Many individuals who lived through natural disaster in the year 2018 lost loved ones to violent forces of nature. National news has been inundated, not only with updated death totals, but also long lists of names belonging to individuals who went missing during the disaster. The initial report in a missing persons case is a springboard for many complicated processes and procedures conducted by law enforcement and private investigators. Every relevant piece of information about the missing person must be collected, their last known whereabouts searched. If law enforcement determines the person is in immediate danger, or if they’re a minor, search teams are dispatched to the surrounding areas. The family makes themselves sick with worry. Spreading like a crack in a dam, the web of processes that stem from the first report can cause a cacophony of confusion. Now imagine that multiplied by five, or ten times. Or 1,276 times.
At its peak, that was the highest estimated number of missing persons during the coverage of California’s Camp Fire. Often, stories about mass groups of people vanishing are couched in mystery, intrigue, or even the paranormal, like the disappearance of the infamous Roanoke Colony that vanished off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Or Flight 370 of Malaysia Airlines, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew to Beijing when it mysteriously went missing over the South China Sea in 2014. In 2018, however, instances of long lists of missing persons following a single event have been instigated by tragedy—not intrigue.
State officials addressing this number have assured the public this number is an overestimation. One of the most complicated aspects of searching for missing persons during and after a natural disaster is the major breakdown in communication. During a natural disaster, individuals will often report loved ones missing when they are unable to contact, which could be for a myriad of reasons (downed power lines, lack of Wi-Fi, displacement, injury, etc.) After a few days, the loved one is able to establish a lifeline and is able to reach out to their family and friends. State officials claim the reporting individuals often do not call to follow up with emergency operations teams to let them know their loved one has been located.
Like in cases of individuals going missing, survivors of Hurricane Michael have had to turn to crowdsourcing in order to track down missing loved ones, an effort crippled by a devastated infrastructure and incapacitated communication systems. Police departments have become inundated with missing persons reports and individuals are turning to multiple entities in order to get answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones—individuals like Tracey Stinson of Fort Walton Beach. Her father lived in Youngstown at the time of the hurricane, and had not heard from him in many days. “I actually tried calling a store he shops at that’s near his home that was gone. So I was unable to reach them so then the next step was contact the sheriff’s office. I just kept calling every several hours to see if I could catch them with a phone line that was operating and there was no luck.”
Desperate parents and loved ones also combed Facebook for news or tips, and implored others for any information they might have about missing loved ones. Despite a classification of a Category 4 storm, there were many in the panhandle who doubled down inside their homesteads, rather than evacuate.
One of these people was Nicholas Sines, who lived in Panama City. His mother, Kristine Wright, begged him to go to a shelter before the storm ripped through the city. But Nicholas was steadfast, “I’m staying here.” Kristine went six days without hearing from her son before she took to Facebook, imploring other users to share any information they might have. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she told The New York Times. “As his mother, my heart hurts.” It goes beyond earnest timeline posts and comments, however.
In 2014, following the terrorist attacks on Paris that claimed 129 lives, Facebook launched what’s known as its Safety Check Feature. The Safety Check Feature is turned on by Facebook administrators in the wake of any type of displacement disaster, whether it be natural or at the hands of man. The system sends out a notification to users in the effected area, prompting users to mark themselves as “safe,” if they are able. This action places an item in the user’s feed that will alert others on their friends list that they are okay.
Social media is not the only recourse for those desperate to get in touch with a missing loved one in the wake of a natural disaster. Platforms like CrowdSource Rescue have been connecting concerned individuals with their loved ones living in areas effected by natural disasters. It allows citizens to file a report for a missing person, which places their data on a map that directs rescue teams to the most affected areas. Company co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told NPR, “We’re like a ride share company for disasters.”
Unfortunately, hurricanes were not the only natural disaster erasing entire communities in 2018. In a gross irony, the town of Paradise, California was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after it was consumed by a behemoth wildfire. The pictures of the devastation are truly haunting, evoking scenes from post-apocalyptic Hollywood films. Before the blaze erupted, Paradise was a town of around 27,000 people. It’s beautiful sights and small-community atmosphere made it a popular place for retirees to begin the third act of their lives. As such, a majority of the remains pulled from the debris and wreckage were found to be retirement age or older.
The California Camp Fire will go down in the history books as the deadliest and most devastating wildfire the nation has ever seen. Officials have only recently announced the fire has been 100% contained with fire-lines. It burned 150,000 acres (ten times the size of Manhattan), claimed the lives of 85 Californians, and left thousands displaced and homeless in tent cities. In the chaos, 200 people are still unaccounted for. In the past few weeks some reports listed the number of missing as high as 1,276 on November 17th, but just like the circumstances during Hurricane Michael, that number dropped dramatically once displaced Californians were able to find a line of communication to their families.
Investigators have been working for months attempting to identify the source of the California Campfire, but no single cause has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, rescue officials are still sifting through the rubble. Kory Honea of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department told the Huffington Post that they could not say with certainty how long the search will take, “My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list…will be accounted for.”
The dramatic drop in the number of missing is not unlike that of the Sonoma County Tubbs Fire in 2017. The number of missing during the Tubbs Fire was almost double that of the Camp Fire, but dropped to just 22 as individuals were located or found deceased. However, during the Tubbs Fire, search and rescue officials opted not to publish the names of those feared missing under caution during a disaster that was constantly in flux. Kory Honea had a different mindset: Publishing the list meant drawing out information from the public that could help officials whittle the list of missing from a sequoia down to a splinter. When questioned about whether or not possible inaccuracies on the list might cause issues, Honea said, “I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”
Identification of the remains found is a grueling process, not only for officials involved in Camp Fire, but any natural disaster in the United States. Officials in paradise have collected DNA samples from those who tragically perished in the inferno, but are left with little recourse to identify them without help from the public. Jim Davis, the Chief Federal Officer of ANDE told ABC, “The only way we can identify those people is to have family members submit reference samples so we can match the two.” At the Family Assistance Center in Paradise, ANDE collected 68 family donor samples, but it’s nowhere near enough. Hundreds of family samples will be needed in order to confirm victims’ identities. Davis attributes the community’s hesitance towards this identification measure to the bleak confirmation of their loved one’s tragic demise, “As we’ve collected samples from people, you know we see this emotion that comes with accepting the possibility that their loved ones are gone.”
Since the development of DNA forensic technology, mass collection and catalog of DNA samples has been the subject of privacy debate. While everyone has a right to privacy, there are monumental benefits to a large database of DNA samples that go beyond victim identification. As such, legal professionals at Fordham University issued a report proposing principles that find the middle in the DNA privacy debate. The abstract reads:
Rescue officials have the monumental task of containing a natural disaster, searching the effected area for victims of its fatal destruction, and finally giving names to the remains—a process that can take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation wait with bated breath for information about their loved ones living in or around Paradise, California. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective way to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.
The Red Cross offers many tips and strategies for locating and reaching out to loved ones that go beyond the straightforward. In addition to calling other family members and utilizing social media tools, individuals are also encouraged to call or visit places their loved one was known to frequent, like Tracey Stinson did when she asked around at her missing father’s usual grocery store. Resources also recommend calling during off-peak hours to increase their chances of getting through to an operator or official.
Following Camp Fire, many families and single individuals spent their Thanksgiving in warehouses, shelters, and tent cities in grocery store parking lots, with everything they own in a few small suitcases. For many, there is no home to return to when the natural destruction is finally snuffed out. According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
1. 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
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
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.
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
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
35. NCMEC has created more than 530 facial reconstructions for unidentified deceased unidentified
36. In the mid-1980’s milk carton with photographs of missing children were first used to help find
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
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
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.
California law enforcement are celebrating a break in a thirty year old cold case this week, as an an arrest has been made in the case of the Golden State Killer. DNA has been used to identify criminals for decades. However, the methods investigators used to identify the suspect have civilians debating whether or not the suspect’s civil liberties were violated.
Investigators used DNA obtained from ancestry and genealogy platforms to locate a suspect matching the profile of the perpetrator. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested Tuesday morning, officially charged with 8 counts of Homicide committed in a decade span, across 3 California counties. They hope to eventually link DeAngelo to 12 murders and 45 rapes committed between 1976 and 1986.
DeAngelo worked as a police officer for 6 years during the original investigation—a relevant detail, as investigators suspected the perpetrator had law enforcement knowledge.
At the end of 1986, when the string of assaults and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer officially ended, the science behind DNA forensics in crime scene investigation was in its infancy. The first case in which DNA evidence secured a conviction in the UK in 1986 not only led investigators to the true perpetrator, but also cleared an innocent suspect whom had been previously implicated. In the last thirty years, the technology has become so ubiquitous DNA kits are available over-the-counter in drugstores all over the country. The technology has matured so immensely, the genetic profile of a single football can be identified to prevent counterfeiting during the Super Bowl. And now, the newest trend in DNA technology may have helped Sacramento authorities identify the infamous Golden State Killer.
Websites like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com have made it easier than ever for people around the world to find out more about their ancestry and genetic makeup. A buccal swab mailed off to a genetics lab can return results of information on everything from the palette of colors in your ancestors’ lineage to the medical problems running in your immediate genetic line. Sacramento authorities have released information advising the DNA provided to these services for informative purposes was one of the chief investigative tools in identifying DeAngelo as a suspect.
According to lead investigator, Paul Holes, GEDmatch was the database utilized leading them to DeAngelo. GEDmatch is a research tool using a database of voluntarily supplied DNA samples for researchers and genealogists. “We were able to generate a DNA profile we uploaded into [a] … database of other similar types of profiles,” Holes told KGO. “And then from there, we get a match list of how much DNA these various other individuals share with the crime scene DNA. The more DNA they share, the more closely related they are.” After obtaining information from the GEDmatch database, they placed him under surveillance. They collected several samples of his discarded DNA, which they were able to match to a DNA profile compiled from samples collected at the plethora of crime scenes, subsequently leading to DeAngelo’s arrest.
Familial DNA searches are becoming more common in forensic science, and as such, more and more controversial. As was the case in identifying DeAngelo, investigators often submit a finite number of genetic markers into a database of genetic samples and the database will return a list of possible results. Results are then cross-referenced with other databases and records to thin the suspect pool. These practices are controversial because large percentages of the country’s population share the same genetic markers, yielding ambiguous results for investigators. Many civilians feel as if the method leaves their civil liberties vulnerable, as though their genetic profiles might make them guilty by association. Currently, the only legislation preventing an individual from being discriminated against, based on their genetic information, is the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.
At a press conference on Wednesday, April 25th, local law enforcement did not release specifics about how the DNA obtained from GEDmatch was used to locate DeAngelo. Instead, they focused on how a more comprehensive DNA databank in California could have led investigators to DeAngelo sooner. The existing legislations, Proposition 69, was passed in 2004 and allows law enforcement to collect DNA and fingerprints at the earliest stages of criminal proceedings—beginning when the suspect is arrested, as opposed to post-conviction collection. Despite controversy, the law was upheld earlier this month.
According to Thomas Lauth, Lauth Investigations International Inc., whose firm specializes in unsolved homicides and missing persons, “Our firm must always pivot to innovative ideas and think of ways to gather DNA from a potential suspect.” Lauth further said, “Search warrants are required for human samples. However, if you can retrieve a sample from a discarded cigarette or beer can, it may prove positive. Sometimes though, obtaining positive-testing samples can be tricky. The labs could require numerous samples to finally get a positive and readable match.”
On April 28th, in his first court appearance, Joseph James DeAngelo was formally arraigned on two of the eight counts of murder with which he is formally charged. He did not enter a plea and bail was denied. His next court appearance is scheduled for May 14th, 2018.
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.