When a child or a loved one goes missing, immediately life changes as you know it, your entire world seems to fall apart. You feel isolated, confused and desperate and may feel you have nowhere to turn for help and support.
Life becomes an emotional roller coaster for those left behind, leaving you emotionally vulnerable. Feelings of sadness, loss, guilt and anger are normal but leave you feeling emotionally drained.
Longing for direction, most families who have experienced a child or loved one missing say they wished they had a handbook to tell them what to do, what to expect, and how to respond.
(Statement by Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan Nick, missing since June 9, 1995. Photo courtesy of OJJDP.)
The Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) created a handbook “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide” providing direction to parents of missing children. It is an invaluable resource for families. However, since it was created, there have been many advancements in methods to distribute fliers and raise public awareness of missing persons.
With a missing person, it is imperative to gain public attention. Experts agree, every time you share information with the public, it creates the potential to generate that one lead law enforcement needs to bring that person home safe.
Much of the time, creating public awareness is a cooperative effort between the families of the missing person, media, and law enforcement. However, getting each to work cohesively with the other is sometimes difficult and much of the burden of creating social awareness falls on the family.
Social Media’s Role in Finding Missing Persons
Government agencies and police are increasingly using social media to help find missing persons. In fact, New York City Police Department launched a social media campaign to include the public in ongoing investigations, to both find missing persons and catch criminals.
“If a person goes missing, commands make initial notifications on social media. Then, posters are made,” said Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and leader of the NYPD’s social media efforts. “As that information gets retweeted by police and the public, word spreads very quickly to be on the lookout for that missing person.”
(NYPD actively utilizes Facebook and Twitter to search for missing persons.)
NYPD’s Facebook page currently has “822,054 Likes” with no sign of slowing down.
Prior to social media, distribution of information was always limited by limited geographic outreach, with missing person pages commonly only posted within the community the person went missing.
With social media platforms, it changed the landscape of searching for missing persons. Facebook has 2.37 billion users in 2019, Twitter 126 million daily users, and Instagram over 800 million, making it the ideal place to generate leads for law enforcement.
Mystery and misery linger in a missing person case. Many think the number of missing persons has risen in missing person cases, but experts say it is thanks to social media, not an actual increase in cases. “Missing persons have always been there, of course, but due to social media, the cases are more widespread,” said Ray Wagner, Director of Relations for Crimestoppers.
(Missing in Arizona’s post on Facebook for Elizabeth Breck who vanished from Tucson, Arizona, on January 13, 2019.)
Nothing compares to sharing information using social media platforms. The information posted is immediately available throughout the country, and the world.
Combining Social Media with News Media
Working with local and national media is also a critical component of searching for a missing person as news stories also have the long-time been proven to generate leads.
Here are some guidelines to follow when working with news media when a person is missing:
It is important to always speak to the investigating law enforcement agency prior to doing a news interview so as not to compromise an investigation. It is common for law enforcement to request minimal information about an investigation be shared in a news interview to protect their case, especially if a nonfamily abduction is suspected.
Consider using a public relations firm. Sometimes costly, they do have expertise in constructing press releases and attracting media interest. Try obtaining services pro bono. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Appoint a family spokesperson, someone capable of speaking publicly and comfortable being in the public eye.
Keeping the media interested requires pulling at “heart strings” so plan on doing interviews on birthdays, anniversary dates, and holidays.
Remember, just because they ask a question, doesn’t mean you have to answer it.
Utilization of Social Media Platforms
Working with law enforcement cannot be over-emphasized. While using social media platforms gives you instant ability to mass communicate, and can be a source of significant support, it can also be a place where you may be scrutinized or asked many questions. Aside from being time consuming, the public has a tendency to ask questions, and it is important for you to only stick with the facts of an investigation without leaking tidbits of information by identifying a perpetrator or details of the investigation.
Utilizing any social network platform can be emotionally taxing, but worth utilizing when a family member is missing, and life may hang in the balance.
There are several social media platforms that can help you widen your search, stay organized and reach various audiences.
Facebook helps raise social awareness, fundraise, organize events and keep your social network apprised of any new developments.
YouTube can help keep news coverage organized and a quick and effective way to post your media on other network platforms, involving people in your efforts.
Twitter can reach very large audiences to include politicians, celebrities and news stations.
Instagram can help with sharing photographs and “behind the scenes” images, while connecting with a younger audience that is very socially aware and involved.
Blogger or any blogging platform, can help by giving you a place to vent your everyday frustrations and emotions while sharing progress with readers.
Setting up Storage
When a love one is missing you can find yourself being asked over and over again for the same information and photographs of your loved one.
It is advisable to use a cloud content storage like Dropbox or Google Documents where you can create different folders or files such as press releases, letters, and high-quality photographs that media and other organizations can use to help raise public awareness. Also, utilizing “content storage” saves time and frustration when trying to email high resolution images.
Dropbox is free and offers up to 2GB of storage and Google Documents is free and offers 15GB of storage (to include emails and attachments).
Appoint a trusted Administrator(s) to help you with the page.
Set up a “Page” in Facebook and choose a name consistent with the purpose such as “FIND BRYCE LASPISA” or “MISSING SARAH GALLOWAY.” Choose something and use both first and last name of the missing person.
Use high-quality photographs when possible and use a picture of the missing person as a profile picture.
Include a brief description of the missing person to include where they were last seen, along with law enforcement’s contact number or hotline.
Communicate clearly and succinctly in all posts.
Post at times the most people are going to see your posts, not in the middle of the night. According to a Buffer study, the best times of post on Facebook is between 1-3 p.m. during the week and on Saturdays, with Thursdays and Fridays having the most engagement.
Post consistently and frequently with “Calls to Action” such as asking people to share your post (and ask their friends to share), or ask they use a photo of the missing person flier as their profile picture for a week.
Always try to stay positive. The tone of your post matters.
Provides updates when possible and post any media interviews or links to television shows that may have profiled the missing person.
Don’t feel obligated to respond to any comment or message.
With social media, comes the potential for negative comments, messages or posts from users. Never feel the need to respond to negative correspondence or comments, just delete or hide negative comments as soon as you can.
Lastly, you can also pay for advertising on Facebook.
Advertising on Facebook
Everyone’s Facebook account comes with the ability to run ads. With Facebook Advertising, you can target specific locations the missing person may be most likely to be in, to include entire cities to just parts of a city. You can also target specific age groups and should be done as quickly as possible if you are able to afford it.
Choose your objective. These four categories can help you in the search for a missing loved one.
Promote your page
Boost your posts
Increase your reach
Raise attendance at your events
Define your audience.
Location. Start with country and state.
Age. Choose an age range. It is advisable to keep this broad to reach people of all ages (18-65+).
Language. Choose English if in the United States.
Define your budget.
Daily: a daily budget is the maximum amount your will spend per day during the timespan of your ad.
Lifetime: a longer-term budget you will spend during the lifetime of the ad.
Create new ad.
Choose your ad format (above).
You get 90 characters of text to concisely share your message.
Use only high-quality images or video.
Use a name like “Have You Seen This Missing Person” or similar.
Recommended image size: 1200 x 628 pixels
Image ratio: 1.91:1
To maximize ad delivery, use an image that contains little or no overlaid text.
Format: .MOV or .MP4 files
Resolution: at least 720p
File size: 2.3 GB max.
Recommended aspect ratio: widescreen (16:9)
Facebook: 60 minutes max.
Most importantly, when using Facebook or any social media platform, check your messages and comments frequently so if someone contacts you with information you can forward it to law enforcement immediately.
Twitter is a great social media platform to reach masses of people. There are more than 500 million Tweets per day on Twitter.
Set up a new account.
Like Facebook, choose a name consistent with the purpose.
Use a photograph of the missing person as a profile picture.
Tweet links to news coverage, interviews, and articles.
Use hash tags such as #Missing #State #Missing Person’s Name
Tweet to local and national media.
Tweet to celebrities, both local and national.
Keep your tweets brief.
Respond when someone tweets to you.
Follow similar pages.
Like Facebook and all social media platforms, it matters when you post on Twitter.
According to American Marketing Association, the best time to post on Twitter is Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m., with most consistent engagement occurring Mon-Friday 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Other studies have shown Mon-Friday between 12-3 p.m. is the best time. Saturday is the worst day to post and has least engagement.
While building followers and social media presence takes time, there are strategies and techniques you can use to increase your engagement and get more clicks.
Twitter engagement is when someone engages with the content that you post such as favoriting your tweet, retweeting your tweet, responding to your tweet or mentioning you in a separate tweet.
It is also important that you engage with other users’ content with likes, comments and retweets. When you engage with another user’s content, they will be more likely to pay attention to what you are posting too. This works across all social media platforms.
In addition, leverage other feeds and encourage your followers on Facebook and other platforms to follow you on Twitter and visa versa.
Using social network platforms to find missing persons is still relatively new and is no doubt a learning process. One only needs to look at the numbers in order to gauge the success.
It is advisable to follow other families who have missing persons, advocacy agencies, and shows like In Pursuit with John Walsh or Vanished to gain ideas for successful posts and make valuable connections.
Again, try not to be discouraged as you try to grow your social networks and don’t let running the various platforms consume you. Again, it is recommended you share these tasks with other family members or friends that can assist you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As said before, using social media is a learning experience, but rest assured you will get better as you go along. Remember HOPE is the most important thing to hold onto.
The development of crowd-funding platforms such as GoFundMe has elevated an individual’s ability to see their financial goals realized. Whether the goal is retaining support for a passion project, or simply garnering a smaller sum to pull through a financial crisis or emergency, crowd-funding is making it all possible. One type of campaign that is becoming more and more vital is GoFundMe campaigns for missing persons.
When a person is reported missing, law enforcement jumps on
the case to follow up on hot leads, interview witnesses, and gather evidence.
While these services are obviously a public service, it’s not uncommon for the
families of missing persons to also hire a private investigator to conduct a
tandem investigation with law enforcement. Private investigators possess a
level of autonomy and flexibility that law enforcement does not, and this can
further progress on the case. Unless the private investigator agrees to do the
investigation pro-bono, the investigation will need funding, and GoFundMe is
just one of the many platforms where an investigation can be crowd-funded.
Signing up for GoFundMe is completely free, and setting up a
campaign is blessedly easy. Here is a step-by-step guide to setting up a
GoFundMe for a missing person.
Choosing an email address
We all have that extra email address for spam and other platforms so we don’t clutter up our primary email inbox. However, in the case of a GoFundMe account, it’s always best to use a primary email address. GoFundMe allows you to use the email associated with your Facebook account for easier signup, but it’s imperative that you confirm that you still have access to that email address before you begin.
Creating your campaign
After setting up the account, the next step is very simple. Just select ‘start a new campaign.’ GoFundMe allows individual users to have as many as 5 active campaigns running simultaneously.
When deciding on campaign goals, it’s important to remain realistic. You want an attainable amount for your specific goal. While the proposed retainer may be different depending on the private investigation firm you plan to hire, $10,000 is always a good starting target sum. GoFundMe allows you to edit the goal of the campaign, increasing or decreasing the goal as needed.
Creating a campaign title is crucial, because it is often the first thing potential donors will see when they see the campaign on social media or another promotional platform. It must be 35 characters or less, so every letter counts.
You must decide if you’re raising funds as an individual or as a team. In the case of many missing person campaigns, the campaign will be created and managed by between 1-3 members of the missing person’s family. If you are a private investigation firm managing a crowd-funding campaign, you’ll want to select the option to raise funds as a team. Like many aspects of the campaign, these things can be edited after the creation of the campaign.
Adding a photo and a story
After you’ve agreed to GoFundMe’s terms and conditions, you’ll need to select a campaign image. In the case of a missing person, just like a poster, you’ll want to use a recent photo of the missing person, preferably smiling, and ideally in the outfit they were wearing when they were last seen. It’s also important that you include the same information you would include on a missing person’s poster, including their full name, physical description, any medical conditions, and the circumstances of their disappearance. GoFundMe denotes effective stories as ones that are incredibly descriptive and straightforward about why you are raising money and how the money will be spent. In the case of missing persons, these aspects are as straightforward as they come. Because of the potential for scams surrounding crowdfunding campaigns of all kinds, you’ll want to be transparent about your relationship to the missing person and the name of the investigating entity where the funds will go. The more personal you make the story, the more likely you are to receive a donation to the campaign.
Sharing the campaign
You’ve made the campaign, but it won’t incur donations by just sitting there—you have to share it. Social media is one of the greatest tools available in a missing persons campaign. Of all the social media platforms, Facebook yields one of the highest levels of exposure to social media users. Facebook also has an interface that is designed for sharing contact quickly and easily. Twitter is an excellent platform to get the name of your missing person trending under a hashtag and increase potential donations. Don’t’ forget Instagram, where the missing person’s photo will be prominent.
Continue to share
Social media is powerful, but you will only get out of it what you put into it. After the initial creation and sharing of the campaign, it’s important that you make a consistent, repetitive effort to share the campaign on all available platforms.
There is an epidemic of missing and murdered mothers in the United States. Many missing and murdered moms get a great deal of press coverage, but for some reason, their cases go unsolved.
Among these missing and murdered moms is Marlen Ocha-Lopez. Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, 19, was a dark-haired beauty and nine months’ pregnant when she went missing April 23, 2019, in Chicago, Ill. That day Ochoa-Lopez had attended classes at Latino Youth High School in Chicago, planning to pick up her 3-year old at daycare later that day.
According to police, prior to her disappearance she had appealed to other mothers on a Facebook group called “Help a Sister Out,” asking for help securing a double stroller for her toddler and new baby.
A high-school student, Ochoa-Lopez wrote in a post that she was unemployed and short on cash, and willing to buy, trade, or accept the double stroller as a donation.
A woman had responded to her Facebook post with an offer to provide baby clothes and other items. The woman then directed Ochoa -Lopez to private message her for more information. Ochoa-Lopez had purchased baby items from the woman before.
On May 14, 2019, the body of Ochoa-Lopez was found stuffed inside a garbage bin in the backyard of the woman who had offered her baby supplies.
Ochoa-Lopez had been strangled with a cable and her unborn baby forcibly removed from her womb.
(Arrested in the death of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez; Clarissa Figueroa, daughter Desiree Figueroa, and boyfriend Piotr Bobak.)
Police arrested the woman from the Facebook post, Clarisa Figueroa, 46, along with her daughter Desiree Figueroa, 24, both charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery of a child less than 13 years old. Desiree Figueroa’s boyfriend Piotr Bobak was charged with concealing the death of a person and one felony count of concealing a homicidal death.
“Words cannot express how disgusting and thoroughly disturbing these allegations are,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
Community helping put the puzzle together
During the 3 weeks Ochoa-Lopez was missing, friends and family frantically searched for her. According to the family’s pastor, Jacobia Cortes, when Ochoa-Lopez’s husband tried to report her missing, he was told to return in 72 hours. He did return and in addition, the family had hired a private investigator.
The family also turned to the local church who came together and helped plaster the neighborhood with fliers of Ochoa.
As a result, people in the neighborhood began calling the church to report they had seen Ochoa-Lopez enter the home where she would be later found dead. According to Cortes, concerned residents also said one of the women who lived at the residence, describing her in her 40’s, had suddenly had a baby without ever appearing to be pregnant.
The same day Ochoa-Lopez went missing the Chicago Fire Department received a call that a newborn was in distress at the home where Ochoa was eventually found.
According to fire department spokesperson Larry Langford, for the three weeks that Ochoa-Lopez was missing, her baby boy was hospitalized and accompanied by a woman who claimed she had given birth to him. However, according to Ochoa’s father, Arnulfo Ochoa, there were missed opportunities to find his daughter earlier.
Grizzly details surface
On May 14, police obtained a search warrant and crime lab technicians searched the house on Chicago’s Southwest Side, only 4 miles from Ochoa-Lopez’s own home.
(Chicago police search the home of Clarisa Figueroa on May 14, 2019.)
Bleach and other cleaning supplies were found in the home, along with evidence of burned clothes.
“They are finding remains of burned clothes, they are finding some blood indication on the living room carpet, some blood indication on the hallway, some blood indication on the bathroom floor,” police said.
Ochoa-Lopez’s body was found in a garbage can, hidden in the yard, along with the cable used to strangle her.
Desiree Figueroa told police she helped her mother strangle Ochoa-Lopez from behind the couch until she took her last breath and peed herself.
Apparently, Clarisa Figueroa plotted for months to acquire a newborn before they kidnapped Ochoa-Lopez and cut her baby from her womb using a butcher knife, according to prosecutors.
(Cook County prosecutor Jim Murphy briefs Chicago media with details of murder of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez.)
Ochoa-Lopez was lured to Clarisa Figueroa’s home. When she arrived, Desiree Figueroa showed her a photo album of her late brother to distract her as her mother went behind Ochoa-Lopez with a cord and began strangling her, prosecutor Jim Murphy told reporters.
When Ochoa-Lopez managed to get her finger under the cord, Clarisa Figueroa yelled at her daughter, “You’re not doing your f—ing job!” The daughter then pried Ochoa-Lopez’s fingers from the cord “one by one” while her mother continued to strangle the teenager for another five minutes.
Reading from court documents, Murphy said when Ochoa-Lopez showed no signs of life, Clarisa Figueroa cut her open with a butcher’s knife, removed the baby and the placenta, then put the baby in a bucket with the umbilical cord still attached.
Authorities think the nightmarish plot was hatched during 2018, when Clarisa Figueroa told her family she was pregnant, later posting an ultrasound and photos of a room decorated for a baby on Facebook. Her daughter said she was surprised because she believed her mother had had her tubes tied.
According to Murphy, this announcement came not too long after Clarisa Figueroa’s own adult son had died from natural causes during 2018.
On March 5, 2018, Clarissa Figueroa made a Facebook post that read, “Who is due in May?” Another post said, “Where is the May mammas at?” Ochoa-Lopez, seven months pregnant at the time, replied and that is when Clarisa Figueroa offered her free baby clothes.
When Clarisa Figueroa first asked her daughter to help her kill someone to take their baby, the daughter initially said no.
They first met with Ochoa-Lopez around April 1. Desiree told her boyfriend of her mother’s intention to kill Ochoa-Lopez, and he warned he would call the police if they harmed the young mother. According to the prosecutor, Clarisa Figueroa then told the boyfriend the whole thing had been an April Fool’s joke.
They killed Ochoa-Lopez when she returned the second time on April 23. After killing her, the mother and daughter allegedly wrapped her in a blanket, placing the body in a large plastic bag. They proceeded to drag the body outside and placed it in a garbage can in a hidden area next to the garage.
Clarisa Figueroa then called 911 and claimed she had just delivered a baby and that it wasn’t breathing, authorities told reporters. When the first responders arrived, the baby was blue. The baby was immediately transported to a nearby hospital.
“At the hospital, doctors found no signs Clarisa Figueroa had just given birth,” prosecutors said. “She also had blood on her arms, hands, and face that police later determined to be the blood of Ochoa-Lopez.
Christ Medical Center in suburban Oaklawn has declined to comment, cutting state and federal regulations.
The baby, named Yadiel, remains hospitalized in intensive care and on a breathing machine.
(Funeral procession comes together to bury Marlen Ochoa-Lopez on May 25, 2019.)
On May 25, hundreds filed into a Stickney funeral home to pay their respects to the young mother.
“Today is a sad day – not only for [Marlen’s] family but for all of Chicago,” one community organizer said.
There are Many More Missing
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as of April 30, 2018, there were 86,927 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
Though no agency in the country can provide statistic specific to missing pregnant women, NCIC lists approximately 5, 714 missing persons with disabilities.
Many cases may be of people missing are due to diminished mental capacity such as Alzheimer’s, and other mental health issues but a few are pregnant women. However, while it is rare a pregnant mother goes missing, it seems to be happening with more frequency.
When a person goes missing, it becomes a cooperative effort on behalf of the police, the community, and the media,” says private investigator Thomas Lauth of Lauth Investigations International. “When a pregnant mother goes missing it should be treated with utmost urgency.”
Some missing pregnant women make national news, and some do not. Often it can depend upon the circumstances of the disappearance, but some experts say the police and media response can also be affected by race and socio-economic status.
Lauth who has been a private investigator specializing in missing person cases for 25 years, says the public’s reaction to a case becomes paramount when searching for a missing person and Ochoa-Lopez’s case reflects how successful community involvement can be in a missing person case. “Many, many cases are solved with the information provided by the public,” says Lauth. “Getting information out via media is often the only way to generate that one lead that may help law enforcement bring the victim home.”
Disappearance of Bethany Decker
Bethany Decker was 21 and five months pregnant when she vanished from her Ashburn, Va., apartment on January 29, 2011. She had been visiting her parents at their Columbia, Maryland home earlier that day.
(Bethany Decker vanished from her Ashburn, Va., apartment on January 29, 2011.)
Decker who was majoring in global and economic change didn’t show up for her classes at the nearby George Mason University (GMU), or her full-time job but it would be three weeks before she was reported missing.
During the time Decker attended college at GMU, she became pregnant by Emile Decker, an Army National Guardsman. The two married in 2009 and they had a son six months later. Emile Decker was often deployed to Afghanistan for months at a time.
While working at a Centreville Italian restaurant, Decker met Roland, a Bolivian immigrant who was approximately 30 years old and began an extramarital affair with him. By 2010, there were problems in the Decker’s marriage and Decker moved to a separate apartment in Ashburn. Roland soon followed and moved in with her, but Decker found him controlling and abusive. Several times a day Roland demanded Decker send him a picture of herself from her cellphone to show who she was with. Concerned, her parents began devising a plan to get their daughter out of the relationship but by the end of the year Bethany found out she was pregnant.
In January 2011, Emile Decker returned to the United States for a month-long leave to see Decker. By the end of the month, they went on a week-long vacation in Hawaii and returned on January 28, spending the night at Decker’s parent’s home in Maryland.
The following morning Emile Decker stayed at the home and Decker returned to her apartment a little over an hour drive away. On February 2, Emile returned to Afghanistan. Friends that met him at the airport to see him off noted that Bethany wasn’t there like previous occasions but attributed her absence to the couple’s marital problems.
Initially, friends and family were not concerned when they didn’t hear from Decker as of the beginning of February. They said she made an effort to stay in touch but with her busy life and classes at GMU, along with a full-time job, sometimes days would go by before they heard from her.
February 19, Nelson asked her parents, who lived near Ashburn if they could drive by their granddaughter’s house to see if she was there. Decker’s Hyundai was parked out front at an unusual angle with a flat tire. Immediately concerned, Decker’s grandparents called Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department and made a missing person report.
Detectives found Decker had not used her bank account or cell phone since January 29 and initially focused the investigation on Roland and Emile Decker since both may have a motive to harm her.
Emile Decker returned to the states and took a polygraph.
Police then focused on Roland who said he had not seen Decker since the 29th but offered no additional information.
Roldan who had a criminal record prior to Decker’s disappearance is considered a person of interest in the case. In 2015, Roldan was arrested for the attempted murder of another girlfriend Vicky Willoughby.
(Ronald Rowland is suspected to be the last person who saw Bethany Decker alive on January 29, 2011.)
Police in Moore County, North Carolina, responded to a 911 call for a domestic incident at Willoughby’s home on November 12, 2014. Police said Willoughby shot Roland in self-defense twice, once in the chest and once in the abdomen. Roland then grabbed Willoughby’s .38 caliber handgun and shot at her three times, hitting her in the head and leg. She lost an eye in the shooting.
After the Willoughby recovered, she appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and claimed Roldan had made statements to her that implicate him in the disappearance of Decker. He is currently serving time in a North Carolina prison.
In March 2019, Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman announced to media that police have had movement as recently as “last week,” in the eight-year search to determine who killed 21-year old Bethany Decker.
Though Chapman did not elaborate on what the development was, he said it came after a January search warrant of Decker’s Facebook account.
(Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Mike Chapman announces recent development in the disappearance of Bethany Decker.)
Loudoun County investigators have never charged Roland or named him as a suspect but have said he is no longer willing to answer questions about the disappearance of Decker.
Two weeks after Decker disappeared, Emile Decker said he received a “sketchy” email, “and did not believe it was sent by Bethany” according to a Facebook search warrant filed January 9 of this year.
“Suspicious activity” was also later reported on Decker’s Facebook account by her mother and some of Decker’s friends according to the warrant.
Better technology has assisted investigators with pinpointing the origin of the suspicious activity to reexamine Decker’s Facebook account.
During Roland’s conviction for the attempted murder of Willoughby, North Carolina prosecutors stated after Roland completes his time, sometime in 2021, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will then take him into custody for deportation proceedings to Bolivia.
However, Loudoun County sources told WTOP News that they expect a grand jury to indict Roldan for Decker’s murder despite her remains not being found.
“It’s going to primarily, I would imagine, be a circumstantial case,” said Chapman. “You have to compile all the evidence, and see where it all leads, and make sure you have enough to achieve a conviction.”
Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Bethany Decker is asked to call the Loudoun County Sheriff at 703-777-1021.
Disappearance of Jasmine Robinson
Jasmine Robinson, 23, was last seen February 18, 2019, at her home in Alachua County, Fla. She was seven months pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
(Jasmine Robinson is seven months pregnant and reported missing February 18, in Alachua County, Fla.)
After coming home from work, Robinson told her aunt she was going to bed at approximately 8 p.m. but friends and family became concerned when she hadn’t answered her phone and failed to report to work the following day. The family made a missing person report to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department.
From investigating Robinson’s home, police believe Robinson left her residence with “someone” as it did not appear Robinson had not been ready to go anywhere, leaving many of her belongings at the house.
“Over two squads of detectives have been engaged in her case. What we need now is that last piece of information from the public about where she is,” said Lt. Brett Rhodenizer of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
The Florida Sheriff’s Association Criminal Apprehension Assistance Program and Crime Stoppers are offering a reward of up to $8,000 for information that leads to the arrest of anyone responsible for the disappearance of Robinson.
“Whoever saw her last, we need that information because that would give us the key starting point, where we can then have the assistance from the public, use the specialized resources that are available to the sheriff’s office to get out and begin that very deliberate ground search to bring Jasmine home,” said Rhodenizer.
Anyone with information about regarding the disappearance of Jasmine Robinson is asked to call the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at 352-955-1818.
Disappearance of Kierra Coles
Kierra Coles, 26, stepped out of her home in Chicago’s South Side in her postal worker uniform and disappeared into thin air on October 2, 2018.
(US Postal worker Kierra Coles has been missing from her South Side Chicago apartment since October 1, 2018.)
She was three months pregnant when she disappeared.
During her last phone call with her mother, Karen Phillips, Coles asked for advice about a product and “she seemed okay.” Coles was reported missing on October 4, after her Phillips hadn’t heard from her in two days and calls were being forward to voicemail.
Chicago Police was called to perform a welfare check at Cole’s apartment but found nothing out of the ordinary.
After checking with neighbors, police said the following day; Coles was seen on a neighbor’s surveillance video leaving her apartment near 81st Street and Vernon Avenue. Her vehicle was found in front of her apartment complex with her cell phone, prenatal vitamins, and a packed lunch still inside.
To add to the mystery, coworkers of Coles say she called out sick that day.
Leaving everyone baffled, Cole’s father, Joseph Coles told Dateline his daughter was excited to be a first-time mother. “She had no reason to disappear,” he said.
(Family members of Kierra Coles hand out fliers in Chicago’s South Side.)
In the months following Cole’s disappearance, authorities have searched areas around the city of Chicago. Since Cole’s disappearance, her father quit his job in Wisconsin and moved to Chicago to search “night and day” for his daughter.
“I’m trying to stand out here and stay strong for my daughter and my grandbaby,” said Joseph Coles. “I do my daily routine – pass out fliers, trying to get the word out,” he added. “There’s a lot of love in this family. There is no way in hell she would run away.”
Police announced they feel “foul play” is suspected in Cole’s disappearance.
Chief Guglielmi told Dateline there is a minimum of two to three people of interest in the case and who was the last to see her. “We’ve narrowed down our group here to a personal associate of hers – a friend – who was one of the last people to see her.” Guglielmi did not comment on the person’s name.
Cole’s father holds out hope his daughter and grandbaby are still alive.
“I just want the world to know I love my baby and my grandbaby. It would be closure to know my baby is safe and home,” said Joseph Coles. That would be a blessing of a lifetime. The way the situation is now, I am keeping hope. Because there are young women who have been missing for longer than Kierra has, and they’ve been found safely. So, I am keeping hope.”
As Cole’s due date passed on April 23, she remains missing.
Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Kierra Coles is asked to call the Chicago Police Department at 312-746-6000.
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.
What does it mean for a child to fall through the cracks? It’s a phrase we often hear following a tragedy involving children, like the one that killed six members of the Hart family in March of this year. Their family SUV was found in the water after having plummeted from a cliff’s edge in Northern California. While the remains of the parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and four of their six children were pulled from the wreckage, two of the children, Hannah Hart, 16, and Devonte Hart, 15, are still missing, yet presumed deceased. In the weeks following, the investigation of the crash and the home life lived by the Hart family has law enforcement and social service agencies shaking their heads. When asked how something like this could happen to these beautiful children, many lament with dissatisfaction, “They fell through the cracks in the system.”
What was initially regarded as an accident has recently been declared by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s department in California to be a homicide. Investigators have since learned at the time of the crash Jennifer Hart, the driver of the vehicle, was legally intoxicated. While that fact alone is heartbreaking, the tragedy deepened when an examination of the road near the cliff determined the vehicle may have come to a complete stop before speeding over the edge into the Pacific Ocean. Both Sarah Hart, Jennifer’s wife, and the three youngest children were found to have substances resembling Benadryl in their systems. This evidence was just the beginning of a series of confusing discoveries by investigators painting a larger picture of six children trapped in an isolated world of strict rules, rigorous punishment, and a functional façade that had friends, neighbors, and social service agencies stymied in their efforts to save the Hart children.
A truck drives by the pullout where the SUV of Jennifer and Sarah Hart was recovered off the Pacific Coast Highway, near Westport, Calif., Wednesday, March 28, 2018. The bodies of the two women and three of their adopted children were recovered after the vehicle plunged over the cliff Monday, while three more of their children, Devonte Hart, 15, Hannah Hart, 16, and Sierra Hart, 12, have not been found. (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat via AP)
Their neighbors in Woodlawn, Washington had called social services a few days before the crash after weeks of 15-year-old Devonte approaching their door up to three times in a single day to ask for food because Devonte claimed his mothers were not feeding him or his siblings. These are the same neighbors who played host to the much-covered incident in which Devonte’s sister Hannah, 16, jumped out a window of the Hart home and ran next door to hide from her mothers. Social services knocked on the Harts’ door two days before the crashed. Despite having observed their SUV in the driveway, there was no answer. They returned the next day, but this time no one appeared to be home.
The agent left their card on the door, but it was already too late for the Hart children. The baffling fact is this was the third time it had been too late for state social services to intervene. The children were adopted in Texas, and the family moved to Minnesota not too long after. Social service agencies there received six claims of abuse/neglect during the Hart’s time living there, two of which they were able to confirm. The first claim was from an anonymous party who claimed the children appeared malnourished. This claim was easily verified by the sight of them, particularly Hannah Hart. Although Hannah was sixteen at the time of the crash, she was one of the smallest children, possessing the frame of an eight or nine-year-old. The second was a 2010 case that began with the parents discovering a penny in the pocket of one of the children, Abigail. Convinced the child had lied about how she got the penny, Sarah disciplined Abigail, describing it in court documents as a spanking that “got out of control.” The reported misdemeanor assault conviction on Sarah’s record was filed around this time. Sarah had admitted to using corporal punishment to discipline a child identified as “A.H.” According to The New York Times, the school system stopped making calls home in order to spare the children any disciplinary action at the hands of their mothers. Not too long after Sarah’s domestic assault conviction, the children were pulled from public school.
The family moved to Oregon, where law enforcement and child welfare agencies were eventually made aware of the allegations against the Harts in Minnesota. If the children had fallen through the cracks in Minnesota, Oregon was making efforts to ensure they wouldn’t fall through another. While there was no direct evidence of abuse discovered, they did hear some disturbing anecdotes from friends and acquaintances of the family. One person reported the Harts had stayed at their residence for a few days. After ordering a pizza, Jennifer only permitted the children to have one small piece. The children obeyed, but the next day, the pizza was gone. When none of the children would admit to eating the pizza, an enraged Jennifer forced them to lie still on their beds for hours as a form of punishment. Unfortunately, despite these disturbing accounts, Oregon child services was “unable to determine” whether or not the children were victims of neglect, and having found no evidence of a safety threat, their hands were tied. And just like that, the Hart children tumbled through another crack in the system.
In documents published after the crash, a Minnesota welfare employee commented the investigation into the Harts was tricky because they “look normal.” And look normal, they did. Appearances were apparently very important to the Harts, who allegedly forced the children to pose happily for Facebook photos. According to People, multiple women spoke with Oregonian child welfare representatives who commented Jennifer Hart “does this thing for her Facebook page, where the kids pose, and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.” If that’s true, it would be a compelling testament to the proposed notion that these children were often thought of as accessories in the women’s lives. A quick google search of “the hart family” in images will kick back at least a half dozen image results of the family in matching or coordinated outfits for a variety of events, including matching blue Bernie Sanders shirts at a Ferguson demonstration–the same event where 15 year-old Devonte would become famous on the internet when a photo of his tearful embrace with a police officer went viral. An investigation into the Hart’s family home following the crash turned up further contradictions to the Facebook life cultivated by the parents. The Hart mothers proudly proclaimed their vegetarian lifestyle on social media, as well as publicly denouncing television in favor of more productive activities, such as reading and outdoor play. A search of the home turned up a large-screen television, as well as a fridge stocked heavily with ham, hot dogs, and frozen chicken breasts. There were also allegations both mothers favored Devonte, the child who was famously photographed hugging a police officer during a northwestern Ferguson demonstration. These facts presented together certainly give credence to allegations the children were often treated as accessories for the lifestyle these women wanted to portray.
Facebook pictures, staged or otherwise, are certainly not smoking guns for abuse. So what were the red flags? Child welfare experts have stated, in addition to the bruises discovered on Abigail, the extraction of children from public school might as well have been a flaming comet—a beacon something was amiss in the Hart household. Nicol Stolar-Peterson, a licensed clinical social worker and child abuse expert says the circumstances of a child’s presence at school can be very telling to school teachers and other mandated reporters, “Are they wearing the same clothes for three days? Have they been fed? Are they always hungry when they get here? Do they eat breakfast and lunch and they’re starving and they say that’s the only two meals they get?” When children are pulled from public school, it narrows the number of mandated reporters (teachers, doctors, etc.) they are exposed to everyday. An approximate 1.7 million children are currently homeschooled in the United States for a variety of reasons, receiving a personalized education to further their academic success. However, without regular access to other adults, it liberates caregivers to abuse children without fear of being discovered.
These children did not trip and fall into an opaque field where the signs of abuse were invisible to the outside world. Rather they were pulled through the cracks by two women who wished to isolate them from the outside world. And the consensus among child welfare professionals is there is something to be learned from this case. In a letter accompanying the release of all child welfare documents pertaining to the Hart children, Caroline Burnell of the Oregon Department of Human Services said, “We believe the release of these records may help avoid future tragedies.” She also noted the department, “continues to strive to improve.”
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.