Police weigh secrecy, public help in missing person cases
‘Tough on everybody'
An estimated 800,000 children are reported missing each year — more than 2,000 children every day, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
And yet, when a child vanishes, many law enforcement agencies struggle to handle a large-scale search and a criminal investigation, officials said.
“There’s not a frickin‘ textbook for how you deal with it,” said Floyd County Sheriff Rick Lynch.
The search for cousins Lyric Cook, 10, of Waterloo, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, of Evansdale, has brought back bad memories for Lynch, whose agency spearheaded the 2005 hunt for 5-year-old Evelyn Miller.
More than 1,300 volunteers combed the Floyd County countryside to locate the girl, who disappeared July 1, 2005, from the apartment she shared with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. A kayaker found Evelyn’s body five days later in the Cedar River.
No one has been charged in the slaying, but the case is still open.
“It’s tough on everybody,” Lynch said about searching for missing children.
More than 1,000 volunteers have turned up in sweltering heat to hunt for Lyric and Elizabeth, who were last seen Friday afternoon when they left their grandmother’s house in Evansdale for a bike ride. Their bikes and Elizabeth’s purse were found on the shore of Meyers Lake in Evansdale.
Marshaling volunteers is a challenge for police dealing with a missing child investigation, Lynch said. When Evelyn disappeared in 2005, Floyd County officials separated the law enforcement and community search bases, he said. The phone company ran extra lines to the bases and teams of volunteers coordinated meals, water and bathrooms.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent a ground search expert and a person who coordinated distribution of thousands of fliers, Lynch said. These drop-in experts provided vital help to police who didn’t have much experience with missing kids, he said.
The center, which has assisted law enforcement agencies nationwide with nearly 188,000 missing children cases since 1984, is also helping in the Evansdale search.
It’s important to keep all options open when dealing with a missing child case, Lynch said. While public attention has been on draining Meyers Lake, law enforcement officers are also likely investigating possible criminal leads, he said.
“We’d love to have faith and hope and say ‘the child just walked off into the corn,’ but the organization has to look at the big picture,” Lynch said.
When 8-year-old Kerra Wilson went missing last September near Scottsbluff, Neb, officials didn’t use community volunteers to search the largely rural area, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman told The Gazette.
“We had our officers go out and ask landowners to search their land,” Overman said. “There’s no one who knows their land as well as they do.”
News of Kerra’s disappearance spread like wildfire on Facebook, Overman said, and hundreds of volunteers wanted to help with the hunt.
“People were upset we weren’t using them,” Overman said. “But we can’t tell them everything we know. Then the bad guys know what you know. It’s kind of a balancing act.”
A rancher found Kerra’s body, which provided the evidence needed to charge her stepfather with murder, Overman said.
Scotts Bluff County has had three missing children since 1999, he said.
“We have two men on death row and Kerra’s killer is serving life in prison,” he said.
Missing child cases often lack some of the clues typically left when an adult disappears, Lynch said. Kids usually don’t drive cars or carry credit cards and cellphones that can be tracked.
West Virginia State Police found a missing 8-year-old girl in April by locating her father’s cellphone.
Iowa City police zeroed in on missing University of Iowa professor Arthur Miller in August 2008 by finding his cellphone left in a car parked near Hickory Hill Park. His body was located in the park several days later. He had committed suicide.
In other cases, police identify someone who may have abducted the child and issue an Amber Alert. That’s what happened in March 2005, when Jetseta Gage, a Cedar Rapids 10-year-old, was abducted from her home by convicted sex offender Roger Bentley. Police issued the Amber Alert that led a report of Bentley’s truck parked at a Johnson County mobile home.
Jetseta was found dead in the home March 25, 2005. Bentley was convicted of her murder.
Iowa law enforcement agencies have not been able to issue an Amber Alert in the Evansdale disappearance because there’s no car or person associated with the case.An annual report from the Iowa Department of Public Safety lists 5,354 missing person reports filed in 2011, with more than 4,500 of them juveniles. Kidnappings and abductions accounted for just 0.04 percent of missing child reports in Iowa last year.