Year after year, thousands of families are rocked by a sudden void in their lives when a loved one goes missing. Many are lucky when their loved one is found within a few hours or a few days, but many go weeks, months, often years without any answers. But for the families and loved ones of those aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared without a trace more than seven years ago in March of 2014, answers may never come.
It sounds like the plot of a television show—Manifest from NBC to be exact—in which the passengers and crew of a commercial airline completely vanish out of the sky. While the passengers on the plane in that show reappeared mysteriously after five years, the occupants of Flight 370 were never heard from again. More than 200 families are still waiting for an explanation as to how an entire commercial airliner could disappear without a trace in the real world.
227 passengers and 12 crew members onboard the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were the subject of what was called an “unprecedented” search by both sea and air when the plane vanished. Even more cryptic, there was no indication that the flight would not go as planned prior to take-off. The Boeing 777 bound for Beijing departed on time from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Following a change-over in air-traffic control systems, the plane appeared to divert from its planned route, flying back over the Malaysian Peninsula and headed towards the Indian Ocean. After passing over the Gulf of Thailand, Flight 370 completely vanished from radar screen. There was never any evidence of a crash, nor any communications of complications. Some believe that Flight 370 simply fell into the ocean and the debris fell into a trench, the same theory under which many suspect Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared. However, this is highly unlikely, unless the plane hit the ocean at a verticle angle, which would prevent the plane from smashing into identifiable debris.
The plausible theories that have been put forward as an explanation for the disappearance of Flight 370 span from technical to hijacking. There are a myriad of theories under which the flight might have been hijacked, including remotely with the use of cyberattacks. Other theories include a fire in the cockpit, vertical entry into the sea, and being shot down. On March 9, 2014, Chinese news outlets got a letter from the Chinese Martyrs Brigade—previously unheard-of group—claiming responsibility for the loss of Flight 370. The letter was eventually dismissed as fraudulent.
Whatever the cause of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearing into thin air, one thing remains certain: Without answers to these troubling disappearances, there be families left twisting in the disappearance of their missing loved one.
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:
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.
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 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
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.
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 you. We 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.
When we think of missing persons, we often think of victims who have likely befallen violence at the hands of another. Either they have been killed and their remains concealed, or they were abducted and are being held against their will somewhere. While there are many circumstances under which a person can go missing, those who go missing with mental illness can be some of the most difficult to find. The intricate layered mesh of mental health issues combined with the complexities of a missing persons investigation make for a maddening puzzle that plagues both the heart and the mind.
Nationwide interest in missing persons cases most often occurs when the victim is a child or a young adult. News coverage of the Mollie Tibbetts case made it all the way to Washington D.C., with politicians and activists alike invoking her name. Few things attract viewers to news cycles like coverage of a case involving a missing toddler, like that of Lucas Hernandez earlier this year. Cases involving missing adults draw far less attention from both media and law enforcement, despite the fact in 2017, nearly 500k missing persons files collected by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), 150k were persons who went missing over the age of 21.
According to the non-profit Missing People, just because a person is reported as missing does not mean law enforcement will necessarily see it that way. There are many reasons a person might disappear of their own volition. After all, adults are free to conduct their lives as they see fit, beholden to no one so long as they do not break the law. Perhaps they’re a battered spouse attempting to escape their partner, or a person escaping harassment on behalf of people in their community, or maybe they just want a fresh start. These assumptions leave missing adult cases with a high threshold to prove the person is in danger.
Take for instance the case of Molly Dattilo, a woman who went missing from Indianapolis in July of 2004. She was a student at Eastern Kentucky University taking summer classes at an IUPUI campus in Indianapolis, trying to finish her education in her fifth year at 22 years old. On the night she went missing, her movements are well-documented. After dropping off a job application at a local Wendy’s restaurant, she bought supplies for school and for her personal hobbies, as well as made a change to her IUPUI schedule. At 11:00 that night, she placed a phone call from a booth at a Thorton’s gas station. When her vehicle was discovered, all of her personal belongings were left behind inside, including her wallet, cell phone, and several more job applications. From what we know, it doesn’t appear Molly had any intentions of running away, or starting over in a new place, so why did it take law enforcement months to get involved in her disappearance?
What the Johnny Gosch bill did to change how law enforcement reacts to missing child cases, Molly’s Law did for how law enforcement reacts to cases involving missing adults. The law crafted important procedures for executing investigations into missing adult cases in the state of Indiana, and assists law enforcement and the victims’ families communicate and work in tandem to find their missing loved ones. Governor Mitch Daniels signed the law in 2007, defining once and for all what constituted “high risk” in adult missing person cases and how to obtain information relevant to finding that adult. The law also states law enforcement may enter missing person’s information into the NCIC database as soon as two hours after the person is reported missing. According to the FBI, “A person of any age who is missing and who is under proven physical/mental disability or is senile, thereby subjecting that person or others to personal and immediate danger,” is the requirement for having their information placed in the NCIC database. This can be the difference between your loved one ending up in jail versus the hospital when confronted by law enforcement, whether they are looking for them or not.
The case of Kristen Modafferi also had a significant impact on law enforcement investigations into missing adults. While Kristen was only 18 at the time of her disappearance, her age still precluded the investigation from valuable resources that might have assisted in finding her. Twenty years later, her case still remains one of the most baffling missing person cases to date. As a reaction to her case, the National Center for Missing Adults was created, one of the first of its kind. Kristen’s Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000, provided federal funding to organizations like the National Center for Missing Adults. The center lost funding in 2004 after Kristen’s Act expired and continues with the help of donations and volunteer efforts.
It is clear missing adult investigations are far more complicated than missing minors. Now when you throw the numerous complexities of mental illness into the intricate layers of a missing adult investigation, the waters become murky in record time. That’s why the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends acting as soon as possible when a loved one with mental illness goes missing, first by calling the police. Information is key to finding any missing person, so providing law enforcement with all the information you can remember will be instrumental to locating them. Not just identifying information, but also details about their schedule or their daily routine can inform law enforcement of the missing adult’s habits. If your mentally ill loved one is missing for more than three days, you should request law enforcement enter their name onto the FBI’s NCIC list as an “endangered adult.” In addition to contacting the police, NAMI also suggests reaching out to the missing person’s friends and coworkers to see if they’ve heard from them.
Just like with any missing persons case, you should create a flyer with the person’s picture and include the following information:
- Home state and town
- Photo of their Vehicle
- Where they were last seen
- Phone number of police department and name of investigator
Once you’ve got a flyer, check nearby hospitals, churches, homeless shelters, and libraries for your loved one, posting flyers where permitted. Getting your missing loved one’s face out there is crucial to their being found. Even more important than posting flyers is creating a social media page with the same information in order to spread the missing person’s face throughout the internet at high speeds. Getting a person’s case to go viral can often draw in helpful tips to law enforcement that can lead to resolution in the case. It is crucial you emphasize the specifics of your loved one’s mental illness so anyone who sees them can react appropriately. It’s important to remain diligent in sharing the person’s picture and their story. The internet offers the average individual an opportunity to cultivate interest in their loved one’s case in a way they cannot control with mainstream media, making it a vital tool in the modern-day missing persons investigation.
When dealing with a missing person with mental illness, it’s important you seek the advice of professionals who are familiar with the complexities of their disease. Even if you have known the person for many years, only an expert can speak with certainty to the details of their illness. Contacting your local NAMI affiliate or another accredited mental health organization can put you in touch with people and resources valuable in locating your missing loved one. Remember, these are vulnerable people who might feel threatened, or as if they have no way out. Mental health professionals can help provide answers as to why a loved one disappeared in the first place. Regardless of the specific circumstances, it’s important to have an expert on hand to advise both law enforcement and the family of the intricacies of the person’s mental illness and what they might do next.
The disheartening thing is once a missing adult with mental illness has been located, law enforcement is not obligated to detain them unless they have committed a crime or are a danger to themselves and others. They cannot hold them against their will, and they cannot force them to take their medication unless they have been compelled to do so by a court order. It’s not always a happy ending when a missing adult with mental illness is found. Take for instance the case of Christopher Aaron Moreland. His mother, Elise Cash, had given up all hope her son with paranoid schizophrenia would ever be returned to her. After a pattern of increasingly paranoid and suspicious behavior, Christopher had disappeared, leaving a three-month supply of his anti-psychotic medication behind. After fifteen years without answers, Cash was contacted by a woman who said she had found Cash’s son. When the mother was finally reunited with her son, he did not recognize her and refused to return home with her—he even went as far as threatening to call the police if she did not leave him alone. In 2011, he was arrested on a felony possession of marijuana charge, which landed him in jail. This provided Cash with some relief, because at least now she knew where her son was at all times.
Dementia is not a mental illness, but adults with dementia are the most vulnerable adults who disappear. Dementia and mental illness do share some qualities, most significantly that they are disorders of the brain. Their brain chemistry is fundamentally different from the average human, leading to a myriad of brain disorders from Alzheimer’s to paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, investigating the disappearance of these persons becomes complicated. Adults with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are prone to what’s known as “wandering.” There are millions of stories of individuals whose aging parents simply wandered away from the property—or from their side—one day. Kimberly Kelly is the founder and current director of Project Far from Home, an educational program tailored to train law enforcement and search and rescue teams how to respond to calls concerning missing adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Kelly told HuffPost, “With 5.5 million people with the disease, and 70 percent wandering away at least once, you can do the math. Even [if] it is a 10-minute wandering episode versus a 10-day episode, you’re still looking at potentially 3 million people who would be walking away any given year. It’s huge.”
It’s a startling statistic of epidemic proportions, but rarely is it covered in the media. And even more terrifying, it has the potential to become much worse as the baby boomers continue to age. That’s an estimated 16.5 million individuals who will suffer from Alzheimer’s before the year 2050. In the case of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, they are adults who cannot afford anything less than immediate response from family and law enforcement. When they cannot remember where they are, where they wanted to go, or how to get back home, they are the definition of endangered. Help for Alzhemier’s Families is a resource website with invaluable information for caregivers. They recommend acting immediately when you realized your loved one with dementia is missing. Conduct a thorough, but expedient search for them in the area where they were last seen—allowing no more than 15 minutes. Monica Moreno is the director of Early-Stage Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association. According to her, “Those who wander are often found within a half mile of home or the starting location of the incident.” The first 24 hours after your loved one goes missing is crucial, so if you find no sign of them, call 911. Brace yourself and your memory, as your knowledge about the adult’s habits and behaviors will be crucial to aiding law enforcement in locating them unharmed.
Caregivers and loved ones should inform law enforcement of the specifics of their disease so they can issue a Silver Alert. A Silver Alert is like an Amber Alert, except instead of missing children, it concerns missing adults with dementia and other mental disabilities. The scope of the alert varies by state, most specifically persons over 65 who have been medically diagnosed by a medical professional as having a mental disability. Some states recognize persons of any age with a mental disability under the Silver Alert. One of the first nationally-recognized cases that laid the groundwork for this alert was the disappearance of Mattie Moore in 2004. She was a 68-year-old Alzheimer’s patient from Atlanta. After Mattie’s body was located 500 yards from her house, the city of Atlanta invented “Mattie’s Call” as a concentrated effort to support responders in search of missing adults with dementia. Today, there are few states that do not have programs formally known as Silver Alerts, or programs that are similar.
The Department of Justice responded to the epidemic of missing persons in the United States by creating the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS). According to them, humanity is running out of time to develop a cure before there is a major spike in missing persons cases due to wandering dementia patients. Caregivers and families should register their loved one with NamUs to increase the likelihood that they will be found and identified.
An avenue often unexplored by families of missing adults with mental illness is hiring a private investigator. After all, law enforcement is equipped with the tools and experience to find missing adults, especially ones with mental illnesses. However, private investigators have similar experience and tools as law enforcement, and can give your loved one’s case the focus it demands. Depending on how well-staffed a police department is, the average investigator can juggle between 30-40 cases, leaving your missing loved one with mental illness as a file on someone’s desk. On average, private investigators handle between three and four cases at a time, meaning your missing loved one’s case gets the attention and dedication it deserves. Law enforcement is not obligated to notify the family of a missing adult with mental illness if they locate them, unless they fall under the supervision of the court. A private investigator is restricted by law on the information they can release once an adult with mental illness has been located, but they can inform the missing adult that their family is concerned about them, and the private investigator can relay the message to the family that their loved one has been found.
When a loved one goes missing, as private investigator Thomas Lauth says, “the family become members of a club no one wants to join.” And when a loved one with mental illness goes missing, it can exacerbate the fear and dread. Taking action right away will help ensure the investigation gets off to a strong start. Provide information to investigators and spread your loved one’s name and story for the world to see. As Elise Cash said in a post in a Facebook group for locating missing adults, “All it takes is ONE PERSON to recognize Chris somewhere.” Seeking the advice of professionals can not only help you locate the missing adult, but also process the trauma of losing them. It’s just as important for the families of missing adults to take care of themselves while they continue their search. Find solidarity in the social media groups and pages seeking to provide support for families of missing persons. Not only will there be a network of empathetic people to prop you up, but these communities can often kick up new leads for investigators that might lead to a resolution in your case. While missing adults may not receive the same Amber Alerts children do, they still need people to look for them. And when an adult with mental illness goes missing, it’s going to take a network of educated and informed individuals to find them.
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.
Polaroid found in parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe Florida in July 1989.
Tara Calico’s disappearance has baffled investigators for decades. In July 1989, a color Polaroid of an unidentified young woman and a little boy was found by a woman in a convenience store parking lot in Port St. Joe, a beach town approximately one hour south of Panama City, Florida.
The woman who found the photograph in a vacant parking space said she saw a man driving a windowless Toyota cargo van parked there when she arrived at the store. The man was described as being in his 30’s with a mustache. The photograph had recently been taken. Officials at Polaroid said the picture was taken after May 1989 because it was not available until then.
In the picture, the young woman glares at the camera, her mouth covered with black duct tape, hands bound behind her back, alongside a young boy who looks scared, his mouth taped and hands bound behind his back as well.
Pictured alongside the bound woman is a copy of V.C. Andrews book, My Sweet Audrina, a 1982 best-seller about a young girl who is haunted by her sister’s death. The thriller touches upon rape, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and autism.
The photograph made the national news and a “Current Affair” where family and friends of a young missing New Mexico woman saw a haunting resemblance. Tara Calico vanished in Belen, New Mexico, 10 months earlier on September 20, 1988. They contacted Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, who insisted she meet with investigators and see the photograph firsthand.
After viewing the photograph, Patty insisted the picture was her missing daughter, even noting a discoloration on the leg of the woman pictured being identical to a large scar on Tara’s leg she had sustained in a car accident. Not to be overlooked, V.C. Andrews was also Tara’s favorite author.
The photograph has been carefully analyzed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who felt the photograph was not of Tara while Scotland Yard declared it was her.
On Tuesday, September 20, 1988, Tara left her home at approximately 9:30 a.m. to go on a daily bicycle ride along New Mexico State Rd. 47 in Belen, a route she took almost every morning. A small town, Belen only had a population of 7,152 in 2015.
Tara Calico missing from Belen, New Mexico since September 20, 1988
Sometimes accompanied by her mother, Patty had warned her daughter to carry mace with her when she rode but Tara rejected the suggestion. On the morning of Tara’s disappearance, she playfully told her mother to come and get her if she did not return by noon because she had plans to meet her boyfriend at 12:30 p.m. to play tennis.
When Tara did not return, anxiously Patty drove south along Tara’s usual bike route but could not find her. In the process of searching, she spotted a Boston cassette tape lying on the side of the rugged road. She immediately called the police.
Several witnesses told police they had witnessed an older light-colored pickup truck, about 1953, with a camper shell following close behind her as she rode along the highway. Quite possibly, Tara would not have even noticed if a vehicle was following behind her while she listened to Boston on her Walkman.
The boy in the disturbing photograph remains unidentified to this day. Initially, when the photograph was found, the mother of Michael Henley said she was “almost certain” the boy in the Polaroid was her missing son. Sadly, Michael Henley was found deceased in June 1990 in the Zuni Mountains near where his father and he were hunting when the child vanished in April of 1988. It was determined he died of exposure.
Another missing child case has caught the attention of law enforcement as the picture strongly resembles David Michael Borer missing since April 26, 1989, from Willow, Alaska, about five hours south of Fairbanks.
Resemblance between missing child David Borer and the unidentified boy in Polaroid
David was last seen walking along Parks Highway about 11 miles on his way to a friend’s home or to the Kashmitna River sandbar.
David once hitchhiked to Wasilla, approximately 30 miles from his home and described as a very independent young child,
Canine searches tracked his scent to Parks Highway, but the scent was lost at the road and there have been no signs of him since.
A missing lead
In 2008, the Sheriff of Valencia County claimed he had received information about what happened to Tara. A witness came forward telling law enforcement two teenagers had been following Tara in a Ford pickup truck, trying to talk to her and grabbing at her. Apparently, they accidentally hit Tara and panicked, then killed her. No further information surfaced from this allegation and no arrests were made.
Tara’s stepfather, John Doel, disputed the sheriff’s claims telling media the sheriff should not have released this information without enough circumstantial information to make an arrest.
More haunting photographs surface
In 2009, twenty years after the Polaroid was found, pictures of a young boy were mailed to the Port St. Joe police chief, David Barnes. The sheriff received two letters with photographs included, one postmarked June 10, 2009, and the other postmarked August 10, 2009, from Albuquerque New Mexico. One letter contained a photo copy of a young boy with very light brown hair with a band of black ink drawn over the boy’s mouth as if it were covered in the 1989 Polaroid.
The second letter contained the original picture. On August 12th, the Star Newspaper in Port St. Joe received a letter, also from Albuquerque, with the same picture, with the same hand-drawn mouth covering. Law enforcement has never been able to confirm the original Polaroid and the pictures received in 2009 are of the same boy. None of the three letters contained information indicating the child’s identity. Though there was not a reference to Tara’s case, police felt confident it was potentially connected.
Two other Polaroids have been found over the years some believe may be of Tara. The first was found near a construction site. It was a blurry photograph of a seemingly nude girl with tape over her mouth, light blue striped fabric behind her, similar to the fabric seen in the original Polaroid. It too was taken on film not available until 1989.
Copy of Polaroid found in Montecito, California.
The second photograph is of a terrified woman bound on an Amtrak train (possibly abandoned), her eyes covered with gauze and big black framed glasses, with a male passenger taunting her in the photograph.
Of the many photographs and unidentified remains Patty had to view to help police throughout the country rule out, these three could never be ruled out by her mother.
Sadly, Patti Doel passed away in 2006, never finding out what happened to her daughter. Tara’s father passed away in 2002. However, with advancement in technology, Tara’s remaining family and stepfather still hold out hope they will one day find out what happened to her.
Valencia County Sheriff’s Office is not actively pursuing any of the photographs as possible leads. Instead, they are working with the FBI analyzing local suspects given the information provided to the sheriff’s office years ago that Tara was killed by local residents of her small community. Supported by witness reports claiming Tara was followed prior to her disappearance and she was also receiving threatening notes placed on her vehicle prior to her disappearance.
Michele Doel, Tara’s stepsister, told People Magazine when asked if the Polaroid with the young unidentified boy is Tara she responds, “If I had to say yes or no, definitively, yes, that is her,” says Michele. However, she added “Does that make sense? No. That’s not the story that makes sense.”
Current lead investigator Sgt. Joseph Rowland at Valencia County Sheriff’s Department said the vehicle in the first polaroid was identified as a van and the sheriff’s department received many tips about vans that were not fruitful.
Mother never lost hope
Patty Doel died in 2006 after suffering several strokes after relocating from New Mexico to Florida with her husband John.
Friends and family say her daughter was always on her mind, never giving up hope she would one day find her.
She and her husband John even had a bedroom they kept for Tara, placing passing birthday and Christmas gifts there.
Even after the strokes, Patty would see a young girl on a bicycle and point and write her daughter’s name. Her husband would have to tell her it wasn’t Tara.
Tara’s older brother Chris told People Magazine he believed the stress of his sister’s disappearance and lack of resolution significantly shortened his mother’s life.
“The police would send photos of every possibility, including pictures of bodies, dismembered bodies, and every time mom got an envelope with the newest pictures, she had to look at them,” Chris told People. “She couldn’t not look , but it tore her up every time.”
The first Polaroid told Patty her daughter might still be alive, she survived whatever and whoever abducted her.
A case that is not exactly cold, Tara’s family holds onto hope; and many of the missing person investigators have taken the case into retirement with them. A case that happened long ago but is never forgotten.
At Lauth Missing Person Investigations, we specialize in complex missing person investigations of endangered missing children and adults.
The investigative team at Lauth Investigations has over 40 years combined experience working closely with the families of missing persons, local, state and federal law enforcement, along with national media and missing persons organizations throughout the country and internationally.
Founded in 1995, Thomas Lauth is a nationally recognized Missing Persons and Human Trafficking Investigator and graduate of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, who initially served as Senior Criminal Investigator for Marion County Public Defender Agency located in Indiana.
Lauth has served as both a prosecution and defense witness on numerous missing persons and homicides at the federal and state levels, including being appointed by state and federal courts to conduct independent investigations of homicides, robberies, and other serious felony matters.
In addition, Thomas has attended various U.S. Department of Justice conferences on missing persons, human trafficking, and child abduction. He served as a volunteer Advisor to the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults for nearly twenty years.
In addition to working with local and state law enforcement, Lauth has worked cooperatively with Interpol, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. State Department, the U.S. Consulate and various foreign embassies.
Lauth is considered an expert in missing persons by national media and has appeared in publications like Essence Magazine, USA Today, Los Angeles Daily News, San Diego Tribune, New York Times and more.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the United States.
Missing persons are entered into various categories such as Juvenile, Endangered, Involuntary or Non-family Abductions, Disability, Catastrophe and Other. Though it is not mandated for law enforcement to enter missing persons into NCIC, it is beneficial to both the missing person and the private investigation. Lauth Investigations verifies all missing persons investigated are entered into NCIC making the missing person’s information available to all law enforcement throughout the country to include, medical examiners and Coroners.
By creating more public awareness, it increases the potential for generating leads. Lauth is one of the few private investigators in the country who works every day in locating missing persons, focusing on creating a collaborative effort between various victim assistance organizations, media, and law enforcement to create a successful public awareness campaign.
Lauth Investigations success rate is averaged at approximately 85% over 20 years working with families of missing persons. Every case is unique based on the circumstances of the disappearance and discovery based upon the private investigator’s fact-finding.
When hired, Lauth exclusively focuses on the specific missing person case, ensuring full attention is given to each case. Lauth is experienced in searching for missing persons between the ages of approximately 12-years old to seniors.
Circumstances of disappearances include at-risk children, teens, at-risk adults missing due to foul play, human trafficking, custodial and non-custodial abduction, (including Hague and non-compliant Hague countries), homeless, and those suffering from disabilities such as mental illness or missing persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Following are a few excerpts from letters Thomas Lauth has received throughout the years:
Mr. Lauth’s credentials indicate he has a high success rate of locating individuals and we have also found this to be true. He not only utilizes various resources to help locate individuals, but he frequently follows up with them after they are located to see how they are transitioning.
We will continue to utilize Thomas Lauth’s services in the future. His assistance with this organization and the many families of missing person we refer him to give hope to the possibility these families will once again be able to hold their loved ones in their arms. We highly recommend the services he provides to the families of missing persons.
Erin Bruno, National Center for Missing Adults
At a highly emotional time, I found the contact with Mr. Lauth to be quite reassuring. His experience in investigations of missing persons is quite impressive and without pressure, he outlined the stages of his proposed investigation costs and projected number of days to successfully locate my son.
As Tom predicted, my son was located a day later and was brought to the hospital in very bad shape. I am convinced without his intervention, my son was at extreme risk of death, or trafficked to other major cities around the world.
I am honored to provide a letter of reference for this remarkable man who is such a strong advocate for missing persons. My experience is such that I do not recommend relying solely on a local police department to locate a missing person, particularly with mental illness. The risk of exploitation or other harm is simply too great and hiring an experienced private investigator is more likely to bring a loved one home again.
Liz Mallin, mother of Brandon
Thomas Lauth, an investigator who specializes in missing children and adults, has been one of the most reliable and imaginative investigators we have found to date. Mr. Lauth’s experience with our organization, as well as the work he has done for the National Center for Missing Adults, has proven to be invaluable in the locating of abductors and bringing missing children and adults home.
Mr. Lauth’s impressive list of successes as well as his passion for the “left behind parent” makes him more than qualified to work in the area of child abduction. I would not hesitate to recommend Mr. Lauth to any parent who has lost a child. I personally feel that it is Mr. Lauth’s feelings for the children that separate him from so many other investigators.
David Thelen, CEO of Committee for Missing Children, Inc.
I wanted to take this opportunity to formally commend and recommend the services provided by Thomas Lauth at Lauth Investigations. My family and I recently worked with Thomas regarding my sister and nephew who had been missing for almost two years.
Tom was the second investigator that worked the case. Based on the excellent service we experienced, I sincerely regret that we did not work with him initially.
I found Thomas to be extremely knowledgeable, professional and emphatic. I immediately felt comfortable confiding in him. In response, Thomas offered a complete plan, with accurate cost disclosures and regular substantive updates.
Most importantly, Thomas did exactly what he promised to do, on time and within the estimated budget we initially discussed. Thanks to his efforts, we were able to speak with both missing parties for the first time since 2003.
Tom is an absolute gem. I strongly recommend him to anyone who may find him or herself in the unfortunate circumstance of losing contact with a loved one.
Andrea D. Townsend, Attorney at Law
Recently, my son was missing, and we had nowhere to turn until we found you. He had taken off for work and never got there. No one knew where he was, and police couldn’t help because he was of age.
If any parent is in our situation, I highly recommend they call you. You were so helpful and kind to us. You understood just how worried we were.
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Donna Post, mother of a formerly missing son