Top 5 Most Unbelievable Child Abduction Cases

Top 5 Most Unbelievable Child Abduction Cases

If you watch true crime media, it’s very likely you’ve seen a piece about child abduction before. In the last few weeks, the nation has been captivated by the story of 13 year-old Jayme Closs, the Wisconsin teen who went missing from her home in October of 2018. Law enforcement and other investigators poured numerous resources into the search over a period of three months with little to no progress in the case. Then earlier this month, as if by magic, she turned up on a neighborhood street roughly 80 miles from her home, having escaped her captor. It’s the perfect news story, with a harrowing beginning, a tense middle, and a thrilling, yet satisfying conclusion. But Jayme Closs’s story is not solitary in the true-crime world. Here are the stories of five other cases of child abduction where the child was eventually located alive, months—sometimes decades later.

Jan Broberg

Abducted in Plain Sight

Child abduction is horrific enough when it happens once, but what about when it happens more than once to the same child? The abduction(s) of Jan Broberg have recently returned to the American true-crime lexicon with the release of a Netflix Original documentary entitled Abducted in Plain Sight, receiving a fresh influx of media coverage and discussion in the true-crime media. In 1974, Jan was only 12 years old when she was abducted by Robert “B” Berchtold, a close family friend and neighbor. According to the documentary, it was not uncommon for Berchtold to dote on Jan more than her siblings, so her parents suspected nothing when he told them he wanted to take Jan horseback riding. When they did not return from their excursion, it took Jan’s parents days to fully intellectualize what had happened. After her parents finally filed a missing person’s report, a nation-wide investigation was launched for Jan and Berchtold helmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The present-day fascination with this case comes from the bizarre details associated with Jan’s first abduction. Through extensive pageantry, Berchtold was able to convince Jan they had both been abducted by UFOs, and it was their mission as humans to procreate in the interest of precluding the human race from extinction. It was 45 days before the FBI were finally able to locate Berchtold in Mexico, but not before he had married the twelve year-old girl. In a move that defied belief to modern audiences, the family let Berchtold back into the girl’s life after he had only served a 45-day sentence—which was subsequently reduced to 10 days—for her kidnapping. Two years later in 1976, Berchtold kidnapped her again, this time leaving a trail that would cause law enforcement to conclude she had run away of her own accord. He posed as her father and enrolled her in a Catholic girls’ school, all the while maintaining contact with her parents so he could cover his tracks. It wasn’t until three months later, after the FBI had tapped the Broberg’s phone lines, they were able to locate and apprehend Berchtold, recovering Jan safely.  

Steven Stayner

Steven Stayner

Steven Stayner’s child abduction occurred near the beginning of a culture awareness now known as “stranger danger.” It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that American parents were beginning to educate themselves on the prospect of strangers abducting children from public places. Steven was abducted while walking home from school in his hometown of Merced, California, by two men, Ervin Murphy and Kenneth Parnell. After the men convinced Steven to get into their white Buick, he was driven to a remote cabin where he was held in captivity. When he begged to go home, Parnell managed to convince Steven his parents had given him up willingly, because they already had too many children to parent. Steven entered puberty while in captivity, and Parnell began searching for younger boys to abduct. Eventually, Parnell abducted a five-year-old boy named Timothy White. In an attempt to spare White the distress he had experienced due to his own kidnapping, Steven and White escaped while Parnell was working. The pair ended up in a police station where they explained to investigators what had happened. The case was the groundwork for California legislation that would allow the courts to sentence child molesters to consecutive prison terms under similar circumstances.  

Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping is arguably the most high-profile missing persons case in present-day America. It was the beginning of another culture phenomenon in media coverage, commonly known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee on June 5th, 2002. Mitchell was known by the name “Emmanuel” to the Smart family. He took her from the bedroom she shared with her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine. Mitchell left very little physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, which stalled the investigation significantly. Elizabeth was driven to a remote cabin where she was held for 9 months. She accompanied her captors on public outings numerous times throughout her captivity, disguised in religious garb that concealed her appearance, fooling law enforcement and private citizens alike. It wasn’t until Mary Katherine realized all those months later the man she had seen take her sister from their bedroom was the man they knew as “Emmanuel”. She gave a physical description of Emmanuel to a sketch artist, and the image was broadcast across the country. Mitchell’s family recognized the sketch and provided law enforcement with photos of him. This eventually led to Mitchell being recognized in public in Sandy, Utah. At the time of his arrest, he was accompanied by two women, Barzee and Smart. Smart was returned to her family, and continues to be an advocate for children who have survived sex trafficking.

Michelle Knight

Michelle Knight

Child abduction is a horrible crime that can leave its victims scarred for years, and the case of Ariel Castro is no different. Between 2002 and 2004, Ariel Castro kidnapped three young women, and held them against their will in his Cleveland home. They were Gina DeJesus, 14, Amanda Berry, 17, and Michelle Knight 21. During their captivity, the young women were subjected to forced sexual contact, starvation, and other hellacious forms of physical and emotional abuse. After being rescued, Michelle told law enforcement Castro had impregnated her at least half a dozen times, inducing miscarriages through beatings with dumbbells, and throwing her against walls. It was reported she would need facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage Castro had done, and she almost lost her hearing entirely in one ear. Michelle was forced to help deliver Amanda Berry’s child, resuscitating it when it stopped breathing. Despite multiple reports of strange behavior from neighbors, and one visit to the house by police on an unrelated matter, the women were not rescued until May 6th, 2013 when Castro left one of the exits unsecured, allowing Amanda Berry to communicate with neighbors through a screen door. With the help of two male neighbors, Amanda was able to escape through a hole that had been kicked through the door and the neighbors called 911, leading to the rescue of Michelle and Gina. Since her rescue, Michelle has legally changed her name to Lilly. While she was in captivity, her son was placed in foster care, and was subsequently adopted by his foster parents. She told People magazine, while she misses her son terribly, she has no desire to bring him into the aftermath of her abduction.

Jaycee Dugard

Jaycee Dugard

One of the most hopeful stories of child abduction is that of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped by Phillip Garrido with the help of his wife, Nancy, on June 10, 1991 in Meyers, California. She was eleven years old at the time. Her case captured the horror of the nation because it occurred in full view of the girl’s stepfather. Carl Probyn was watching Jaycee walk from the front door of their house to the bus stop at the end of the street when a gray car pulled up next to Jaycee. She approached the car, assuming the couple in the car would ask for directions. In a matter of a few seconds, Jaycee was incapacitated with a stun gun and pulled into the car. Probyn gave chase on his mountain bike, ultimately losing the car. Jaycee was held in Antioch, California, in makeshift domiciles like tents and sheds behind the Garrido’s property for eighteen long years. Like many of the aforementioned cases, Jaycee’s name, face, and information were broadcast on America’s Most Wanted. During her captivity, Jaycee was subjected to repeated assaults, rape, and manipulation at the hands of Garrido. Despite best efforts, law enforcement missed nearly a half-dozen opportunities to rescue Jaycee. For example, Garrido had a parole officer, and due to lack of communication between police and the parole office, there were multiple complaints against Garrido that might have triggered a search of his property by his parole officer. In 2009, after Jaycee was rescued, the California Office of the Inspector General would issue a report detailing the failures of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contributed to Jaycee’s continued captivity.  

First 72: A Missing Person Investigator’s Race Against Time

First 72: A Missing Person Investigator’s Race Against Time

missing person investigation

If you watch a lot of crime dramas, either on television or on the silver screen, you might have heard a law enforcement character say something to the effect of, “You must wait 24 hours before reporting a person missing.” It surprises many Americans that this is a myth perpetuated by mainstream media to cover narrative plot-holes. In fact, waiting even a few hours can compromise a missing persons investigation, as the first 72 hours are the most important when investigators begin searching for a missing person.

Close your eyes and try to remember what you had for breakfast three days ago. If you have a repetitive routine, this might be easy for you. Unfortunately, when it comes to interviewing witnesses, investigators just aren’t that lucky. Dr. Bryanna Fox recently told ABC news, in an interview regarding the importance of time in any investigation, “The information that law enforcement gets tends to be a little more accurate, and they are able to act on the information and hopefully get that person who is missing quicker.” The passage of time is one of investigators’ greatest obstacles when it comes to missing person cases. Not only does time hinder a witness’s memory, but evidence is also lost and cannot be properly secured. Leads go cold as time is lost, and the trail slips through investigators fingers.

Those who report a person missing will be one of law enforcement’s greatest assets as a person closest to them, but the pool of human resources doesn’t end with their friends and family. As those close to the missing person begin to fill law enforcement in on their routine, investigators take that information and use it to piece together their movements in the hours before they disappeared. They interview members of the public who are affiliated with the person’s routine, such as their neighbors, coworkers, employees of the grocery store they frequent, hair stylists, mechanics, etc. Locating these witnesses as soon as possible is paramount to providing accurate accounts of what they saw, heard, or noticed during this crucial time frame. It’s important investigators retrace the missing person’s steps as soon as possible in order to gather any physical evidence that might lead to their whereabouts. Take a familiar scenario, for instance: A young woman leaving her job late at night is attacked and abducted between the business and her vehicle. The vicinity of this abduction is the initial crime scene. Time (and weather, if outdoors) can erode evidence of a struggle. Scientific methods and investigation procedures become less effective when technicians are unable to observe the crime scene in the same condition at the time of the abduction. Another common issue with the passage of time is securing video footage. Surveillance technology has become so ubiquitous in the United States many investigators, especially those in large municipalities may be able to track a perpetrator’s movements street to street, creating a partial road map to the missing person’s whereabouts. However, depending on the quality of this surveillance equipment, these devices may automatically recycle valuable footage before it can be preserved by investigators, thereby resulting in a dead end.

It’s not uncommon for a person to go missing on their own terms. Perhaps they want a fresh start, or they’re running from law enforcement. Adults are free to disappear, if that’s what they wish, but loved ones should still remain concerned. The first 72 hours of a missing person investigation can be the difference between life and death, as the missing person might be in danger. When law enforcement believe a missing person might not have vanished of their own accord, they classify the person as “missing endangered.” This classification is often reserved for minors under 18, or senior citizens over 65, but definitions vary from state to state.  In Indiana, endangered missing persons bulletins are often accompanied by a Silver Alert, which applies to senior citizens and adults who might be imminently harmed. Indiana recently began issuing Silver Alerts when children are reported missing as well to instantly distinguish the circumstances of their disappearance. For instance, a child who is abducted by a custodial parent or family member are often not in immediate danger, qualifying them for an Amber Alert. When there is evidence to the contrary, however, law enforcement in Indiana can issue a Silver Alert to classify the child as endangered missing. Dr. Michelle Jeanis, a criminology professor at the University of Louisiana, describes a horrifying reality that sends fretful parents into a tailspin. In the rare case of a stranger abduction, children are killed only a short time after they’ve been taken. Senior citizens and adults who may have disabilities, mental illnesses, or who are otherwise unable to take care of themselves are also at high risk. Consequently, time is of the essence when it comes to reporting these individuals missing so investigators can jump on their trail to ensure they are reunited with their families safe and sound.

Kierra ColesSocial media platforms and mainstream media coverage are two of the greatest assets for investigators working on a missing persons case. In tandem with their efforts to follow the trail, the media can publish press releases with the missing person’s picture, identifying information, and the circumstances of their disappearance. As smart devices continue to climb in ubiquity, this means members of the public can have all this crucial info in their hands in seconds. A woman having her hair set in a stylist’s chair may check her social media timeline to see an alert from local law enforcement about a runaway teenager they recognize from the bus stop on their commute. She can alert authorities so investigators can immediately follow that lead. This increases the chances the teen may be found safe and returned to their family. By the same token, members of the public may recognize composite sketches of abductors or other persons of interest.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a person’s disappearance, time is of the essence when it comes to an investigation. When reporting a friend or loved one missing, it’s important you are armed with all possible information for investigators. Deductive reasoning will allow them to shape viable leads to follow in pursuit of their trail. Any knowledge about their personal relationships, routine, and habits will prove more useful than expected. This information allows investigators to make the most of that crucial first 72 hours, increasing the chances the missing person will be found safe and reunited with their loved ones.

Families of Missing Persons Face Ambiguous Loss

Families of Missing Persons Face Ambiguous Loss

HANDS

It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.

Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.

Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.

Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.

When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.

Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.

Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.

Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.

Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.

Five Stages of Grief

It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.

In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.

Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.

Graveside

Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.

Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.

It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.

The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.

She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.

The little girl wrote:

“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”

My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.

Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.

When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.

With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.

As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published a handbook When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide to help families with the crisis of having a missing child.

Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.

Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.

While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.

“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.

When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.

The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)

  • Immediately report your child missing to local law enforcement. Ensure law enforcement enters your child’s data into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and notifies the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
  • Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
  • Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
  • Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
  • Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
  • Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
  • Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
  • Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
  • Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
  • Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
  • Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
  • Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
  • In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
  • Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.

The Next 24 Hours

  • Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
  • Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
  • Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
  • Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
  • Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
  • Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
  • Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
  • Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
  • Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
  • Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
  • Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
  • Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.

The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.

For more information about obtaining a copy of A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide please contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or obtain a copy here https://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/childismissing/contents.html

The Disappearance of Morgan Nick

It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.

That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.

Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995

Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995

Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.

When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.

The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.

Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.

Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.

The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.

Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.

The emotional toll is beyond words.

On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.

A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick

Dearest Morgan,

Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.

You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.

It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.

On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.

I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.

Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten. 

You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room.  You had a fire of conviction in your heart.

The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.

Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.

You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.

Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.

Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.

Morgan 6

So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.

My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you. 

Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!

On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for youWe will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up. 

Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad

One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?

Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.

50 Facts About Missing Children & Adults

50 Facts About Missing Children & Adults

missing person facts1. Approximately 2,300 children are reported missing each day in the United States, that one child
every 40 seconds.
2. Nearly 800,000 people are reported missing every year in the United States.
3. May 25 th is National Missing Children’s Day.
4. In 1983 National Missing Children’s Day was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan and
commemorates the disappearance of Etan Patz who vanished in 1979.
5. After the abduction and murder of their son Adam, John and Reve’ Walsh helped create the
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984.
6. NCMEC’s Cyber Tipline began receiving reports in 1998.
7. The NCMEC Cyber Tipline has received 41 million reports since its inception.
8. Unfortunately, many children and adults are never reported missing making no reliable way to
determine the true number of missing persons in the country.
9. There is no federal mandate that requires law enforcement to wait 24 hours before accepting a
report of a missing person.
10. Missing Children Act of 1982 authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to enter and
maintain relevant information about missing children in the National Crime Information Center
(NCIC).
11. In May of 2018, there were over 89,000 active missing person cases in the National Crime
Information Center at the FBI.
12. When a child is reported missing federal law requires law enforcement authorities to
immediately take a report and enter the missing child’s information into NCIC.

13. On Christmas Eve 1945, the Sodder family home was engulfed in flames. George Sodder, his wife
Jennie and four of the nine Sodder children escaped. The bodies of the other four children have
never been found.
14. Since 1984, the NCMEC’s National Hotline has received more than 4.8 million calls.
15. According to the FBI in 2017, there were 464,324 NCIC entries for missing children.
16. NCMEC has facilitated the training of more than 356,000 law enforcement, criminal justice,
juvenile justice, and healthcare professionals.
17. Of nearly 25,000 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2017, one in seven are victims of sex
trafficking.
18. In 2000, President William Clinton signed Kristen’s Law creating the first national clearinghouse
for missing adults; the National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA) was founded by Kym L.
Pasqualini.
19. Kristen’s Law, signed in 2000 by President William Clinton was named after North Carolina
resident Kristen Modafferi who vanished in 1997 while in San Francisco in a summer college
program.
20. The AMBER Alert was created 1996 after the disappearance and murder of 9-year old Amber
Hagerman from Arlington, Texas.
21. The Silver Alert is a public notification system to broadcast information about individuals with
Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other mental disabilities.
22. There are 17,985 police agencies in the United States.
23. On average, over 83,000 people are missing at any given time to include approximately 50,000
missing adults and 30,000 missing children.
24. The first 12-24 hour the most critical in a missing person investigation.
25. For missing children the first 3 hour are especially critical as 76% of children abducted by strangers are
killed within that time-frame.
26. Most missing children are abducted by family members which does not ensure their safety.
27. As of May 31, 2018, there were 8,709 unidentified persons in the NCIC system.
28. The AMBER Alert is credited with safely recovering 868 missing children between 1997 and 2017.
29. The most famous missing child case is the 1932 kidnapping of 20-month old Charles Lindbergh Jr.,
abducted from his second-story nursery in Hopewell, New Jersey.
30. Charles Lindbergh’s mother released a statement detailing her son’s daily diet to newspapers in
hope the kidnappers would feed him properly.
31. From his prison cell, Al Capone offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture
of the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh.
32. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant with her first child when she was reported missing by
her husband Scott Peterson on December 24, 2002. In a highly publicized case, Scott Peterson
was convicted of first-degree murder of Laci and their unborn baby.
33. The FBI Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) was authorized in 1994 and cross-references
missing person DNA, familial missing person DNA and the DNA of unidentified persons.
34. NCMEC forensic artists have age-progressed more than 6,000 images of long-term missing
children
35. NCMEC has created more than 530 facial reconstructions for unidentified deceased unidentified
children.
36. In the mid-1980’s milk carton with photographs of missing children were first used to help find
missing children.
37. Those who suffer from mental disorders, minorities, and those who live high-risk lifestyles
engaging in substance abuse and/or prostitution are less likely to receive media attention than
other case of missing persons.

38. According to the NCIC, there were 353,243 women reported missing during 2010.
39. According to NCIC, there were 337,660 men were reported missing during 2010.
40. Of reports entered into NCIC during 2010, there were 532,000 under the age of eighteen.
41. In 1999, a NASCAR program called Racing for the Missing was created by driver Darrell LaMoure
in partnership with the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization.
42. If a person has been missing for 7-years, they can be legally declared deceased.
43. Jaycee Dugard was 11-years old when she was abducted by a stranger on June 10, 1991. Dugard
was located 18 years later in 2009 kept concealed in tents behind Phillip Garrido’s residence.
Garrido fathered two of Dugard’s children and was sentenced to 431 years to life for the
kidnapping and rape of Dugard.
44. All 50 states to include the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have AMBER
plans in place to help find missing children.
45. By definition, a “missing person” is someone who has vanished and whose welfare is not known;
and their disappearance may or may not be voluntary.
46. There are 6 categories in NCIC for missing persons to include Juvenile, Endangered, Involuntary,
Disability, Catastrophe and Other.
47. About 15% of overall disappearances are deemed involuntary by the FBI, designating urgent
response.
48. The earliest known missing child case was of Virginia Dare who was the first baby born in the
New World. After her birth, her grandfather left for England and when he returned 3 years later,
Virginia and all the settlers were gone. One clue left was the word “Croatan” carved into a
settlement post.
49. In 1996, a family of German tourists visited Death Valley National Park in California, referred to as
the Death Valley Germans. In 2009, searchers located the remains of four individuals confirmed
to be that of the family.
50. Jimmy Hoffa was an American Labor Union leader and president of the International
Brotherhood of Teamsters who vanished in July 1975, and one of the most notorious missing
persons cases in United States history.

History of Missing Persons Law in the United States

History of Missing Persons Law in the United States

missing personSeveral 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 patzEtan 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.

Adam Walsh

adam walshThe 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.

In 1984, The United States Congress passed the Missing Children Assistance Act creating the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

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.”

Jennifer’s Law

jennifer wilmerIn 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.

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. Enter the NCIC number or other appropriate case number assigned to each unidentified person on the death certificate of each; and
  4. 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.

Kristen’s Law

kristen modafferiIn 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.

Suzanne’s Law

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.

Molly’s Law

Molly DattilloAt 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.

Wild Country: Missing in the National Park System

Wild Country: Missing in the National Park System

When we hear of a person going missing without a trace, it’s often in municipalities, such as cities. The moment a loved one has realized the person is missing, they contact their local police department to file a missing persons report. From there, search and/or rescue efforts are launched by the local law enforcement. Hundreds of labor-hours are spent canvassing the area where the missing persons were last seen, speaking to witnesses who knew the missing person, and gathering information that could unearth plausible leads. According to the NCIC, as of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the United States. However, that number may be inaccurate, as disappearances within the public lands of the United States, such as national parks, are poorly cataloged and filed. When you go missing in the city, the local police will likely look for you. But who is there to answer the panicked call when the only other human being for miles might be a single park ranger?

Available data on the exact number of missing persons cases varies by source, but the fact is, no one is immune from going missing—even in national parks. One of the youngest missing persons to vanish in a state park was Alfred Beilhartz in 1938. When he was reported missing during a family camping trip over the July 4th weekend in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, he was just five years old. The family noticed Alfred was missing when the family reunited at the camp after a trip to the river. A search party of 150 people searched for Alfred, but after ten days, the authorities decided the little boy must have drowned in the river.

In a more recent case, one of the oldest missing persons to go missing was John Devine in 1997. John was 73 when he disappeared from Olympic National Park in Washington State. Despite his age and the intrepid 24-mile hike from Mount Baldy, John Devine was an experienced hiker who was known to handle himself well in the wilderness. The search for John was conducted in terrible weather conditions eventually causing a helicopter crash killing three people who were searching for John in the air while other search party members scoured the land on foot. The search was called off on the sentiment John would not want others put in harm’s way.

People go missing every day for a myriad of reasons, such as being the victim of a crime, or running away. In national parks, however, the disappearance is usually attributed to one of two things, one being the wrath of Mother Nature. In July 2004, David Gonzales and his family were on a camping trip in Northern California’s San Bernadino National Forest, when he asked his mother if he could have her car keys. Why? Because there were cookies in the car. His mother handed him the keys, thinking nothing of it. After all, the car was only 50 yards away. What happened next was the stuff of every parent’s nightmare. David’s mother turned her back for only a short moment, and by the time she turned back to look for her son, he was gone. It was mystifying. She recalled hearing no sound, no struggle indicating her child was in peril. She recalled later in her report, she saw a beige truck spinning its tires as it flew out of the campground around approximately the time her son went missing, but since there were no signs of abduction, authorities had no reason to investigate. The boy’s remains were discovered a year later by hikers, a little more than a mile from the family’s campsite. Authorities finally decided the boy must have been the victim of a mountain lion attack.  

When national park missing persons cases finally go cold, after exhausting all leads and resources, it’s not uncommon for the locals, or even law enforcement, to shrug their shoulders and say, “They were ‘spirited away’.” Many are familiar with the 2001 Miyazaki classic film of the same name. In the film, a young girl named Chihiro is moving to a new neighborhood, during the move, the family gets lost in the woods. She loses her parents to the temptations of the spirit world and spends the rest of the film trying to reunite with them. The family goes missing from the outside world without a trace or without reason, and this is called being “spirited away.”

One of the oldest missing persons cases occurring in a national park is the disappearance of Bessie and Glen Hyde in 1928. They were newlyweds who were on a mission to traverse the intense rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a bold mission, and if successful, Bessie would have been the first woman to accomplish this mighty feat. The couple was last seen on November 18th, when they were photographed before going back into the canyon to complete their route. After they didn’t show up in Needles, California in early December of that year, Glen’s father initiated the search for his son and daughter-in-law. After two weeks, their boat was finally spotted from a search plane. It was upright, undamaged, and full of supplies. There have been many theories about what became of the newlyweds, including running aground in choppy rapids, and a possible domestic dispute that might have ended violently. A woman even came forward in 1971 saying she was the long-missing Bessie Hyde, who had stabbed her new husband in a rage on the trip, but she later recanted. Without the investigative resources of the 21st century, it’s easy to believe two young people in the roaring twenties would just vanish without a trace. However, as we’ve discussed in previous articles about Americans who go missing overseas, we know it’s still possible today, as was the cases of both David Gimelfarb and Aubrey Sacco, who went missing in national parks in Costa Rica and Nepal respectively.  

Accurate data surrounding the exact amount of people who have disappeared in our Nation’s national parks is either unreliable or flat-out inaccurate, depending on the source, because the government does not engage high levels of research into these statistics. In an article for Outside, Jon Billman makes an important point, “The Department of the Interior knows how many wolves and grizzly bears roam its wilds—can’t it keep track of visitors who disappear?… The Department of Justice keeps a database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but reporting missing persons is voluntary in all but ten states, and law-enforcement and coroner participation is voluntary as well. So a lot of the missing are also missing from the database.”  He goes on to say in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York, the Department of the Interior attempted to build a database called the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System (IMARS) “to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service.” Alas, ten years and $50 million in taxpayers’ dollars later, the database suffered from numerous issues, and the project was written off as a failure.

Including national parks and national forests, the amount of federally-owned land in the United States comes to about 640 million acres. How are we keeping track of these visitors coming to these beautiful places and vanishing without a trace? Depending on the amount of funding, these vast expanses of wilderness owned by the government might be patrolled by a single park ranger. Once a person is reported missing, hundreds could join the search, but it begs the question of how preventable would these missing person cases be if parks were well-staffed. There are also private citizens out there who make it their personal mission to investigate disappearances in national parks, like famed author and investigator David Paulides. He is an ex-cop from California, whose interest in the wilderness began with his founding of the North American Bigfoot Search. But while the existence of Bigfoot may never be successfully proven, Paulides has made a career out of studying the phenomenon of individuals who go missing in national parks, including the founding of the CanAm Missing Project. Jon Billman tells us about Paulides’ approach:

“I don’t put any theories in the books—I just connect facts,” he told me. Under “unique factors of disappearances,” he lists such recurring characteristics as dogs unable to track scents, the time (late afternoon is a popular window to vanish), and that many victims are found with clothing and footwear removed. Bodies are also discovered in previously searched areas with odd frequency, sometimes right along the trail. Children—and remains—are occasionally found improbable distances from the point last seen, in improbable terrain.”

The lack of reliable information on behalf of the government to track these missing persons cases can create a lot of problems for investigators who are on the trail of a person who vanished in a national park. We know the blunder of the IMARS system, and the fact only 14% of information on missing persons in the NPS was actually entered, means the quest for answers will be murky and slow-going after the search party has given up and gone home. This is why hiring a private investigator to find a loved one who has gone missing in the NPS is a solid strategy.

While there are boots on the ground conducting a grid search, private investigators have the independence and experience to conduct a concurrent investigation in which all leads can be exhausted. Take for instance the disappearance of David Gonzales. What if a private investigator could have followed the lead his mother remembered about the beige truck? It’s entirely possible David Gonzales was the victim of a mountain lion attack; however, to have the remains discovered half a football field distance from where he vanished? It seems unlikely a lion would drag their prey such a distance. If David was indeed abducted, a private investigator could use the tools they have at their disposal to pursue all leads. There are also no jurisdictional restrictions preventing a private investigator from performing their due-diligence when entertaining explanations that have nothing to do with nature or the paranormal. A private investigator is beholden only to their client—not to the government, or to the weather, or to ‘the most likely scenario.’

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.