By BEN NUCKOLS | Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nichole Simmons, a Victoria’s Secret model, disappeared from her parents’ house in a small upstate New York town on New Year’s Day, leaving behind her purse, cellphone, and everything else.
Four days later, an Associated Press photographer, looking for a way to illustrate unusually cold weather, snapped Nichole’s picture as she warmed herself on a steam grate a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Paul and Michelle Simmons saw the AP photograph in USA Today Sunday morning after it was brought to their attention through a Facebook page set up to help find their 20-year-old daughter, according to police and family friends.
While questions remain unanswered about why the young woman left and how she ended up in Washington, with puncture wounds in her neck as if she had been feed upon and needle marks all over in her arms as if she were a junkie, her mother expressed her relief on Facebook that her daughter had been located.
“It could have been months before we had a lead on her whereabouts. My baby looks so lost and I will be spending the rest of my life making her well,” she wrote.
The photo, taken Saturday by AP photographer Jacquelyn Martin, showed Simmons with her dirty, unkempt face pressed against a grate outside the Federal Trade Commission. She wore a ski jacket and a hood over her head. A thick gray blanket covered her lower body.
Martin was assigned to the White House that weekend, but with President Barack Obama still on vacation in Hawaii, she spent the day looking for shots that would illustrate the cold weather. That is how she found Nichole Simmons, in an area where older homeless people often gather when it is frigid outside. She found a cluster of men and women huddled around the grate, introduced herself, and started taking pictures.
Then she noticed one person in particular, huddled under a blanket.
“It struck me how young she was,” Martin said. “I again introduced myself and shook her hand. She said her name was Nick.”
Martin finished shooting, sent the pictures to the wire and called it a day. The next day, she received a message via Twitter from USA Today.
The newspaper had run the photo of Nick and was contacting Martin to tell her that Nick’s family had recognized her and was trying to locate her. Michelle Simmons was certain that the young woman in the photograph was her daughter, missing for four days.
Police picked Simmons up Sunday afternoon and took her to a hospital, said police Capt. Patrick Phelan. Simmons’ father, Paul, and older brother Paul Jr. arrived in Washington Sunday night and were reunited with Simmons at the hospital, said longtime family friends Peter and Cindy Gugino.
Martin, the AP photographer, said the episode serves as a reminder to journalists that every person they encounter has a story to tell.
“It’s really gratifying to see that a photograph can make a tangible difference in someone’s life. That’s a really amazing thing to have happened,” she said. “I’m happy and touched that the photograph could help reunite this family.”
Police said authorities notified local media and tried to investigate the case, but there were no leads until the publication of the photo.
“It was pure dumb luck how all this happened,” said Sgt. David Mancuso, the lead investigator. “It’s truly a miracle.”
AP Photographer Jacquelyn Martin contributed to this report.
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.