There is an epidemic of missing and murdered mothers in the United States. Many missing and murdered moms get a great deal of press coverage, but for some reason, their cases go unsolved.
Among these missing and murdered moms is Marlen Ocha-Lopez. Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, 19, was a dark-haired beauty and nine months’ pregnant when she went missing April 23, 2019, in Chicago, Ill. That day Ochoa-Lopez had attended classes at Latino Youth High School in Chicago, planning to pick up her 3-year old at daycare later that day.
According to police, prior to her disappearance she had appealed to other mothers on a Facebook group called “Help a Sister Out,” asking for help securing a double stroller for her toddler and new baby.
A high-school student, Ochoa-Lopez wrote in a post that she was unemployed and short on cash, and willing to buy, trade, or accept the double stroller as a donation.
A woman had responded to her Facebook post with an offer to provide baby clothes and other items. The woman then directed Ochoa -Lopez to private message her for more information. Ochoa-Lopez had purchased baby items from the woman before.
On May 14, 2019, the body of Ochoa-Lopez was found stuffed inside a garbage bin in the backyard of the woman who had offered her baby supplies.
Ochoa-Lopez had been strangled with a cable and her unborn baby forcibly removed from her womb.
(Arrested in the death of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez; Clarissa Figueroa, daughter Desiree Figueroa, and boyfriend Piotr Bobak.)
Police arrested the woman from the Facebook post, Clarisa Figueroa, 46, along with her daughter Desiree Figueroa, 24, both charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery of a child less than 13 years old. Desiree Figueroa’s boyfriend Piotr Bobak was charged with concealing the death of a person and one felony count of concealing a homicidal death.
“Words cannot express how disgusting and thoroughly disturbing these allegations are,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
Community helping put the puzzle together
During the 3 weeks Ochoa-Lopez was missing, friends and family frantically searched for her. According to the family’s pastor, Jacobia Cortes, when Ochoa-Lopez’s husband tried to report her missing, he was told to return in 72 hours. He did return and in addition, the family had hired a private investigator.
The family also turned to the local church who came together and helped plaster the neighborhood with fliers of Ochoa.
As a result, people in the neighborhood began calling the church to report they had seen Ochoa-Lopez enter the home where she would be later found dead. According to Cortes, concerned residents also said one of the women who lived at the residence, describing her in her 40’s, had suddenly had a baby without ever appearing to be pregnant.
The same day Ochoa-Lopez went missing the Chicago Fire Department received a call that a newborn was in distress at the home where Ochoa was eventually found.
According to fire department spokesperson Larry Langford, for the three weeks that Ochoa-Lopez was missing, her baby boy was hospitalized and accompanied by a woman who claimed she had given birth to him. However, according to Ochoa’s father, Arnulfo Ochoa, there were missed opportunities to find his daughter earlier.
Grizzly details surface
On May 14, police obtained a search warrant and crime lab technicians searched the house on Chicago’s Southwest Side, only 4 miles from Ochoa-Lopez’s own home.
(Chicago police search the home of Clarisa Figueroa on May 14, 2019.)
Bleach and other cleaning supplies were found in the home, along with evidence of burned clothes.
“They are finding remains of burned clothes, they are finding some blood indication on the living room carpet, some blood indication on the hallway, some blood indication on the bathroom floor,” police said.
Ochoa-Lopez’s body was found in a garbage can, hidden in the yard, along with the cable used to strangle her.
Desiree Figueroa told police she helped her mother strangle Ochoa-Lopez from behind the couch until she took her last breath and peed herself.
Apparently, Clarisa Figueroa plotted for months to acquire a newborn before they kidnapped Ochoa-Lopez and cut her baby from her womb using a butcher knife, according to prosecutors.
(Cook County prosecutor Jim Murphy briefs Chicago media with details of murder of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez.)
Ochoa-Lopez was lured to Clarisa Figueroa’s home. When she arrived, Desiree Figueroa showed her a photo album of her late brother to distract her as her mother went behind Ochoa-Lopez with a cord and began strangling her, prosecutor Jim Murphy told reporters.
When Ochoa-Lopez managed to get her finger under the cord, Clarisa Figueroa yelled at her daughter, “You’re not doing your f—ing job!” The daughter then pried Ochoa-Lopez’s fingers from the cord “one by one” while her mother continued to strangle the teenager for another five minutes.
Reading from court documents, Murphy said when Ochoa-Lopez showed no signs of life, Clarisa Figueroa cut her open with a butcher’s knife, removed the baby and the placenta, then put the baby in a bucket with the umbilical cord still attached.
Authorities think the nightmarish plot was hatched during 2018, when Clarisa Figueroa told her family she was pregnant, later posting an ultrasound and photos of a room decorated for a baby on Facebook. Her daughter said she was surprised because she believed her mother had had her tubes tied.
According to Murphy, this announcement came not too long after Clarisa Figueroa’s own adult son had died from natural causes during 2018.
On March 5, 2018, Clarissa Figueroa made a Facebook post that read, “Who is due in May?” Another post said, “Where is the May mammas at?” Ochoa-Lopez, seven months pregnant at the time, replied and that is when Clarisa Figueroa offered her free baby clothes.
When Clarisa Figueroa first asked her daughter to help her kill someone to take their baby, the daughter initially said no.
They first met with Ochoa-Lopez around April 1. Desiree told her boyfriend of her mother’s intention to kill Ochoa-Lopez, and he warned he would call the police if they harmed the young mother. According to the prosecutor, Clarisa Figueroa then told the boyfriend the whole thing had been an April Fool’s joke.
They killed Ochoa-Lopez when she returned the second time on April 23. After killing her, the mother and daughter allegedly wrapped her in a blanket, placing the body in a large plastic bag. They proceeded to drag the body outside and placed it in a garbage can in a hidden area next to the garage.
Clarisa Figueroa then called 911 and claimed she had just delivered a baby and that it wasn’t breathing, authorities told reporters. When the first responders arrived, the baby was blue. The baby was immediately transported to a nearby hospital.
“At the hospital, doctors found no signs Clarisa Figueroa had just given birth,” prosecutors said. “She also had blood on her arms, hands, and face that police later determined to be the blood of Ochoa-Lopez.
Christ Medical Center in suburban Oaklawn has declined to comment, cutting state and federal regulations.
The baby, named Yadiel, remains hospitalized in intensive care and on a breathing machine.
(Funeral procession comes together to bury Marlen Ochoa-Lopez on May 25, 2019.)
On May 25, hundreds filed into a Stickney funeral home to pay their respects to the young mother.
“Today is a sad day – not only for [Marlen’s] family but for all of Chicago,” one community organizer said.
There are Many More Missing
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as of April 30, 2018, there were 86,927 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
Though no agency in the country can provide statistic specific to missing pregnant women, NCIC lists approximately 5, 714 missing persons with disabilities.
Many cases may be of people missing are due to diminished mental capacity such as Alzheimer’s, and other mental health issues but a few are pregnant women. However, while it is rare a pregnant mother goes missing, it seems to be happening with more frequency.
When a person goes missing, it becomes a cooperative effort on behalf of the police, the community, and the media,” says private investigator Thomas Lauth of Lauth Investigations International. “When a pregnant mother goes missing it should be treated with utmost urgency.”
Some missing pregnant women make national news, and some do not. Often it can depend upon the circumstances of the disappearance, but some experts say the police and media response can also be affected by race and socio-economic status.
Lauth who has been a private investigator specializing in missing person cases for 25 years, says the public’s reaction to a case becomes paramount when searching for a missing person and Ochoa-Lopez’s case reflects how successful community involvement can be in a missing person case. “Many, many cases are solved with the information provided by the public,” says Lauth. “Getting information out via media is often the only way to generate that one lead that may help law enforcement bring the victim home.”
Disappearance of Bethany Decker
Bethany Decker was 21 and five months pregnant when she vanished from her Ashburn, Va., apartment on January 29, 2011. She had been visiting her parents at their Columbia, Maryland home earlier that day.
(Bethany Decker vanished from her Ashburn, Va., apartment on January 29, 2011.)
Decker who was majoring in global and economic change didn’t show up for her classes at the nearby George Mason University (GMU), or her full-time job but it would be three weeks before she was reported missing.
During the time Decker attended college at GMU, she became pregnant by Emile Decker, an Army National Guardsman. The two married in 2009 and they had a son six months later. Emile Decker was often deployed to Afghanistan for months at a time.
While working at a Centreville Italian restaurant, Decker met Roland, a Bolivian immigrant who was approximately 30 years old and began an extramarital affair with him. By 2010, there were problems in the Decker’s marriage and Decker moved to a separate apartment in Ashburn. Roland soon followed and moved in with her, but Decker found him controlling and abusive. Several times a day Roland demanded Decker send him a picture of herself from her cellphone to show who she was with. Concerned, her parents began devising a plan to get their daughter out of the relationship but by the end of the year Bethany found out she was pregnant.
In January 2011, Emile Decker returned to the United States for a month-long leave to see Decker. By the end of the month, they went on a week-long vacation in Hawaii and returned on January 28, spending the night at Decker’s parent’s home in Maryland.
The following morning Emile Decker stayed at the home and Decker returned to her apartment a little over an hour drive away. On February 2, Emile returned to Afghanistan. Friends that met him at the airport to see him off noted that Bethany wasn’t there like previous occasions but attributed her absence to the couple’s marital problems.
Initially, friends and family were not concerned when they didn’t hear from Decker as of the beginning of February. They said she made an effort to stay in touch but with her busy life and classes at GMU, along with a full-time job, sometimes days would go by before they heard from her.
February 19, Nelson asked her parents, who lived near Ashburn if they could drive by their granddaughter’s house to see if she was there. Decker’s Hyundai was parked out front at an unusual angle with a flat tire. Immediately concerned, Decker’s grandparents called Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department and made a missing person report.
Detectives found Decker had not used her bank account or cell phone since January 29 and initially focused the investigation on Roland and Emile Decker since both may have a motive to harm her.
Emile Decker returned to the states and took a polygraph.
Police then focused on Roland who said he had not seen Decker since the 29th but offered no additional information.
Roldan who had a criminal record prior to Decker’s disappearance is considered a person of interest in the case. In 2015, Roldan was arrested for the attempted murder of another girlfriend Vicky Willoughby.
(Ronald Rowland is suspected to be the last person who saw Bethany Decker alive on January 29, 2011.)
Police in Moore County, North Carolina, responded to a 911 call for a domestic incident at Willoughby’s home on November 12, 2014. Police said Willoughby shot Roland in self-defense twice, once in the chest and once in the abdomen. Roland then grabbed Willoughby’s .38 caliber handgun and shot at her three times, hitting her in the head and leg. She lost an eye in the shooting.
After the Willoughby recovered, she appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and claimed Roldan had made statements to her that implicate him in the disappearance of Decker. He is currently serving time in a North Carolina prison.
In March 2019, Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman announced to media that police have had movement as recently as “last week,” in the eight-year search to determine who killed 21-year old Bethany Decker.
Though Chapman did not elaborate on what the development was, he said it came after a January search warrant of Decker’s Facebook account.
(Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Mike Chapman announces recent development in the disappearance of Bethany Decker.)
Loudoun County investigators have never charged Roland or named him as a suspect but have said he is no longer willing to answer questions about the disappearance of Decker.
Two weeks after Decker disappeared, Emile Decker said he received a “sketchy” email, “and did not believe it was sent by Bethany” according to a Facebook search warrant filed January 9 of this year.
“Suspicious activity” was also later reported on Decker’s Facebook account by her mother and some of Decker’s friends according to the warrant.
Better technology has assisted investigators with pinpointing the origin of the suspicious activity to reexamine Decker’s Facebook account.
During Roland’s conviction for the attempted murder of Willoughby, North Carolina prosecutors stated after Roland completes his time, sometime in 2021, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will then take him into custody for deportation proceedings to Bolivia.
However, Loudoun County sources told WTOP News that they expect a grand jury to indict Roldan for Decker’s murder despite her remains not being found.
“It’s going to primarily, I would imagine, be a circumstantial case,” said Chapman. “You have to compile all the evidence, and see where it all leads, and make sure you have enough to achieve a conviction.”
Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Bethany Decker is asked to call the Loudoun County Sheriff at 703-777-1021.
Disappearance of Jasmine Robinson
Jasmine Robinson, 23, was last seen February 18, 2019, at her home in Alachua County, Fla. She was seven months pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
(Jasmine Robinson is seven months pregnant and reported missing February 18, in Alachua County, Fla.)
After coming home from work, Robinson told her aunt she was going to bed at approximately 8 p.m. but friends and family became concerned when she hadn’t answered her phone and failed to report to work the following day. The family made a missing person report to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department.
From investigating Robinson’s home, police believe Robinson left her residence with “someone” as it did not appear Robinson had not been ready to go anywhere, leaving many of her belongings at the house.
“Over two squads of detectives have been engaged in her case. What we need now is that last piece of information from the public about where she is,” said Lt. Brett Rhodenizer of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
The Florida Sheriff’s Association Criminal Apprehension Assistance Program and Crime Stoppers are offering a reward of up to $8,000 for information that leads to the arrest of anyone responsible for the disappearance of Robinson.
“Whoever saw her last, we need that information because that would give us the key starting point, where we can then have the assistance from the public, use the specialized resources that are available to the sheriff’s office to get out and begin that very deliberate ground search to bring Jasmine home,” said Rhodenizer.
Anyone with information about regarding the disappearance of Jasmine Robinson is asked to call the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at 352-955-1818.
Disappearance of Kierra Coles
Kierra Coles, 26, stepped out of her home in Chicago’s South Side in her postal worker uniform and disappeared into thin air on October 2, 2018.
(US Postal worker Kierra Coles has been missing from her South Side Chicago apartment since October 1, 2018.)
She was three months pregnant when she disappeared.
During her last phone call with her mother, Karen Phillips, Coles asked for advice about a product and “she seemed okay.” Coles was reported missing on October 4, after her Phillips hadn’t heard from her in two days and calls were being forward to voicemail.
Chicago Police was called to perform a welfare check at Cole’s apartment but found nothing out of the ordinary.
After checking with neighbors, police said the following day; Coles was seen on a neighbor’s surveillance video leaving her apartment near 81st Street and Vernon Avenue. Her vehicle was found in front of her apartment complex with her cell phone, prenatal vitamins, and a packed lunch still inside.
To add to the mystery, coworkers of Coles say she called out sick that day.
Leaving everyone baffled, Cole’s father, Joseph Coles told Dateline his daughter was excited to be a first-time mother. “She had no reason to disappear,” he said.
(Family members of Kierra Coles hand out fliers in Chicago’s South Side.)
In the months following Cole’s disappearance, authorities have searched areas around the city of Chicago. Since Cole’s disappearance, her father quit his job in Wisconsin and moved to Chicago to search “night and day” for his daughter.
“I’m trying to stand out here and stay strong for my daughter and my grandbaby,” said Joseph Coles. “I do my daily routine – pass out fliers, trying to get the word out,” he added. “There’s a lot of love in this family. There is no way in hell she would run away.”
Police announced they feel “foul play” is suspected in Cole’s disappearance.
Chief Guglielmi told Dateline there is a minimum of two to three people of interest in the case and who was the last to see her. “We’ve narrowed down our group here to a personal associate of hers – a friend – who was one of the last people to see her.” Guglielmi did not comment on the person’s name.
Cole’s father holds out hope his daughter and grandbaby are still alive.
“I just want the world to know I love my baby and my grandbaby. It would be closure to know my baby is safe and home,” said Joseph Coles. That would be a blessing of a lifetime. The way the situation is now, I am keeping hope. Because there are young women who have been missing for longer than Kierra has, and they’ve been found safely. So, I am keeping hope.”
As Cole’s due date passed on April 23, she remains missing.
Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Kierra Coles is asked to call the Chicago Police Department at 312-746-6000.
Last week, Tawana, the mother of Jabez Spann, received the closure she’d been chasing since September 4, 2017. That Labor Day weekend was the last time she saw her son alive. The Sarasota teen went missing from his own front yard after having attended a candlelight vigil being held two blocks from his home. After a torturous 18 months without answers, she finally received the news she dreaded. Two men were checking a fence in a pasture in Manatee County when they made a grisly discovery: A human skull. They called 911. The remains of Jabez Spann identified from dental records. Sarasota Police Deputy Chief Pat Robinson said in a press conference, “Today, I am sad to report that we were not able to recover Mr. Spann living and return him to his family.”
To tell the full story of Jabez’s disappearance, you have to go all the way back to August, 2017, and the death of another man in Jabez’s life. In late August of 2017, Travis Combs, 31, was fatally shot and killed, with law enforcement investigating his death as a homicide. When the news broke about Jabez’s disappearance, one of the dominating bylines denoted him as a witness to a murder, having been named in a probable cause affidavit for a suspect. Reginald Parker, 55, claimed to have witnessed the shooting of Travis Combs, and allegedly told several individuals that he had witnessed it in November of 2017. These individuals were interviewed by police, corroborating what Parker had told them. Prior to Parker’s arrest on 2017, Jabez’s presence at the crime scene was merely a neighborhood rumor. The publishing of the arrest probable cause affidavit confirmed his presence at the crime scene that night.
Combs’ case eventually became overshadowed by the
disappearance of Jabez Spann in media coverage, as he went missing less than a
week later. The facts of the case as we know it read more like an edgy police
procedural—a teenage boy, having already allegedly witnessed a violent crime,
disappears without a trace, and police find themselves stymied. He disappeared
less than 200 yards away from where Combs’ body was discovered. After Jabez’s
remains were found, Police Deputy Chief Pat Robinson claimed that “hundreds
upon hundreds” of hours have been logged in this investigation, citing that Jabez’s
family has been a valuable asset to investigators. He also noted in a
press conference that this case is personal for law enforcement, like many
cases involving teens or young children, “Many of our detectives…have children
of their own. I’m a father, as the sheriff. I can’t imagine having that
information broken to me about my son. There’s been highs and lows in this
investigation where there’ve been sightings and tips and things we’ve followed
up on. And every time it’s a peak and a valley, [the family] stood with us, and
our investigation team, every step of the way.” At that same press conference, police noted
that they did not believe Jabez left Sarasota of his own volition.
The two men who called 911 told the dispatcher they did not see signs of a weapon at the site—just the skull and “some bones.” It was the break that came after 18 months of following over 100 tips reported to law enforcement that proved to be dead ends. Members of the community have found the news of the discovery bittersweet, like activist Wayne Washington, “You can’t just hurt a child in our community and think that you can live life and everything is going to be sweet. The emotions are very high because I wish that he was alive, but by the family finally finding him they can get the closure they need as a family.” Over the course of the investigation, the reward sum for any information leading to the whereabouts of Jabez Spann had grown to $50,000. Police have yet to say if or how the funds will be disbursed.
Despite the heartbreaking news in her son’s case, his mother
remains steadfast in looking towards the future. Since the time her son
disappeared, she believed he witnessed a brutal murder, and the person
responsible had a hand in making him disappear. She now wants to see that
person answer for their actions, “We’re going to move forward in the hopes that
they can find whoever did this. Those last moments that you caused him, that
you did to him when he was helpless and couldn’t call on anybody…that’s what I
want to see justice for. We got some closure. We’re going to put him in peace
and lay him to rest. We’re not done.”
Jayme Closs’s harrowing story of survival has captured the attention of the entire nation. The 13-year-old Wisconsin teen went missing almost three months ago on October 15,2018, after a cryptic phone call to 911 triggered a call from police to the Closs home where officers made a grisly discovery. Jayme’s parents, James and Denise Closs, were found shot dead and their 13-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found.
The slaying of her parents and evidence of a home invasion qualified the missing teenager for an Amber Alert by authorities, and search efforts immediately began for Jayme as investigators began to piece together what had happened in those fateful moments. 87 days passed as Jayme’s anxious family and concerned friends waited for updates in her case. Then on January 10, 2019, Jayme showed up on the street in the remote neighborhood of Gordon approximately 70 miles away, asking a passing dog walker for help. The woman grabbed Jayme and took her to a neighbor’s door, where she told the neighbor, “This is Jayme Closs, call 911!” Not too long after her reappearance, police were able to apprehend Jayme’s captor, 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson, who was found wandering the nearby neighborhood—likely searching for Jayme.
Investigators say Jayme’s escape was one of the luckiest breaks they’ve ever seen in a missing person case. Jayme’s case is already being analyzed as atypical, due to the surfacing information that has investigators completely floored. When Jayme reappeared last week and told law enforcement about the details of her abduction and escape, many officials were surprised. Investigators told NBC 26, “Most abductions are committed by perpetrators who live within a couple miles of the victim.” Despite the distance from the Closs home, Barron County Sheriff Christopher Fitzgerald said he does not believe her kidnapper took her across state lines. With over 88 days’ worth of evidence to comb through, investigators will be attempting to track their movements since Jayme’s disappearance.
When asked about this gigantic body of evidence, Fitzgerald told CNN, “…we’re looking for receipts, where the suspect may have been over the last 88 days. Did he take things with her? Did she go with him to the store? Did he buy clothes for her? Did he buy food?” Investigators also told NBC only about 1% of abductions are committed by someone who is not a member of the victim’s family, nor geographically located near the victim. Much of the most pertinent information in any missing persons case is collected within the first 48 hours of the investigation. Captain David Poteat of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department said when it comes to the abduction of children, the window of time is even smaller. Because of the atypicality of her case, investigators are already proffering Jayme’s case will be studied by current and future members of law enforcement for “years to come.”
As they continue to sort through evidence, Fitzgerald said Patterson likely hid her from friends and visitors, offering no further explanation. “All I know is that she was able to get out of that house and get help and the people recognized her as Jayme Closs right away.” What Jayme eventually described to investigators was a crudely constructed makeshift cell. When Patterson was expecting friends or relatives, he forced Jayme to hide under his twin-sized bed in his room. He would stack laundry baskets and plastic totes around the bed with barbells sitting against them so Jayme could not get out. He also left music blaring in his room so Jayme could not hear what was going on throughout the house. One of the people who made a number of visits while Jayme was being held captive in the Gordon cabin where Jayme was held was Patterson’s father, Patrick Patterson. He told Jean Casarez of CNN, “All I care about right now is Jayme’s family. I want to get them a note.”
Investigators have also stated when it comes to questioning Jayme about her traumatic experience, they are taking it one day at a time, “When she wants information, we’ll give it to her; and when she wants to tell us things, we’ll take it from her.”
There were many theories about the circumstances behind Jayme’s disappearance in the weeks right after she went missing. Law enforcement and citizens alike proffered it might have been a home invasion gone terribly wrong, but as of this week, Fitzgerald has stated Jayme was the only target in this crime. Once questioned by police following his arrest, it became clear Patterson had been watching Jayme for a number of weeks before he took her, but was scared off on both prior occasions. Patterson targeted Jayme and took great pains to ensure he would not be found out. He shaved his head to avoid leaving his DNA at the crime scene. Once he abducted Jayme, he took her clothes and destroyed the evidence. The criminal complaint filed by the Barron County District Attorney said Patterson first saw Jayme getting on the bus to school when he was passing by on his way to work. Sections of the complaint are enough to make one’s arm hair stand at attention, “The defendant states when he saw (Jayme) he knew that was the girl he was going to take.” Jayme also told investigators after Patterson placed her in the trunk of his car, she heard police sirens close by not long after Patterson began driving. After Jayme was found alive, the responding officers noted on their way to the Closs home on October 15th, they passed only one vehicle.
The bottom line for investigators is this: If Jayme had not possessed the courage and fortitude to escape her captor, they would never have found her. On January 10th, she managed to push aside the totes and squeeze out of her makeshift cage. Jeanne Nutter was the dog walker she approached on the street, wearing no coat in the cold weather. Nutter took her to the door of her neighbors, Peter and Kristin Kasinskas. Law enforcement now has to decide what happens to the combined reward amount of $50,000—$25K from the FBI, and another $25K from the Jennie-O Turkey Store, where Jayme’s parents worked. Nutter helped Jayme to safety, and the Kasinskas called 911 to get her help, but they are saying they don’t want the reward. Peter Kasinskas was quoted in an interview by the Associated Press earlier this week saying the reward money should go to Jayme, “She got herself out.”
Several federal laws in the United States are focused on the plight of unresolved missing persons and unidentified remains. Each law, the result of families of missing persons who searched every dark corner for their missing child and tirelessly worked to ensure changes would be enacted to avoid the pitfalls they experienced in search of their missing or murdered child. The history of missing person law is always changing and evolving. Each law represents a victim, who in their name, would ensure another child would have a better chance.
As of May 31,2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). An additional 8,709 unidentified persons are listed as active cases in NCIC.
These numbers are staggering and reflect gaps in the response and procedure to missing and unidentified cases, as well as a lack of a federal mandate requiring all law enforcement within the United States to intake and respond to a missing person case.
The families of missing persons have dedicated, at times years, to addressing the lack of response to missing person cases reminding the public each missing person reflects the name of an individual who is a child, mother, father, grandparent or sibling.
Missing Children Act of 1982
Etan Kalil Patz was a 6-year old boy who vanished on his way to school. The morning of May 25, 1979, Etan left his SoHo apartment by himself planning to walk from his residence at 113 Prince Street to his school bus stop on Broadway. He never got on his bus.
When Etan did not return from school that afternoon, his mother Julie called police to report him missing. An intense police search ensued that evening with approximately 100 police officers and a team of bloodhounds conducting a thorough ground and door to door search for Etan.
Etan’s father Stanley Patz, a professional photographer, had recently taken many professional photographs of Etan and made flyers and posted them throughout the neighborhood where his son had vanished.
Etan has never been found but his disappearance spurred a movement that would affect missing children cases for years to come.
In the early 1980’s Etan’s photograph was the first child to be profiled on milk cartons. Etan’s case marks the massive use of flyers to search for missing persons and credited for creating more attention to missing child cases.
In 1982, the Missing Children Act was introduced to Congress and passed to authorize the FBI to enter missing children’s personal data into and maintain a national clearinghouse of information in the NCIC, making the information accessible to local, state, and federal law enforcement and providing a previously lacking resource to help find missing children up to age 18.
On May 25, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the day National Missing Children’s Day.
The disappearance of 6-year old Adam Walsh would spearhead the most significant contribution to finding missing children to date.
On July 27, 1981, Reve’ Walsh took Adam to a Sears department store in the Hollywood Mall, in Hollywood, Florida. Only a few minutes out of his mother’s sight, Adam vanished. His severed head found in a drainage canal alongside Florida’s Turnpike in rural St. Lucie County.
Adams parents, Reve’ and John Walsh spearheaded the effort to create the first national clearinghouse for missing children to provide resources to law enforcement and families of missing children.
NCMEC’s “Code Adam” program for helping lost children in department stores is named in Adam’s memory.
In addition, Congress passed the “Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act” on July 25, 2006 and President Bush signed it into law on July 27th, the day Adam had gone missing. Both John and Reve’ attended the signing ceremony held on the South Lawn of the White House. The law institutes a national database of convicted child molesters, while also increasing penalties for sexual and violent offenses against children.
Over the years, John Walsh has made a significant impact in the lives of missing children and their families with his advocacy, while also becoming internationally known for his hit television show “America’s Most Wanted” and the current hit show “The Hunt with John Walsh.”
In 1992, Jennifer Wilmer was a 21-year old living with her parents in Long Island, New York. She had received a full scholarship to St. John’s University in New York City but dropped out after one semester, planning to later enroll in College of the Redwoods in the small town of Eureka, California.
She moved to California in early 1993 and quickly found work but eventually fell on hard times, having to go on public assistance for a time. Her parents, Fred and Susan Wilmer promised to send an airline ticket to a local Eureka travel agency, so Jennifer could return to New York, but she never arrived to pick it up.
There are two conflicting accounts as to what happened the day Jennifer disappeared. One account was that Jennifer was last seen leaving her northern California residence on September 13, 1993, to go to the travel agency to pick up her ticket. Another account was Jennifer was last seen hitchhiking from the Hawkins Bar area to Willow Creek to inquire about a job opportunity at a farm. Jennifer remains missing.
In 1994, Fred and Susan Wilmer sought out help to find their missing adult daughter from the Nation’s Missing Children Organization (NMCO), founded by Kym Pasqualini, and located in Phoenix, Arizona. The group organized visits to the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), and members of Congress to raise awareness of Wilmer’s disappearance and thousands of other missing persons throughout the country. They also formed a group of families of missing persons to create a group called F.O.C.U.S. (Finding Our Children Under Stress) and invited experts in the field of psychology and law enforcement to participate in order to better understand the emotional and psychological effects of dealing with “ambiguous loss” when a person goes missing.
The Wilmer’s also began the years long effort to pass a federal law that would enable each state to enhance its efficiency with regard to the reporting system for unidentified and missing persons.
Report to the National Crime Information Center and when possible, to law enforcement agencies throughout a state regarding every deceased unidentified person, regardless of age, found in the State’s jurisdiction;
Enter a complete profile of an unidentified person in compliance with the guidelines established by the US Department of Justice for the NCIC Missing and Unidentified Persons files, to include dental, X-rays, fingerprints and DNA, if available;
Enter the NCIC number or other appropriate case number assigned to each unidentified person on the death certificate of each; and
Retain all such records pertaining to unidentified person until a person is identified.
The Wilmer’s early advocacy brought much needed attention to the correlating problem between identifying unidentified persons by cross-referencing the descriptive information of missing persons with unidentified remains.
In 1997, 18-year old Kristen Modafferi was an industrial design major at North Carolina University. She had been offered an opportunity to attend a summer photography course at University of California at Berkeley and left North Carolina on her birthday, June 1, 1997, to travel to San Francisco. It would be her first time away from home.
She would quickly get a job at Spinelli’s Coffee Shop (now called Tully’s) at the Crocker Galleria in San Francisco’s financial district, working weekdays. On weekends, Kristen worked at the Café Musee inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
On June 23, 1997 Kristen asked a Spinelli’s coworker for directions to Baker Beach, located next to the popular Land’s End Beach about a 20-minute bus ride from downtown San Francisco. That was the last time Kristen was ever seen.
Her parents, Robert and Deborah Modafferi immediately flew to San Francisco to file a missing person report for their daughter. A ground search was conducted with Bloodhounds and detected Kristen’s scent at an overlook at the beach, but no other evidence could be found.
Soon after Kristen’s disappearance, the Modafferi’s requested help from the Nation’s Missing Children Organization (NMCO) in Phoenix, one of the only groups in the country that would provide services to families of missing persons over the age of eighteen.
The founder, Kym Pasqualini, would again travel to Washington D.C., with the Modafferi’s to speak to the USDOJ and members of Congress to raise awareness of adult missing persons. In 1998, Representative Sue Myrick of North Carolina spearheaded the introduction of Kristen’s Law that would appropriate $1 million per year for 4-years to create the first national clearinghouse for missing adults.
On November 9, 2000, President William J. Clinton signed Kristen’s Law with the recipient of the funds going to the Phoenix-based NMCO to create the “National Center for Missing Adults,” (NCMA), the first national clearinghouse for missing adults. The group went on to serve thousands of families of missing adults, receiving up to 100 calls per day from families and law enforcement needing assistance.
In 2002, NCMA in cooperation with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) at the USDOJ, and Fox Valley Technical College created and implemented the first training program for law enforcement focused exclusively on the disappearances of those over the age of eighteen.
In 1998, Suzanne Lyall was a 20-year old undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany. On March 2, 1998, at closing, Suzanne left her job at the Babbage’s in Crossgates Mall in a suburb of Guilderland, NY. It is believed Suzanne had taken the city bus from the mall to the University’s Uptown Campus, where a classmate of Suzanne’s told police they saw her getting off the bus at Collin’s Circle near her dorm. She has never been seen again.
The Lyall’s became outspoken activists on behalf of families of missing persons creating the “Center for Hope.”
In 2003 President Bush signed “Suzanne’s Law” requiring police to immediately enter the person’s descriptive information into NCIC when someone between 18-21 is reported missing. Previously police were only required to report missing persons under the age of 18. Now, anyone under the age of 21 is considered a missing child and qualifies to also receive assistance from NCMEC.
In 2007, Congress enacted the Campus Security Act, requiring all colleges across the country to maintain written plans on how they will work with local law enforcement agencies in the event a student is reported missing.
The Lyall’s have continued to make their mark in the lives of others, in the name of their daughter Suzanne. On the 20-year anniversary of Suzanne’s disappearance, her mother, Mary Lyall was presented with the Senate Liberty Medal for her work on behalf of other families of missing persons.
At approximately 7:00 p.m., on July 6, 2004, Molly Datillo dropped off an employment application off a Wendy’s fast food restaurant near 10th Street and Highway 465 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She then purchased personal hobby and school supplies for one of the three classes she was taking at Indiana University where she was taking a summer class while she was readying to graduate from Eastern Kentucky University later that year.
Molly had been taking private voice lessons and had planned on auditioning for the “American Idol” show in August. She had attended all of her classes up to the day she vanished.
At 11:00 p.m., Molly placed a call to a friend from a pay phone at a Thornton’s gas station on Crawfordsville Rd. the friend said the phone disconnected when they picked up the phone. Molly has never been seen again.
In October 2008. Police announced they were investigating Molly’s disappearance as a homicide and looking at John E. Shelton as a person of interest because he was the last person to have been with her when she placed a call from the gas station. Shelton had a lengthy criminal record for theft and traffic offenses, with his driver’s license being legally suspended for life.
Shelton had been the friend of a friend. Molly had met him the day of her disappearance. They went on a boat ride, then ate dinner together at a Taco Bell restaurant according to him.
In the aftermath of Molly’s disappearance, Molly’s sister Amy Datillo worked tirelessly to get a law enacted that would outline what makes a missing person “at risk” and how law enforcement should obtain information relevant to finding the missing adult.
The FBI defines an “At Risk” missing person to be someone who has a proven medical or physical disability such as someone with mental health issues, diminished mental capacity such as Alzheimer’s disease or other physical disability that compromises the health and safety of the individual without immediate intervention.
Though not a federal law, Molly’s Law was signed by Governor Mitch Daniels in 2007, requiring law enforcement to enter an “At Risk” missing person into the NCIC database within two-hours of their disappearance within the state of Indiana.
While Amy would still like to see Molly’s Law become a federal law, it will serve as a “model” for to her states to follow and Molly will always be remembered by the people she helped after she disappeared.
The news cycles this week have been dominated by another missing persons case in middle America, where a familiar refrain is ringing out across the media: “This does not happen here.” It’s a repeated sound byte from law enforcement and Barron, Wisconsin citizens alike as search efforts continue for 13-year-old Jayme Closs, who remains missing following the murder of her parents in their home on October 15th, 2018.
A mysterious 911 call led law enforcement to the Closs home that evening. The dispatcher could not reach the person on the end of the line; however, a commotion could be heard in the background. The 911 call log later revealed the call made from Denise Closs’ cell phone came from inside the Closs home. The call log does not offer useful information about who made the call, the nature of the disturbance, or the content of what was said—if anything. The dispatcher characterized the commotion as “a lot of yelling.” Responding officers noticed signs of forced entry when they arrived at the scene, their description quoted across media claims the door appeared to have been “kicked in.” Inside the house, they discovered James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, shot to death around 1 AM on October 15th. Their 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, was nowhere to be found on the premises.
Law enforcement officials have fielded more than 1,000 tips from citizens hoping to help find Jayme, but no solid leads have emerged from the tip line. In recent decades, developments in technology used by law enforcement have closed mile-wide gaps in missing persons investigations, especially those of minors, where every second counts. One of these developments is the growing ubiquity of surveillance cameras and CCTV footage in public places and on private property. Jayme Closs’s disappearance has caused many online armchair detectives to draw parallels between her case and that of Mollie Tibbetts, another Midwestern young woman who went missing from sleepy Brooklyn, Iowa over the summer. The major break in her case came from a surveillance camera in which the suspect’s car was seen driving back and forth on the stretch of road where Mollie was known to regularly jog. Private investigator, Thomas Lauth, notes while Jayme disappeared from a town comparable to Brooklyn, the lack of surveillance cameras in comparison to larger municipalities will likely hinder the investigation. In addition, Lauth told Vice, although law enforcement released an Amber Alert, it likely did not unearth credible leads because authorities did not release information about any vehicles associated with Jayme’s disappearance. “Amber Alerts are effective when there is a vehicle description that goes with it. The public is very important in a case like this if there was a vehicle on the actual Amber Alert.”
Now as the search enters its second week, Chris Fitzgerald of the Barron County Sheriff’s Department is turning to the public for more help. In a press release on Monday, the department expressed a need for droves of volunteers to continue the expanding search for Jayme on Tuesday, October 23rd. “Two thousand volunteers are needed and should report to the staging area at 1883 Hwy 25, Barron, WI…Jayme remains missing and endangered and has been added to the top of the FBI’s Missing Persons list, and is currently on digital billboards nationwide,” said Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald in the press release.
Barron is a town of around 3,300 people, so two thousand volunteers? That’s more than half the town turning up to search, but it could serve as a coping mechanism for some who cannot wrap their heads around Jayme’s disappearance. Many in the community say not knowing her fate is the worst part, leaving them in a stagnate stasis of fear, where they don’t forget to lock their doors or fail to be vigilant of their children. But the Barron County Sheriff’s Department just might meet their requirement of 2,000 as support for Jayme and her family only continues to grow and expand. On Monday, the Barron Area School District held “A Gathering of Hope” as a chance for the community to gather in solidarity for Jayme and to connect the community with support resources, such as counseling services. It’s a familiar atmosphere, the kind felt in the community Brooklyn, Iowa, following the death of Mollie Tibbetts. Mollie and Jayme were both young women who vanished from small towns under peculiar or perilous circumstances—their absence disrupting their entire communities as citizens begin shaking their heads, “This does not happen here.”
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.
It has been over a decade since Facebook first broke ground in social media. Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has gone from connecting people in close proximity—students on college campuses—to closing the gaps of space and time as old high school flames reignite their old love through the lines of Facebook Messenger. However, not even Mark Zuckerburg could have predicted Facebook would be used to connect family members and amateur investigators in order to uncover new leads in unsolved or cold cases. The social media platform hosts hundreds of discussion pages, like Cold Case Discussion Group and Missing Leads, all ranging from the unsolved murder of child pageant star, JonBenét Ramsay, to the disappearances of private citizens.
As the epidemic of missing persons and unsolved cold cases in the United States grows, so does the number of Facebook discussion groups dedicated to the collection of new leads in these cases. These discussion groups and subsequent websites devoted to the re-examination of these cases have provided a new platform for connecting armchair detectives across the country. The phrase “armchair detective” refers to a person, who is not a member of law enforcement and who is not involved in the investigation process, who makes a hobby or career to research crimes and investigations in the hope of solving them. The phrase possibly first appeared in a Sherlock Holmes short story called The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter in which Holmes says, referring to his brother, Mycroft, “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived.” Armchair detectives may be professionals such as investigative journalists or former law enforcement. They may also be retired private citizens, like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub of Baltimore, Maryland.
Hoskins and Schaub are like many of the middle-class people who grew up in Baltimore in the 1960’s. They were involved in their community, they attended church, and like many of their peers, they attended an all-girls Catholic school, Archbishop Keough High School, where they were under the instruction of a nun named Sister Catherine Cesnik. Both Hoskins and Schaub were former students of Sister Cathy’s when she mysteriously disappeared in early November of 1969. Her body was found nearly three months later by hunters in a wooded area outside Baltimore. The medical examiner discovered Sister Cathy died by blunt force trauma to her skull—the manner of death is homicide. Despite various leads, including the victim’s car being found abandoned across the street from her apartment, the trail for those behind Sister Cathy’s murder went cold and stayed cold for nearly half a century.
In 2005, a journalist named Tom Nugent revived interest in the case when he wrote a story entitled “Who Killed Sister Cathy?” for the front page of the Baltimore Sun, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he contacted women like Hoskins and Schaub who might have been Sister Cathy’s students. This renewed interested prompted Gemma Hoskins to post a message on the Facebook group for Archbishop Keough alumni, seeking others who might have information about the circumstances around Sister Cathy’s murder. Her attempt to reach out was met with negative response, with one exception: Abbie Schaub. And thus, an amateur team of armchair detectives was formed.
Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins
Hoskins and Schaub are both retired—Hoskins from teaching and Schaub from nursing—and in the last five years, they have used the leads garnered from their Facebook discussion page about Sister Cathy to break new ground in the cold case, including identifying possible suspects, and circumstantial information that might point to a conspiracy to have the nun abducted and murdered. In the 2016 Netflix series, The Keepers, an original docu-series chronicling the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder, Tom Nugent describes Abbie Schaub as “the intellectual,” and Gemma Hoskins as “the bulldog.” Between the two of them, they make a highly efficient investigative team. While Schaub’s strengths lie in research and the recovery of documents in public-access, Hoskins uses her people skills to pound the pavement in search of anyone with information about their favorite teacher’s murder.
In addition to seeking out the perpetrator behind Sister Cathy’s abduction and murder, Hoskins and Schaub have also taken it upon themselves to help another family who was devastated by a concurrent tragedy in Baltimore in 1969. On November 11th, 1969, three days after Sister Cathy went missing, Joyce Malecki, 20, also disappeared from the Baltimore area. Her body was discovered two days later. The circumstances surrounding the disappearances of both women were strikingly similar: Both women were out shopping on the day they were abducted. Both cars belonging to the respective victims were later found abandoned. The important difference was Malecki’s remains were recovered almost immediately, whereas Sister Cathy’s were not be found for three months. There was no difference to Hoskins and Schaub, who took it upon themselves to solicit tips about the disappearance of the 20-year-old office worker. In The Keepers, Schaub told director, Ryan White, “We thought, ‘As long as we’re doing all of this digging around’ let’s see if we can find something to help the Maleckis.”
The Facebook group monitored by Hoskins and Schaub also spawned a website about the case where anyone could leave an anonymous tip regarding any information they might have about the disappearances of Sister Cathy or Joyce Malecki. Their hard work, determination, and meticulous investigation skills played a major role in the development of The Keepers, with some interviewees alleging Hoskins and Schaub possessed more information than law enforcement. After the release of the Netflix docuseries, the Facebook group received such an overwhelming influx of new members the page was forced to temporarily shut down due to high traffic. The pair of amateur sleuths have made a glowing example of why the rising popularity of true-crime media will play a crucial role in shining new light on unsolved cases. When reflecting on the magnitude of their investigation in the first episode of The Keepers, Tom Nugent tells the camera, “I’ve asked both of them, ‘Don’t you guys want to become investigative journalists? Let’s have some real fun.’ And they tell me, ‘We’ll do it our way.’”
For more information on the cases of Sister Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki, or to leave an anonymous tip, please visit: WhoKilledSisterCathy.com
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.