As true crime continues to climb the cultural ladder into mainstream culture, there has been a wave of true crime documentaries, television shows, and podcasts that revive interest in cold cases. A recent example has been the true crime podcast Your Own Backyard, hosted by Chris Lambert, which focuses on the disappearance of Kristin Smart—a Cal Poly freshman who went missing after a friend’s birthday party in spring of 1996. The podcast has listeners questioning the involvement of one of Kristin Smart’s friends, Paul Flores, who escorted her back to her dormitory after the party and was allegedly the last person to see Kristin Smart alive.
Paul Flores was instead labeled a “person of interest,” by
authorities in 1997 and has remained so for over 20 years. The sheriff at the time,
Ed Williams, told the media that there were “no other suspects” in Kristin’s
disappearance. Law enforcement was only able to interview Flores once when Kristin
was first reported missing and since then he had remained uncooperative in the investigation.
During that interview, Flores gave conflicting accounts of how he had received a
black eye that investigators observed, first stating that he got the shiner
playing baseball and then later said he got it while working on his truck
moments before he shut the interview down.
Flores was subsequently sued by Kristin Smart’s family in 1996, stating that Flores was the man responsible for their daughter’s disappearance and murder. Cal Poly was subsequently added to the lawsuit, with the family citing that the university did not do enough to keep their daughter safe while living on their campus. In a 1997 deposition, he repeatedly cited his right against self-incrimination, according to periodical archives. The lawsuit remains unresolved, as documents that could prove any of the family’s allegations still remain sealed in interested of preserving the criminal investigation. The family’s attorney, Jim Murphy, said in 2016, “In civil law, it’s what’s reasonable based on a preponderance of the evidence, not within a reasonable doubt as in criminal cases. Here, I believe there’s enough circumstantial evidence to prove to a civil jury that Flores is responsible for Kristin’s death.”
The popularity of Your Own Backyard has coincided with a recent break in the cold case, with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s office announcing that they have issued warrants to retrieve potential evidence from Flores’s mother’s home, including two vehicles and electronic devices, with authorities commenting only that these were “items of interest.”
Kristin Smart was legally presumed dead in 2002, but the
community still holds out hope that law enforcement will find answers in her
disappearance. A new billboard has been erected in Murphy’s front yard, urging
anyone with information about her disappearance to contact the San Luis Obispo
Sheriff’s office at 805-781-4500.
Law enforcement is remaining tight-lipped on the subject of a case that has mystified the town of Placerville, California. Eleven-year-old Roman Anthony Lopez was last seen at the family home on Coloma Street, January 11, 2020. Later that same day, the boy’s body was reportedly discovered. In a Facebook post, the Placerville Police Department said that the body was found. They also reported at a press conference that they discovered the body following a search of the area, and were investigating his death as “suspicious.” Little else was disclosed, however, leaving the community with devastating news, but no answers.
The radio silence from law enforcement officials has led the
public and the press asking questions, but maybe none so fervently as Roman’s
biological mother, Rochelle “Shelly” Lopez. Lopez is a military veteran, who
unfortunately developed an addiction to pills following an injury she sustained
while deployed in Iraq. Because of these circumstances, it was his biological
father, Jordan Piper, who was awarded primary custody of Roman. According to
Lopez, Piper had relocated several times over the past few years, and had made
it difficult for Lopez to see her son.
One of the most tragic aspects of the case so far is that Lopez learned of her son’s death through an online news article. Lopez told KOVR, “Why didn’t anybody let me know? Why didn’t they even know I existed? People in that town didn’t even know that I was his mother. There are so many things that are wrong with this situation and don’t add up and don’t make sense.”
There were seven other children in the home where Roman was
last seen. Those children were reportedly moved into protective custody
following the onset of the investigation. A spokesperson for the family told
Oxygen.com, “The Rochelle Lopez family has full confidence in the law
enforcement agencies investigating Roman’s death and know there will be resolve
and closure.” The family has offered no other comment as the family prepared to
travel to California in order to mourn the loss of Roman Lopez.
On January 16, the Placerville Police Department issued a
statement, “We realize that the press and public are looking for answers and
mourning the loss of Roman. The police department has also been affected, and
has been working tirelessly to complete the investigation. The complexity of
the case will require time and patience.” They went on to say that a pathology
report regarding the boy’s cause of death will not be available for about a
Investigating authorities have encouraged anyone with information regarding Roman Lopez’s death to call Detective Luke Gadow at (530) 642-5210, ext. 116.
There are many different types of missing persons—adults with mental illness, homeless individuals, children, and runaways. Each type of case deserves to be treated with a special approach, with careful regard given to the circumstances of each case. Perhaps the type of case that deserves the most particular care and approach is the case of a missing/abducted infant.
In good hands
The presumption behind any missing infant case, because they cannot take of themselves, is they were abducted by an adult. When an infant’s whereabouts cannot be accounted for, it leaves investigators with a very polarizing theory of the case: The baby is with a caregiver or something tragic has occurred. In March 2019, the Indianapolis Police Department found themselves in the middle of a search for 8-month old Amiah Robertson. The infant was last seen on March 9th on the west side of the city in the custody of her mother’s boyfriend, Robert Lyons. He left the residence he was at with the infant, and returned empty-handed around 10 PM. Lyons assured authorities Amiah was in good hands, but because police could not verify the baby’s whereabouts, they officially classified the investigation as a homicide. Now, Robert Lyons has been named a suspect by IMPD in the infants disappearance, while Amber Robertson, Amiah’s mother, remains cooperative with authorities.
Familial vs. stranger abductions
In cases of missing children, familial abductions, or abductions by a party close to the child’s family, are the most common. But the data on missing infants indicates the odds of being abducted by a stranger are nearly half. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists the number of infants abducted in the United States since 1965 as 325 where 138 of those children were taken from their homes, and another 140 were taken from health care facilities. Only 47 were abducted from other locations. Women who take babies from health care facilities are generally of childbearing age who may appear pregnant, or express they have lost a child or are unable to have a child. They often live in the vicinity of the abduction and impersonate health care personnel in order to gain access at a facility. They rely heavily on deception and manipulation in order to carefully plan the abduction, but usually not with any particular focus on a single infant. These are crimes of opportunity, which is why such a woman would have lots of detailed questions for hospital staff about the layout of the building and procedures following birth.
Just last June, Gloria Williams was sentenced to 18 years for abducting a baby girl from a hospital in Florida and subsequently raising the child as her own into adulthood. On July 10, 1998, Williams posed as a nurse in order to kidnap Kamiyah Mobley, when she was only hours old. She used fraudulent documents to raise the baby under a different name. It wasn’t until investigators followed a tip made to NCMEC about claims Kamiyah made that she was kidnapped from a Jacksonville hospital the day she was born.
How to protect your newborn
Despite this narrative continuing to terrify expectant parents, the FBI assures us this cloak and dagger scenario is far less common today. Ashli-Jade Douglas, an FBI intelligence analyst working in the Crimes Against Children Unit, credits this decline in abductions to new developments in security technology. Hospitals across the nation are implementing the use of security bracelets on babies, so if they make an unauthorized exit from the building, alarms immediately go off. This security measure, however, has a dark consequence. Douglas says, “Now, women who desperately want a child—and are willing to go to extreme lengths to get one—have to gain direct contact with their victims, and that’s when things can turn violent.”
The FBI advises “exercising good sense online and in the home.” On the internet, don’t be an over-sharer when it comes to personal details, and always have your security settings restricted. Any law enforcement official or private investigator will tell you it’s easy to use this information to plan the abduction. “We have seen several recent cases involving social networking sites,” Douglas explains, “and we see how easy it is to use these websites to gain access to targets.” The FBI also cautions against displaying any exterior decorations, such as pink or blue balloons, indicating there is a new baby in the home.
A missing person poster can be our first awareness of a famous missing person case. When we see missing person cases in the news, we become fascinated on an exponential scale. This includes media coverage, their missing persons flyer, or podcasts about their disappearance. The farther away we are positioned from a missing person case—whether it’s geographically or inter-personally—the more fascinated we are, like those who rubberneck to see the aftermath of a terrible accident. A person in Indianapolis who reads all of the news coverage about the Jayme Closs case in Wisconsin might do so without any sense of paranoia, because it’s happening 400 miles away, and not in their own lives. Recent statistics regarding the number of open or unsolved missing person cases in the United States are approaching 90,000, fluctuating week to week. That may sound like a pretty comfortable number to some individuals. It makes the odds of you or someone you love going missing sound pretty slim. The fact of the matter is anyone could have a loved one go missing at some point in their lives, and there is no preclusion based on race, class, or any other kind of status.
The Importance of a Missing Persons Flyer
The total number of entries classified as Missing Person Activity in Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center was in excess of one million in the year 2016—exactly 1,862,238. Around a third of those entries are either canceled or cleared for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, many of those entries are identified with supplemental material following the discovery of remains—DNA samples, dental records, etc. Hundreds of thousands of those entries are cleared following the individual having been located, usually not too long after the report was made. Investigators follow a handful of leads, make a few phone calls, and are able to locate a missing person alive and well within 24-48 hours. There are other cases that stretch on longer, with search parties organized, investigators trying to retrace the individual’s steps, and perhaps most importantly, flyers with all of the relevant information about the missing person are circulating.
Private investigator, Thomas Lauth, is an expert in complex missing person cases. He lauds the current voyeuristic climate in the United States as perfect conditions for distribution of a missing persons flyer, “The purpose of a missing person’s flyer is to get the missing person’s face and information out there. The more individuals who see their face, the greater the chance is that the one person who might have seen something or knows something will come forward with information that could lead to their safe return.” The digital age, Lauth says, has ratcheted this type of visibility up to an entirely different level. Everyone these days is glued to their screens, waiting for the next big story to surface, or keeping up with their friends on social media. If you can get a missing person’s name or face on social media throughout the nation, that’s a well of information the boots-on-the-ground investigators just aren’t able to tap quickly and efficiently.” Viral visibility of a missing person means investigators can receive many leads—while varying in quality—to conduct a comprehensive investigation that looks at all angles of any disappearance.
How To Create a Missing Persons Flyer
When a loved one goes missing, the police turn to those closest to them for information about their daily routine, habits, personality, and behavior. Once information has been provided, those witnesses often experience a high-adrenaline need to be a part of the search effort. They organize and conduct searches, both with and without the facilitation of law enforcement. Creating and printing missing person fliers is another way they contribute to the search. Law enforcement do not typically create missing person fliers, so it’s important close loved ones compare notes to compile all relevant information for a flyer that’s easy to read and catches the eye. Digital distribution is also crucial, sharing the flyer over and over again while encouraging others to do the same. The following is a list of items that must be present on a missing persons flyer:
Name: The word MISSING should be displayed in large font over the person’s full name. This grabs people’s attention.
Date of birth
Height (in feet and inches)
Weight (in pounds)
Build (thin, medium, heavy, etc).
Hair (color, length, wavy, or straight, how they wear it the most often)
Race (Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, etc)
Complexion (fair, olive, etc)
Clothing: Describe what the person was wearing at the time they disappeared, including any jewelry, personal belongings. It’s also crucial to note any other significant physical descriptors such as tattoos, body piercings, birth marks, scars, or health conditions.
Circumstances of disappearance: This includes the date, time, location, and conditions under which the person goes missing, whether it’s of their own volition, due to a health problem, or if they were kidnapped. Be sure to include details such as whether or not this person is with anyone else and possible places they may be. This can trigger a person’s memory when they see the flyer.
And of course, a missing person’s flyer is useless without a current photo of the missing person. Characteristics such as build, hairstyle, and clothing are so important because the photograph may not reflect these details accurately.
When a loved one goes missing, their friends and families often feel helpless as they wait anxiously for answers from law enforcement. Creating, printing, and distributing a missing persons flyer is one of the best ways for private citizens to assist law enforcement. Whether on the street or online, visibility is key. Out there, someone knows something and has seen something. A missing person flyer could be the thing that triggers their memory.
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.