Revealed: The Hidden Methods Private Investigators Use to Find Missing Persons
The true crime world is fascinated by tales of missing persons. Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services are always adding new documentaries and series about missing persons, which often detail the sophisticated methods that law enforcement uses to find missing persons. However, when law enforcement cannot close a missing person case, families will turn to the expertise of a private investigator to find a missing person—but without the resources and support of a law enforcement agency, how does a private investigator find a missing person?
Although private investigators do not have access to the same level of informational resources as law enforcement, they still have tools at their disposal to help find a missing person. Through their licensure by the state, private investigators have access to verified databases that allow them to conduct background checks on subjects in a case. When trying to find a missing person, these databases can be used to develop leads, find a subject’s last known address, look up criminal histories, and so much more.
Private investigators typically have diverse and comprehensive experience in surveillance operations. Surveillance is one of the covert ways that private investigators can find a missing person. Surveillance operations are a great way for private investigators to collect data, develop leads, and document the unseen factors in a missing person case. For example, when trying to find a missing person in a sex trafficking ring, private investigators may set up surveillance equipment around a suspected hub of operations in order to develop a concrete plan for recovery. Such recordings and pictures can also be used in criminal and civil court.
When trying to find a missing person, one of a private investigator’s best tools is their ability to identify potential witnesses and develop a rapport with them in order to extract information. This can be done overtly or covertly. Sometimes investigators attempt to develop a personal relationship with witnesses in order to extract information from them without suspicion. Within reason, investigators may also wear disguises and present alternative pretenses for speaking with the witness. Whatever the circumstances of the case demands, investigators have the ability to develop leads and corroborate previously received testimony regarding the relevant facts in the case.
In some circumstances, it might become necessary for an investigator to develop a ruse or undercover operation in order to find a missing person. Investigators have been known to go undercover as delivery drivers, party patrons, or in extreme circumstances, embedding themselves into criminal enterprise in order to get answers. Investigators can wear covert surveillance equipment on their person, such as hidden cameras and microphones, in order to document relevant facts in the case and use them to develop further leads in recovering or finding the missing person.
Keeping a missing person’s face out in the media is crucial to a continuing a flow of information and leads for investigators. Though it may sound harsh, the public has a very short memory. Cases of missing people, particularly women of color, are forgotten almost as soon as they’re heard. It typically falls to the families of missing persons to conduct missing person awareness campaigns on their own time, relentlessly sharing their picture and story so that it may increase the chances of their loved one being found. Law enforcement does not typically devote sources specifically to awareness campaigns, but private investigators sometimes offer online awareness campaigns as part of their services for finding missing persons. The more time the missing person’s face is in the public eye, the more leads investigators are likely to generate.
Tragedies can affect communities and
society as a whole. Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference
that impacts us all.
It was 24 years ago, on June 9, 1995,
that a little girl vanished at a Little League baseball game in the small town
of Alma, Ark., within the River Valley at the edge of the majestic Ozark
Mountains. Beautiful Morgan Chauntel Nick, age 6, with
long blonde hair and blue eyes has not been seen since.
Morgan Nick is the eldest of three other children. She
loved cats and according to her mother Colleen Nick, she was a shy little girl.
A Girl Scout, Morgan loved bubble gum and said she wanted to be a doctor or a
circus performer when she grew up.
The evening of her disappearance, a friend of the Nick
family had invited them to a baseball game about 30 minutes away. Colleen told
Dateline; the game started late at approximately 9:00 p.m. that night.
Morgan sat in the bleachers with her mom nearly the
entirety of the game but towards the end, two kids, a boy and a girl, a few
years older than Morgan, asked if Morgan could go catch fireflies with them.
Colleen recalls initially telling Morgan no, but other
parents told the worried mother that the kids play in the parking lot all of
the time and would be safe.
Colleen ended up telling Morgan she could go play with
the other children. “She threw her arms around my neck, kissed my cheek, then
the kids all ran out to the parking lot,” said Colleen. “I could turn my head
and see she was right there in sight. I checked on them three or four times.”
At the end of the baseball game, Colleen watched as
the team walked off the field, momentarily looking away from Morgan who was
playing behind the bleachers. When she turned around, she could see the two
other children, but Morgan was no longer with them.
Colleen asked the children where Morgan was, and they
told her Morgan was at her car emptying sand out of her shoes. “Already, when I
couldn’t see Morgan, my heart started beating really fast,” Colleen said in a
Dateline interview. “We were somewhere we hadn’t been before. She wouldn’t go
anywhere by herself, and there wasn’t even anywhere to go,” Colleen said.
“There was no concession stands, no bathrooms.”
Confusion and panic set in for Colleen.
Within minutes a spectator called the police to report
Morgan missing. Police responded within six minutes.
Chief Russell White of the Alma Police Department told
Dateline that the initial officer on the scene immediately suspected “we might
have a bigger problem.” “They did have a lot of manpower or resources, but they
did a whole lot right that first night,” Colleen said.
“The other two kids that were playing with Morgan
separately told the police about a creepy man in a red pick-up truck with a
white camper shell on the back,” Colleen said.
Authorities immediately began an intensive
“We reached out for help from local agencies, the
state police, the FBI,” Chief White said. “We were running a pretty big crew.
The FBI brought in lots of extra people and resources and we did not have, like
a computer system that could handle this kind of case, which helped
According to Colleen, Morgan’s case files fill up an
entire room at the police department. “We have tons of tips coming in every
week,” Chief White said. “It’s very unusual for a 24-year-old case to still
have so many leads.”
Despite the thousands of leads received in Morgan’s
case, she remains missing.
A Mother Fights Back
“She’s not a number. She’s not a statistic. She’s not
a case file. She is a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a friend. And she is
someone worth fighting for,” Colleen told Dateline. “If you’re not on the front
line fighting for your daughter, no one else will. So, it is my job to make
sure she never gets lost. Until someone can prove to me that Morgan is not
coming home, then I am going to fight for her.”
In the years following Morgan’s disappearance, Colleen
started the Morgan
Nick Foundation to help prevent other families from going
through what she has experienced, to raise awareness of other missing children,
and educate the public on safety for children. The foundation also provides
crucial support to other families of missing children.
Over the years Colleen has received a countless number
of recognitions and awards from the FBI, state of Arkansas, to the
International Homicide Investigator’s Association, for her work throughout the
state of Arkansas throughout the country.
“When something so tragic happens to your child, there
is a need to do something of great value,” said Colleen. “We are trying to fill
the gap that wasn’t filled when we needed it the most.”
24 years later, Colleen
continues to selflessly work within her community and nationwide to the benefit
of families and children throughout the country.
The National Impact of John Walsh
We often forget there is a personal story behind many
monumental efforts in this nation and John Walsh is certainly the epitome.
Adam Walsh, age 6, was a little boy whose
disappearance and murder changed the way society looked at missing children.
On the afternoon of July 27, 1981, Adam’s mother took
him shopping at a local mall in Hollywood, Fla. Reve Walsh had wanted to
inquire about the price of a lamp at the Sears department store.
Momentarily, Reve left Adam at an Atari video game
display where several other little boys were taking turns playing on the
display. When Reve returned, she couldn’t find Adam or the other boys and was
told by the store manager that the security guard had asked them all to leave
Adam was paged over the intercom as his mother
searched the store and mall for about an hour. She then called the Hollywood
Police Department at approximately 1:55 p.m. to report Adam missing.
Tragically, on August 10, 1981, a severed head of a
child was found in a drainage canal alongside the Florida Turnpike in Vero
Beach, about 130 miles from Hollywood. It was confirmed it was Adam. His body
has never been found.
Early on, Adam’s parents John and Reve Walsh were
critical of the police investigation which led to John’s anti-crime activism
and the creation of America’s Most Wanted which he is well known for.
Lesser known is his impact on laws and organizations
for missing children. During the 1980s, John and other child advocates lobbied Congress
to pass a law that would protect missing children and educate the public on the
importance of child safety resulting in the Missing Children’s Assistance Act
and the first national clearinghouse of information for missing children.
Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, NCMEC has
regional office in California, Florida, New York and Texas.
According to NCMEC, in 2018 there were 424,066 entries
of missing children in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
35 years later, NCMEC provides support to thousands of
families of missing children each year, missing children’s case management,
provides training to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and
offers numerous educational programs that fight child exploitation, sex
trafficking, and provides critical information to keep our children safe.
Black & Missing Foundation
Tamika Huston vanished into thin air on or around May
27, 2004, from Spartanburg, S.C. and subsequently found murdered.
Spartanburg was Derrica Wilson’s hometown and she recalls
watching as Tamika’s family struggled to gain any media coverage on a local or
national level while Tamika was missing. A few months later, Natalee Holloway –
a white woman – went missing and dominated news headlines, becoming a household
“It was heartbreaking to see the difference in the
media attention these two cases were getting,” Derrica told Jet Magazine.
Derrica and her sister-in-law Natalie decided to team
up to ensure other families did not face the obscurity that Tamika’s family had
experienced. “We combined our professional backgrounds – mine in law
enforcement and Natalie’s in media – to create an organization that joins the
very important elements in the field of missing persons,” said Derrica.
Founded in 2008, a veteran law enforcement official
and a public relations specialist began channeling their skills for a greater
Eleven years later, Black and Missing
Foundation has become the primary voice for minority missing
providing a platform of hope for the overwhelming number of missing persons of
On the afternoon of January 13, 1996, 9-year-old Amber
Hagerman was last seen riding her bike in a parking lot near her home in
Arlington, Texas. A witness reported seeing a man in a black, flat-bed truck
snatch Amber from her bicycle.
Four days later, Amber’s body was found in a creek
approximately 3.2 miles from her home. Her murder remains unsolved.
Area residents were outraged and began calling radio
and television stations to vent their anger and to also offer suggestions to
prevent such crimes in the future. One resident, Diana Simone suggested
utilizing the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to notify the public when a child
has been abducted so the public could also assist in the search. Simone
followed up with a letter, with her only request to ensure the program would be
dedicated to Amber Hagerman.
The program was eventually taken to NCMEC with a
request to implement a national initiative that would eventually become known
as the AMBER Alert.
What began as a local effort in the area of the Dallas-Fort Worth area has
grown into a seamless system used by every state in the country. Since the
inception of the program in 1996, through December 31, 2018, 956 children have
been safely recovered specifically as a result of an AMBER Alert being issued.
so tragic happens to your child, there is a need to do something of great
value,” as Colleen said. “We are trying to fill the gap that wasn’t filled when
we needed it the most.” Most certainly, the advancements made in the last 35
years are proof the efforts of one person can make a difference.