d also started online dating, Mr Valley tells The Independent.
Since her disappearance earlier this month, he’s been fretting that perhaps she wasn’t prepared for all of it.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that she has the right tools in the toolbox for this type of thing,” he says; Mr Valley has theories about her disappearance but won’t disclose them as the investigation is ongoing.
He describes his sister as “naive and very sheltered … also very childlike.”
He’s just back from searching in the desert for her on Wednesday evening; the previous day, authorities held a press conference pleading for information and vigil was held in Fernley with hundreds of people wishing and praying for the best possible outcome. Mr Casey’s mother and stepfather had travelled from South Africa, and Ms Irion’s sister, Tamara Cartwright, flew in from Texas.
There are seven siblings in the family, including three boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who were adopted from Ukraine three years ago. One of them spoke at the Tuesday conference, barely choking out the words to ask for his sister’s safe return.
Naomi Irion: Hunt for missing woman as hooded man ‘abducts’ her in Walmart parking lot
“We cry a lot,” Mr Valley tells The Independent. “We all cry a lot. It’s a very emotional, very fragile time. I feel very protective… I feel like I failed [to] prepare Naomi for this evil world. I’m the big brother.”
What is he banking on, however, is his sister’s personality.
“She is very stubborn,” he says, half laughing. “I’m sure that whoever is dealing with her right now is dealing with that.”
Mr Valley had gone to sleep early that Saturday night; because his sister’s days began before sunrise, he thought nothing of the fact she wasn’t there on Sunday morning.
But then she didn’t return Sunday night, and neither friends nor family had heard from her. Mr Valley began calling jails and hospitals across counties, to no avail. His stepfather in South Africa, who has access to Ms Irion’s accounts, confirmed that her last purchase had been around 5am at a gas station near Walmart.
A friend of Mr Valley’s girlfriend was the one who suggested that Walmart could hold some clues, he said.
“We tracked security down at Walmart, and they were very helpful – and I’m very thankful to them for letting us barge in on them and showing us that footage,” Mr Valley said last week at a press conference.
The footage showed his little sister having an alarming interaction with a hooded man in the parking lot.
“This person did say or do something to Naomi to make her move over from the driver side to the passenger side,” he said, noting it was then “that I reported it as a kidnapping”.
He called Panasonic. Ms Irion had neither shown up at work nor called all weekend. The family’s reality was about to turn into a living nightmare.
According to the evidence, after buying an energy drink at a gas station and parking at Walmart, Ms Irion scrolled on social media on her phone until 5.23am, according to records. Then her activity stopped.
The teenager’s car was found two days after she disappeared, abandoned in an industrial area and showing signs of suspicious activity, authorities said.
Her phone was last traced to an area near Wadsworth, less than three miles away; it has not been used since and authorities, despite extensive official and volunteer searches involving everything from ATVs to horses, have failed to turn up any evidence of the device she so devotedly used.
Police have since released footage showing of the suspect beforehand – footage of him pacing erratically in front of the store, cars and their headlights.
Focus has also shifted to a vehicle pictured nearby, a pickup to which authorities believe the suspect had access. It’s a dark-coloured 2020 or newer Chevrolet four-door pickup with a price tag of at least $50,000, though the plates have not yet been identified.
On Tuesday morning, Mr Valley, Ms Irion’s mother, sister and 13-year-old brother all choked up while speaking at the local press conference. They not only begged for information on the truck but also placed a noticeable emphasis on social media and the role it may have played in her disappearance, and any clues it may reveal.
“What I really want to say is that, if you have any information at all, that you need to come forward,” Ms Cartwright said Tuesday. “If you have information about the vehicle, if you have information about the suspect, if you have information about my sister, I need you to come forward … immediately.”
She added: “This is life or death for my sister. Life or death.
“You need no one’s approval before calling law enforcement; this is life or death for a beautiful and fun and amazing sister, daughter and friend … She’s just starting her adult life. She hasn’t even gone to college yet. She just graduated high school.”
Diana Irion, who spent 36 hours travelling from her home in South Africa, expressed fears on Tuesday that her daughter could be very far from the alleged abduction site.
“Because the incident happened so close to I-80, she could be anywhere – anywhere in the nation,” Mrs Irion said.
Lyon County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Kusmerz also reiterated that multiple agencies were searching for Ms Irion “nationwide”.
“We’re releasing everything we can,” he said Tuesday, though: “There’s a lot more that we know.”