Janesville70°

Mystery of the missing

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Esther Cepeda
April 28, 2011
— On April 15, Melissa Ann Best went missing—“vanished into thin air,” her husband said.

By the time local Chicago and Kenosha, Wis., media picked up the story about the stay-at-home mom of two teenagers who had disappeared after dropping her daughter off at a friend’s house for a sleepover, the police had been looking for her for six days. Thanks to leads generated by all the attention, police found her body Monday in the back seat of her minivan parked in an apartment complex lot. The investigation is continuing.


That the 34-year-old resident of Round Lake Park, Ill., a town of only 6,300 people, made it onto the TV news and into the local newspapers was itself an achievement of sorts. Despite a handful of high-profile cases, few of those who are desperately being searched for by police and despondent family members ever make headlines.


There are just so many of them—every year, hundreds of thousands simply disappear. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, last year there were 692,944 new reports of individuals who were missing and not assumed to be gone by their own choice. These people, for instance, might have a mental or physical disability, or the circumstances under which they disappeared indicate that they were in physical danger, or there is a reasonable concern for their safety. Those younger than 21 are automatically counted as missing regardless of whether their absence is voluntary or not.


Approximately 51 percent of those reported missing in 2010 are female, 60 percent white or Hispanic and 33 percent African-American, roughly mirroring the U.S. population, though almost 80 percent of the missing are younger than 18.


If it seems like nearly 700,000 missing people in one year is a lot, it is. And these are just the cases that are reported to the federal clearinghouse. According to an FBI spokesperson, law enforcement agencies report adult missing persons cases on a voluntary basis—they’re only mandated by law to report missing children.


But, to speak to the public’s constant frustration that law enforcement agencies don’t undertake massive media campaigns every time someone goes missing, that’s because they mostly come back. On Dec. 31, 2010, after all those new people were added to the previous year’s number of never-found people, 749,713 were taken off the list because they were located by a law enforcement agency, the person returned home, or the record was determined to be invalid. This left only 85,820 people on the list of actively missing people—a number that has decreased in each of the past three years.


“Only” is a terrible word to use—it illuminates the happy endings while understating the trauma of families who are haunted daily with the uncertainty of what might have happened. And the statistics don’t offer clear-cut patterns.


Since July 1999, when the NCIC began keeping expanded records on the most likely reasons for people to disappear, only about half of all law enforcement agencies have included that information in their official records. But of the new missing persons reports in 2010 that included information about the circumstances, a whopping 96.9 percent of all the missing were suspected of being runaways, a number skewed by how many of the missing are under 21. A scant 0.1 percent were thought to have been abducted by a stranger. By comparison, 0.8 percent were abducted by a noncustodial parent.


Which brings us back to Melissa Best. She was found just a few miles from home, and there are still many questions about the circumstances of her death. But at least now, her husband and children will have the opportunity to say their goodbyes.


She will not remain in the unbearable limbo of the never-found missing persons statistics. Tragically—but at least definitively—she did not join the 85,820 lost men, women and children whose absences continue to burn a hole in the hearts of their loved ones—gone, but never forgotten.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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