Gone without a trace: Missing person cases in Berkshires and beyond
A hiker lost in the woods. A child who gets taken. A man or woman who decides to leave home without telling anyone.
Many are the reasons as to why and how a person goes missing. But as the time period between lost and found becomes bigger, so grows the waves of emotion and sense of urgency of the loved ones left behind longing to locate them and the law enforcement agencies working to help.
Last year in Berkshire County, missing persons cases ranged from runaways, to people whose departures were influenced while suffering various traumas and/or medical conditions, to hikers getting lost in the woods. Some people were found alive, while others have been found deceased. In other cases, police have located people who tell them they chose to leave their homes, loved ones and work, because they simply did not want to be found.
In Monterey, the search continues for Alexander Dickey, a 28-year-old Gould Farm resident who hasn't been seen since he went on an Oct. 19 outing in downtown Great Barrington.
"We're still getting little tips here and there so we follow up and stay active," Monterey Police Chief Gareth Backhaus said on Friday.
In Massachusetts, three missing persons cases have made headlines in the past week:
- Gov. Deval Patrick's administration announced on Thursday that the Child Welfare League of America will conduct an independent review of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. The state agency that has come under criticism for failing to keep track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose family had been under DCF supervision. The boy has not been seen by relatives since September, but police say they've only recently learned of the disappearance.
- Caleb Jacoby, 16, of Brookline, the son of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, was reported missing last Monday. He was found safe on Thursday in New York City's Times Square. Officials have not disclosed why the boy went missing and how he got to New York.
- Just this past Friday evening, a statewide Amber Alert was activated in the attempt to locate 6-year-old Alize Whipple, who was last seen Jan. 9 in Fitchburg. The suspect is Leanna R. Wilson, the child's non-custodial mother, who is believed to be fleeing to Enoree, S.C.
"In every community it will happen to someone you know. The two most important things you can do is to be supportive and to do your research," said Monica Caison, founder of the national nonprofit CUE (Community United Effort) Center for Missing Persons based in Wilmington, N.C.
It will be 20 years this September since Caison first began proactively getting involved in missing persons cases as an advocate. She says the best thing people can do to help a missing persons case is to keep calm, vigilant and organized.
"When families come to us, they're obviously distraught, confused; they feel like nobody's doing nothing for them, which is normally not true. They just don't know yet that they have to build communications between them and law enforcement agencies," Caison said. "Those are the things we immediately start teaching them how to do."
So who to turn to when someone has gone missing?
"Generally a missing person report is handled by a local police department," said Terrel Harris, communications director for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. "We don't usually get involved unless they call us and ask for our assistance."
"Everything's specific to a case," said Pittsfield Police Chief Michael J. Wynn.
In Dalton, Police Chief Jeffrey Coe said every case starts with a two-page missing person intake report form that documents details about the missing person, from gender and eye color, to the missing person's emotional state and the friends they might turn to.
Caison said loved ones should not feel ashamed to report whether they had a fight with the missing person or if the missing person was involved with drugs or struggling with other issues.
"If we don't know who this person is, we don't know how to look for them," she said.
Officials say that families and loved ones may want to rush to dispense information through Facebook pages, homemade fliers, and other mobile social media sites because it's the fastest way to share information. But, they say, it's important to take the time to distribute detailed, accurate and up-to-date information, whether it be the description and photos of the person or the circumstances under which they disappeared.
Caison said even at her center, Facebook is seen as a tool "not the be all end all" for locating someone.
"What we've found in some of our cases is that bad information is put out early, putting us on false leads and taking resources away from where they need to be. It's important [for both us and them] to be using consistent information," Wynn said.
"We will chase down every single phone call, every single lead," said Pittsfield Detective Lt. Michael Grady. He said time spent chasing false leads means the more time it will take to successfully find a missing person. "We could spend a lot of time looking in the wrong place, and that's 48 to 72 hours we can't have back," he said.
Police say it's also important to let law enforcement know whether an independent search party goes out looking for someone.
"They're going to impact terrain," said Wynn. The least disturbed an area is, the more likely investigators are to find helpful clues in tracking down a missing person.
In terms of carrying out an investigation, Wynn said the Pittsfield Police Department, like most other police departments, bases its protocols on best practices outlined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), to which missing persons' cases can be filed.
As of Jan. 1, 2013, there were 87,217 active missing person entries on file with NCIC. Juveniles under the age of 18 accounted for 32,225 cases, or 36.9 percent of the records, while 17.4 percent, or 15,141 of the files, were for missing young adults between the ages of 18 and 20.
If the person reporting missing is a child, that report is immediately filed into the NCIC missing persons database.
But Wynn said currently, adult cases are not mandated to be immediately entered into the national system. If the adult is considered to be at risk or "endangered," they are more likely to be entered into NCIC. But if an adult is not taking medications, has no psychological problems, was not reported in distress or seen being abducted, then -- though a local case and search may be built -- the case may not immediately be filed into the national system.
"The presumption is, if an adult is not in danger, they have the ability to decide to be missing," Wynn said.
State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, is working to change that process. He and his office have advocated on behalf of the families of Holly Piirainen and Molly Bish. He said he also worked with former state Gov. Jane Swift to establish an Amber Alert system for child abductions in Massachusetts.
Piirainen was 7 when she was abducted in August 1990, near her grandparents' cottage in Sturbridge. Her remains were found in Brimfield by hunters two months later. Bish, 16, was abducted on June 27, 2000, while working as a lifeguard at Comins Pond in Warren. Her remains were found on June 9, 2003, five miles from her family home. Neither of those murders have been solved.
"I can't imagine the pain a family goes through when a person goes missing, and not just when it's a child," Brewer said.
On Jan. 18, 2013, he and five other legislative petitioners introduced a bill known as "An Act Relative to Missing Persons." The bill states that law enforcement agencies in the commonwealth should accept without delay any report of a missing person, child or adult, regardless of circumstances or available information.
The 10-page document addresses intake practices of missing persons reports, including the manner of reporter, contents of the report; notification and follow-up actions; law enforcement analysis and reporting of a missing person's information, including defining whether someone is a "high risk" missing person; and the reporting of the death of an unidentified person or the discovery of human remains.
Brewer said more needs to be done to establish such practices as technology evolves and social media and mobile devices play a larger role in tracking people.
"We look for as much info as we can in this electronic age, from pinging cellphones and checking call records and email, to figure out where this person was or might be," said Backhaus, the Monterey police chief.
On Jan. 17, 2013, state Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, R-Taunton, also filed a petition with six other co-sponsors, relative to requiring mobile data wireless carriers and in-vehicle security and communications providers to furnish locator information and other relevant mobile data to law enforcement agencies working to locate missing persons.
Coming on a year since they were filed, both proposed bills are still under review.
Recent Berkshire County cases
Missing persons cases in Berkshire County included a range of circumstances and outcomes. Among those reported by The Eagle in 2013:
- In January, a 16-year-old boy reported missing by his mother was found in New York state with Ronald Brown, a 50-year-old registered sex offender living in Williamstown. It is believed the boy, who was not identified, ran away to live with Brown.
- Arlene Elliott, 82, of Great Barrington, was reported missing by her family and in failing health on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, and was found dead Thursday, Feb. 21, in a wooded area behind Fairview Hospital. No foul play, according to police.
- Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto, 28, of Pittsfield and Lee, was reported missing on Saturday, May 18. His body was found on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. It was later revealed the death was a suicide; he was battling PTSD and other trauma.
- Michael Gokey, 21, of Pittsfield, was reported missing on Tuesday, Aug. 6. His body was found on Aug. 13, by a Massachusetts State Police K-9 unit in a wooded area near Pittsfield Cemetery. His death was an apparent suicide.
- Theresa Burke, 23, of Dalton, was reported missing on Sunday, Nov. 10. Her body was found the next morning in a wooded area near the Dalton American Legion. No foul play was suspected in her death.
- Jacob Moore, 19, of Pittsfield, was reported missing on Tuesday, Nov. 19 by a relative. He had last been heard from on Nov. 13. He was found alive on Wednesday, Nov. 20.
- Matthew McGuire, 50, was reported missing around 8:15 a.m. during a snowshoeing trip from Pittsfield on Tuesday, Dec. 17. He was found around 9:28 a.m., seeking shelter inside a building at Model Farm in Dalton.
Tips for those searching
Monica Caison, founder of the national nonprofit Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons (CUE) offers the following tips for families and loved ones looking for a missing person:
- Align yourself with someone solid -- a friend, family member, neighbor, advocate -- who can guide you through the process. This person may be the liaison between the family and law enforcement, and may be designated to talk with media.
- One can become sleep-deprived with worry while looking for someone. "You have to stay hydrated, have to stay fed, and try to get some sleep."
- Once a missing person case becomes public, a family can become vulnerable to psychics, private investigators and others who can take advantage of the situation. "You can end up broken and broke," said Caison. She said any services used beyond law enforcement should be thoroughly researched and verified.
- When a loved one goes missing, try to recall the last thing they talked about. "Alzheimer's patients will often say I want to go back to where I met so and so or when I lived," Caison said. "That's where they may be headed."
- Families need to talk about their loved ones, even after a long period of time. "They don't know what to do with their grief," she said.
- Remain positive. Keep focused, and keep a daily routine.
- Learn more at ncmissingpersons.org, or call (910) 343-1131.
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: missingkids.com
- Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security: mass.gov/eopss
To reach Jenn Smith:
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