First of all, I wish to thank Meep, Peter, Starless, Anthony and King Shamus for keeping this place going while I've been AWOL. It's been a rough few months for me, helping refurbish the kitchen here and categorize and pack things up for an estate sale next month. It's a pretty haunting experience handling all these treasures of life gone by. It was pretty haunting staying in the assisted living wing of St. Camillus and taking care of Mom's and her dementia while Dad was recuperating from his health problems. Mary, Aidan and Mairead came out for Christmas and stayed with me, amid the innumerable containers, for ten days over their holidays, and then inevitably left to head back to Vermont, and it took me another ten days to get around to denuding the tree of its decorations and dragging it outside to the burn pile across the road, and I couldn't bring myself to throw away Aidan's abandoned drawings.
A great sadness settled over me, certainly exacerbated by my obsessive readings and contemplations of missing persons reports online. I hate the TV, and I'm out of touch with almost everyone, so it provided some intellectual stimulation, but it also drew me into contemplative immersion in a world of hurt, frustration, poverty, stupidity, callous indifference, emotional and physical agony and all-consuming loss.
That some good may come of this, I'm going to share my constructive reflections on missing persons reports and the unidentified recovered. You can find the sites and the cases on your own, if you're interested, but I recommend that you not do so if, like me, you're obsessive.
First of all, most of the sites devoted to these matters are not searchable, except in the usual ways that websites are searchable. Some sites are simply a jumble of missing persons reports and cases tossed out higglety-pigglety, in the reverse order they attracted the attention of the site operators. Some sites will organize cases temporally, and others will present the names of missing persons alphabetically. Some break cases down geographically by state and region, without organizing them beyond that. Some present thumbnail pictures of missing persons, or reconstructions from skeletal remains, with dates and locations. Each of these has its pros and cons, but if one were to design a system after the fact that would most effectively aid the searcher, it would combine all of these features in different views.
NamUs is the official national database of missing persons, and it is the most easily searchable. Each entry has fundamental categories that might aid in the identification of missing persons whose remains are recovered, but it is up to each investigating agency to enter the data. Some do a thorough job, and others do not. Reconstructions and age progressions are certainly useful, but only insofar as those reconstructions are accurate. Obviously, there's a lot of variation in the amount of skill and attention that reconstructive artists bring to their work. Many of the drawings and clay models are mere ciphers of the most abstract kind. It's hard to see the living face in the color of modelling compound, with blank eyes. Some of the representations are . . . mannered, rather than realistic. Sometimes, there are no photographs entered of missing persons, or only one of very poor quality. In many cases, the police agencies responsible for entering information into NamUs seem to believe that dental records will be enough to solve cases. There may or may not be DNA entered into CODIS, which is supposed to compare to all available profiles automatically. In some cases, entering agencies have made available photos of any clothes, jewelry, and other possessions that might have been found with the deceased. In other cases, they will have entered only a terse verbal description. In some cases, they will have a short summary of the conditions under which a person disappeared, and in other cases that important context is left blank. Pictures may be expandable or merely thumbnails. In one case that I looked at not long ago, an unidentified woman found beside a highway in Ellery, New York, in the far western portion of the state, was found with a handwritten document on a piece of stationery from a hotel in Vancouver, BC. A foreign dental plate and IUD made it clear that she was probably not of US origin, and the writing, which consisted of alphabetic abbreviations associated with numbers, has puzzled investigators. But if you try to get a look at the document, good luck: it's available as a 200×125 gif. In another, there's what appears to be a suicide letter that's conjectured to be in a dialect of Turkish, mentioning the names, possibly, of two children, but it remains untranslated.
Other sites, such as The Charley Project and the Doe Network, attempt in their own ways to get the job done. Whereas the NamUs database requires one to flip through tabs to get a good overview of a particular case, both of these make an effort to present all pertinent materials synoptically. They are also attempt to provide more context to the circumstances under which a person disappeared, or the circumstances under which an unidentified person's remains were discovered. Those kinds of narratives may not much appeal to the more technocratic elements of law enforcement, but they certainly can stir memories or provide clues. Not long ago, a case was solved in which a family had mentioned that their missing son and brother liked to swim. A civilian, who otherwise would not have made the connection, tossed a tip to investigators, based on the fact that an unidentified man was discovered wearing a swimsuit underneath his pants and otherwise lined up reasonably well. From the point of view of law enforcement, such details may seem too trivial to enter into NamUs or the websites that they independently maintain, either on a state-wide or county-wide basis. Such seemingly off-hand bits of information may be key to solving many of the cases. As of the moment, there are over 40 thousand more or less active missing persons cases in the US.
Descriptions can pose problems. What one person might regard as reddish hair looks to another rather brown, just as "hazel eyes" leaves latitude for interpretation. Skeletal remains may be supposed to belong to a person of a certain height range by forensics investigators who are also considering the inseam of a pair of pants, whereas the person may have had a relatively long or short torso. In such cases, age guesstimates are inexact, too, despite the best efforts of forensics. People complain about the inexactitude, but it's probably best not to specify a very narrow range if there's any doubt, because viewers will make exclusions based on the ranges. In some cases, too, particularly with regard to older cases, the person's time of disappearance may be conflated with the time at which he or she was actually reported missing. A young man who was for some time a member of a cult-like traveling religious group calling themselves the Rainbow Family was reported 9 years after anyone recalls having seen him. Given the number of unidentified who seem never to have been reported missing at all, it's hard to be too critical. And human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly friends and family of missing persons who would prefer to imagine that someone's off on their own doing fine than to find out otherwise.
WebSleuths is one of the larger bulletin boards for considering missing persons cases. It's quite good, but it's limited by the quality and quantity of information available to the public. Picture and other links are often broken in the course of time, particularly those to newspaper articles about missing persons. You would think that media outlets would make exceptions to their archiving policies in such matters, but they do not. Only one of the non-BB official sites regarding missing persons seems to collect newspaper accounts of missing persons on a case-by-case basis, and those are represented as text-only documents, without any of the accompanying photographs that might originally have been embedded in the articles. The bulletin boards do a good job, usually, of compiling such information as it becomes available, but due to copyright restrictions they are liable only to provide whatever portion or portions of those articles that seem most pertinent to the person(s) presenting the available information. As a matter of public service policy, newspapers may wish to make exceptions for such materials. As a matter of function, bulletin boards are better off permitting direct uploads of pictures, particularly, rather than links.
Investigating agencies may or may not welcome public input. In some cases, they are eager to solicit whatever hunches, potential matches, and other information civilians are willing to provide. In other cases, they seem sullen, unhelpful or downright hostile. There have been cases where tipsters whose leads panned out were praised fulsomely, and others where the investigators found on a tip that there was a match, but kept the credit for themselves. In cases where families and friends have thought that investigators have botched their researches or dragged their feet, there's often a circling of the wagons within the responsible law enforcement agency that makes solving a case unlikely. In the old days, it was common practice to list a missing young person as a runaway, even when family and friends thought it very unlikely that a child would disappear on his or her own. Even after that posture was addressed by a variety of laws requiring mandatory reporting on the part of police agencies, it continued to be a problem with reporting regarding legal adults. In some cases, missing persons records were purged once the missing had reached the age of majority, theoretically. A young woman who went missing in the 1980s in Davenport, Iowa had her case removed in that fashion, and it was only after a relative posted on his own about it many years later that someone made the connection with the remains of a young woman recovered in Amarillo, Texas. The family had been unaware that she'd been removed from the database all those years ago, during much of which they suffered needlessly. I know of one pretty recent case in which a clerical error caused The Doe Network to remove a case, which usually means that it has been solved (at least insofar as establishing an identity). Since nobody at the bulletin board could find any outside confirmation regarding a match, they inquired, and Doe Network realized that they had made a mistake and reposted the page.
Many families of the missing report nasty FOIA battles regarding their cases.
Unfortunately, what all of this means is that anyone researching a case of a missing person or an unidentified person has to go searching for information that's scattered around the web in bits and pieces, here and there. For example, there's a young man who went missing hitchhiking from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to Bend, Oregon, to visit relatives there, in early November of 1980. He never made it. On some sites, he was listed as having disappeared in Bend, OR, and on others as missing from Idaho Falls. There are only two photos of this Randy Leach (one of two so-named people missing) available online, and one of them is somewhat out of focus. That might lead a casual reader to believe that the young man's family were not very driven to find him, but that's not the case. Randy's father had already reported that he'd called from Idaho Falls to say that he was headed to Klamath. Some time after he went missing, his father (from Wisconsin) and his grandfather (from South Dakota) retraced his travels and discovered that Randy had worked a couple of days at the dairy farm of an LDS couple near Idaho Falls before heading out again. The couple recollected him very distinctly, and offered the potentially useful information that the young man seemed to be on a spiritual quest and had met some missionaries during his stay. Without actually going out of your way to track down the newspaper archives, you won't know that from the materials posted about Randall Dean Leach at the major missing persons sites.
It is almost certainly a good idea for families and friends of missing persons to err on the side of too much information, rather than too little. When one sees a site where there are five photos of a missing person, chosen to represent various angles and looks, one is much more motivated to go looking than when one sees a single out of focus picture, or a single photo of a missing person taken many years before that person disappeared. The way that reconstructive models of the unidentified are created makes it important, too, that we have (if at all possible) photos of the missing in profile, or as near to it as may be. Generally speaking, any way a family or friends can personalize a case, can make the missing person a palpable presence to others who may have answers or even just good questions, the more incentive they create for others to help. Here, journalists generally do a much better job than law enforcement, though the more jaded among us might be surprised just how the comments of police to reporters demonstrate just how motivated many of them are to solve these cases. In many articles, one can read about retired police who continue to pursue cases that have stuck in their craws long after they've gone fishin', and I even know of a group of retired police in . . . northern Missouri, I think it is . . . who continue to meet on a regular basis to review the evidence from missing persons cases, not only from their districts, but from the region.
Motivated researchers will use Google maps and Street View to get an idea of the location at which a person disappeared or a unidentified person was recovered, and at the bulletin boards posters will sometimes post or link that info, but any truly synoptic view will contain that information along with the rest, including, if pertinent, associated vehicle pictures and VINs (rather than just license plates). Family and friends posting will probably be able to use some help with search engine optimization, too.
Regarding family and friends, it seems to me the best practice is to collect everything together on a single page, even if that requires obtaining permission to reproduce in full online and print articles about the missing. It would be nice if there were a template, and a free site at which they could all curate their pages. It's frustrating to go online to try to research a case, only to find that potentially useful materials exist only behind a paywall. Sometimes matches are made, and then one encounters online obituaries including information that might have helped solve a case long before it was solved. In the comments, one will also see recollections shared that might have been pertinent to civilian investigators' reflections. In some cases, at such sites and bulletin boards, people have anonymously or pseudonymously posted tips that might help solve crimes, depending on whether or not law enforcement read those comments or other site users report them. Given the number of cases in which people have gone missing before or after testifying in criminal cases, it's easy to understand why. At the same time, pseudonymous and anonymous posters undoubtedly also are capable of blowing smoke and propounding ridiculous theories. There are a lot of cold cases out there where police have strong circumstantial evidence pointing to a suspect or suspects, but lack a body to give them enough to bring charges. Hunters, hikers, mushroom hunters, fishermen, dog walkers and outdoorsmen of all stripes play a key role in finding the remains of missing persons. Sometimes clothes, glasses, purses and wallets are simply lost or discarded in strange places, to be sure, but when in doubt, check it out, and if something doesn't look right, call it in. A few years ago, a missing persons case was solved when a boy who assumed he'd stumbled on ancient Native American remains collected a skull and bones in a box, and only years later thought to contact authorities about his find. Undoubtedly, there have been occasions when outdoorsmen came across stuff that looked like litter to them in the woods and pitched it in the nearest trash receptacle, when they represented the key to the solution of a case. Also appalling is the number of vehicles missing people were last seen in that have fallen off the face of the earth. Some of these will have been chop shopped, but we need a law, or to strengthen existing laws, regarding reporting of VINs and waiting periods before vehicles are recycled in any fashion.
For goodness sake, if nobody seems to know what happened to Joe after that one particular night, be the one to inquire. If you're an aging rebel 1%er biker, maybe it's time to grow up and speak up.
I could go off on NAMBLA not being listed as a hate group by the SPLC, but I will spare you that. For now.
Even if you don't personally know anyone who's gone missing, solving missing persons cases is a matter of national security somewhat more urgent than the policing of people's diets. The sheer number of cases presents law enforcement with a de facto Cloward-Piven scenario that enables violent criminals to go on committing more violent crimes. Each of us has his own assessment of concommitant consequences, but if legalizing pot gives us more resources to prevent the early release of sex offenders, I am all for it.
One thing very close to my heart that has been reinforced by all of this digging is that we as a society are failing the mentally ill. With any luck, I'll be leaving here soon, and looking for full-time employment (preferably back in Vermont, but not necessarily), and I think that for the sake of my soul I might just look for something helping the at-risk mentally ill . . . a sizeable percentage. If you see anything in that line, or that otherwise I might be good at, please let me know, because I have to get out of here and away from too much time alone and start sending more money to and spending more time with Mary and the kids.
Again, my apologies to all for being away during this dark night of my soul. I don't know exactly what I want to write about, now, but I do value all your friendships, online and in person. I'm just hitchhiking at a crossroads, hoping I don't fall through the cracks, and determined that any self-inflicted suffering won't be for nothing. I've been in a funk from which I'm trying to break free. I feel I'm killing time, but I fear it's killing me.
Whether I'll resume blogging with any frequency, I can't say. I think that I've been living too much online at a level of abstraction and distraction that has been unhealthy for me, my family, and my relations generally, for too many years. I'd like to contribute, but I don't really know what I have to say that I haven't already said, or that isn't competently being said by others as well as I could. I doubt that this feeling is very different from that of the many talented bloggers I've seen come and go during the time I've been online, who have become alienated and ditched it. We, sometimes, recall their absence, but not in the way that the families of the missing recall theirs.