This article focuses on Connecticut missing persons but every State/Country has the issue.

Adult missing persons in Connecticut: Advocate says police aren’t doing enough

The Problem:

State officials and various databases have different statistics on how many people are missing in the state. State police last week put the number at 37, while the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Person System, or NamUs, lists 250 missing, while Cruz said it is actually around 700 people.

When the New Haven Register asked various police departments in the region about cases listed on NamUs, many weren’t up to date, with found individuals still listed, and some missing not entered. Some departments indicated they have no role in updating the NamUs site. U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5, has proposed the “Help Find the Missing Act,” aimed at providing funding for NamUS and connecting databases to improve them.

Cruz also is seeking to have a centralized, continuously updated missing persons clearinghouse for Connecticut.

Of the different tallies of missing, Cruz said, “It just shows we need a clearinghouse so we know the exact numbers.”

Discrepancy in numbers:

Lt. J. Paul Vance, spokesman for the Connecticut state police, said the agency will support whatever the legislature determines is appropriate.

“Missing person cases are very difficult for the families — the not knowing,” Vance said. “Sometimes, people want to leave for various reasons — they may be mad at someone or want to break up with someone. Our objective is to locate the person, be sure they are OK, and report to the family that they are OK, or bring them back home. Obviously, some missing people are the victims of violent crime. It is a tragedy for the families who just don’t know.”

Police can use the latest technology and old-fashioned police work to try to find these people, Vance said.

“Some cases drag on forever, and some missing people are never found,” Vance said. “We do have people in our area who possess expertise in the area (of finding the missing).”

The National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, had 85,820 active missing person cases as of Dec. 31, 2010, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 2009, there were 2,092 missing adult person cases reported in Connecticut, legislative documents show. Cruz’s office has contacted police departments around the state for numbers. Cruz said the exact number of open missing person cases in the state is difficult to determine, but she estimates it is at about 700. Vance had a much lower number, and said state police records show 37 open missing person cases in the state.

Missing People Cases:

Lisa Calvo was 40 years old and homeless when she was last seen in 2005 in the Fair Haven section of New Haven.

 

Lisa Calvo

Nineteen-year-old Jose Ortiz was abducted while riding his bicycle on Dec. 28, 2005, in New Haven, and hasn’t been seen since.

 

Jose Ortiz

Evelyn Frisco of New Haven had a court appearance in 2004, then disappeared.

 

Evelyn Frisco

Barbara Jean Monaco of Derby vanished in August 1978 at the age of 18 while vacationing in Virginia Beach, Va. She has never been found and is believed to have been murdered.

 

Barbara Jean Monaco

They are just a few of the state’s missing, people who have left behind families mourning their absence and questioning what happened to them.

To try to address the problem and solve the mysteries surrounding missing residents’ disappearances, State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz plans to propose the creation of a statewide missing persons unit to the legislature.

“We need a missing persons unit for the whole state devoted to working on these cases,” Cruz said. “A lot of police departments have had to cut back. Bigger cities have a lot of unsolved murders, so they are under a lot of pressure. I think having a missing persons unit for the state, a centralized investigative unit, would help.”

Families seek more help

Cheshire resident Janice Smolinski’s son, William Smolinski Jr. of Waterbury, disappeared Aug. 24, 2004, at the age of 31, and police say they believe he was murdered. Janice Smolinski, who has become an advocate for the missing, said she believes having a state missing persons unit would be “very helpful.”

 

William Smolinski

“Maybe more would be done about missing people,” Smolinski said. “Hopefully, it would mean big improvements in the state. I’m happy to see the state’s victim advocate is dedicated to this cause.”

“While some adults are people who have taken off, there are many cases where something has happened to them — either they were murdered or got hurt somewhere — and police need to take it seriously,” Smolinski said.

Diane Nickerson of Naugatuck is looking for answers into the disappearance of her daughter, Carrie Ann Monroe, who had been living with her boyfriend at a Berlin hotel when she vanished about two years ago.

 

Carrie Ann Monroe

“I think a missing persons unit would be helpful,” said Nickerson, who broke down crying when she talked about her daughter. “It has been two years for us.”

Lt. Julie Johnson, unit commander for the New Haven Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, said of Cruz’s idea for a statewide missing persons unit: “I think any added resources in any area would be beneficial. For missing person cases, we’d take any help we can get.”

New Haven has a detective devoted to missing person cases, and can draw on others when needed for an endangered missing person, she said.

“In most cases, people are found quickly or return home,” Johnson said. “A high number of our missing persons are runaways — their parents report them missing and they return home shortly afterward. We devote as much time as we can. We exhaust leads and look to the public to provide information.”

The New Haven Police Department has posted information about four missing person cases on its website, seeking tips. These include Calvo, Frisco and Ortiz, and Ande Fan. Fan, who lived in the Bella Vista complex, disappeared in 2004, leaving behind his belongings. Police also have featured Calvo’s and Ortiz’s cases on prison playing cards in an effort to get tips. According to Johnson, these four missing individuals are presumed dead.

 

Photo of Ande Fan

“No one place to look”

Cruz says her proposal for one up-to-date, centralized database or clearinghouse for all Connecticut missing persons could help solve more cases.

Cruz said that while her office’s research puts the number at about 700 missing people in Connecticut, without one list that is continuously updated, it is difficult to determine the exact number.

“There is no one place to look or turn to, and each police agency has its own information,” Cruz said. “I think that NamUs could be part of the clearinghouse database. In many states there is a clearinghouse and they also assist families with fliers and publications, which can be costly. Not many families of the missing can afford to pay for these items.”

A state law went into effect in October for Connecticut that requires law enforcement agencies to accept “without delay” any report of a missing adult. Also, information collected relating to a missing adult has to be entered into the National Crime Information Center database “with all practicable speed.”

Previously, different police departments around the state had different policies, and some would ask families to wait for a period of time and then file a report on a missing adult. When Smolinski’s son disappeared, police told the family to wait three days before filing a missing persons report, she said.

Smolinski said it is too soon to tell if the new state law is making a difference, but she has seen improvements in the years since her son disappeared.

“I think they were starting to step up investigations even before the bill passed,” Smolinski. “I certainly will be watching, and I really hope there are changes.”

According to Smolinski, police still tend to put more emphasis on cases when it is a missing child or elderly person.

Cruz has made a brochure for families of missing people that outlines state law concerning reporting missing people, and gives advice on what to do if a loved one disappears.

“Reports of missing people need to be taken seriously,” Cruz said. “Each of us creates a groove, patterns. The people who know and love us know what we do. I’ll talk to my mom, go to work. If I stop, then the people who know and love me know something is wrong.”

Cruz said fast police response is crucial to solving missing person cases. Law enforcement can obtain video recordings from surveillance in an area, such as from stores and parking lots. Video surveillance systems often record over old footage every 12 hours or so, so it is important to look at them before this happens and potential key evidence is lost, according to Cruz.

If a juvenile is missing, police obtain those videos immediately, Cruz said.

Smolinski said she believes if Waterbury police had responded immediately, and obtained forensic evidence, her son probably would have been found quickly.

According to Johnson, New Haven police put out press releases about missing adults.

“If there is any indication of foul play or suspicion of anything other than them leaving of their own free will, we investigate missing person cases the same way, regardless of the person’s age,” Johnson said.

The new state law calls for state and municipal police training to include how to use NamUs. Cruz said her office plans to do training on the NamUs system for state law enforcement agencies in the spring.

“A lot of police departments have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention NamUs, and we have to change that,” Cruz said.

Smolinski also stressed the importance of NamUs, which is open to the public, and has led to people finding matches between the missing and unidentified.

“Law enforcement needs to learn it, so names are entered in,” Smolinski said. “If the person is missing, you need DNA, dental and fingerprint information put into the database.”

National legislation proposed:

Legislation targeting the missing person issue on the national level is still being considered.

Murphy introduced the “Help Find the Missing Act,” or “Billy’s Law,” in honor of Billy Smolinski, in 2009, and it is designed to help solve missing person cases, and identify remains. It hasn’t gotten enough support yet to pass.

Murphy said he has reintroduced it, and he hopes to get it passed in the coming year.

“We scaled back the scope and the cost to try to get more support,” Murphy said. “There are thousands of people who go missing, and thousands of unidentified remains.”

Murphy estimated there are 40,000 sets of unidentified remains, and the national proposal seeks to create an organized system to match remains to the missing.

According to Murphy, federal law currently doesn’t mandate that information about missing adults and unidentified bodies be entered into national databases. While law enforcement can voluntarily report this information, a lack of resources and knowledge of the national databases often prevents them from doing so, Murphy said.

The legislation would authorize, and therefore help ensure funding for, NamUs. At http://www.namus.gov, it has information on missing people and unidentified decedents, a tool for trying to match them. The plan includes $2.4 million annually to fund NamUs from 2012 to 2017, according to Murphy.

The proposal would connect NamUs with the NCIC, to create more comprehensive missing persons and unidentified remains databases, and streamline the reporting process for local law enforcement.

The legislation would create an incentive grants program to help states, local law enforcement and medical examiners report missing and unidentified persons to NCIC, NamUs and the National DNA Index System.

The current proposal is for up to $8 million to go toward the grant program, according to Murphy. If a police department or agency gets the federal grant money, then within 72 hours of an adult going missing, they must put the required information into the NamUs and NCIC databases, according to Murphy’s office.