Missing in America: Case Closed!

families

With all of the bad press that has befallen them recently, it’s befitting that good news has emerged from law enforcement quarters. Within the course of one week investigators resolved three historical and high profile missing child cases. Collectively, Jacob Wetterling, Laura Smither, and Brittanee Drexel were missing for more than 53-years. Unfortunately, none of the cases ended the way their families had hoped, but at least now they are secure in the knowledge that no-one is harming their children.

Jacob Wetterling

Jacob Wetterling

 

When Polly was still missing after 2-months I felt like I was losing my mind. Fear and anger dominated my waking hours, and nightmarish visions overwhelmed my fitful sleep. Hope became tenuous, like a taut rubber band waiting to snap. So, I can only imagine the emotional crescendo’s overwhelming Brittanee, Laura, and Jacob’s families. Of course, they are relieved to finally know the truth, and to have the answers that have eluded them these many years. However, they are also profoundly saddened by the knowledge that their children are dead. Coming to terms with their new reality will be difficult, but ultimately it will be worthwhile.

 

Laura Smither

Laura Smither

I believe that it’s always better to know the truth, rather than to be left grappling in the darkness of doubt. Learning that your child is dead is a harsh reality, but I believe that it is better than the false hope and unanswered questions that accompanies years or decades of not knowing. On Tuesday, September 6, at a press conference following the killer’s confession Jacob’s mother Patty said, “For us, Jacob was alive until we found him. We need to heal”.

Brittanee Drexel

Brittanee Drexel

Brittanee, Laura, and Jacob were all victims of unimaginable horror. The FBI developed information that 17-year-old Brittanee Drexel was kidnapped, gang-raped, tortured, murdered and that her remains were fed to the alligators that populate the South Carolina coast. On Thursday, September 1, a Galveston, TX grand jury handed down murder indictments against alleged serial killer William Reece after he led them to the remains of 12-year-old Laura Smither of Friendswood, Texas who he kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1997. Of course, Jacob’s killer, who remained in the community, has always been a person of interest in his case. It was only after an intrepid investigation finally put the pieces together that the authorities were able to elicit a confession in a plea deal that allows him to escape legal responsibility for the evil crimes he committed against 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.
 
On a given day in the United States as many as 33,000 children are missing according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Think of emotions that must be surging through the families of the missing. Of course, they now know that just because a case becomes historical doesn’t mean that it has gone cold. Evolved investigative techniques and technology are shining a new light on missing child cases that are decades old and all of those families exist in the same gray area that imprisoned the families of Brittanee, Laura, and Jacob for all of these years. They all want answers, whether the kids are dead or alive. They need to know that their children are finally free from harm and exploitation.
 

Fifty in Fifty

Last week I was invited to participate in an interim HLN series that is scheduled for a daily, 10-week run. Nancy Grace: America’s Missing, proposes to feature 50 missing person cases on weekday evenings during primetime in an effort to generate the leads that might return the missing to their families. I thought it was a terrific idea and immediately agreed to participate. For years missing child advocates, the families of the missing and other concerned citizens have been hoping for a television program focused on this singular issue. Imagine my disappointment then when the vast majority of comments linked to a story about the program were scurrilous, petty and mean spirited.

I have been providing television commentary on missing children since October 1, 1993, the day my twelve year old daughter Polly was kidnapped from a slumber party in her bedroom. Although i totally appreciate these opportunities they have been ad hoc and have occurred in numerous formats, from local morning shows, to network newsmagazines, to staged reenactments. There has never been a program that dealt with this issue on a regular ongoing schedule. The episodic drama Without A Trace was popular for a few years. John Walsh has always featured missing kids on America’s Most Wanted and Larry King Live often highlited missing child cases. Unfortunately, Larry retired from television about a month ago. Nancy Grace has been the most passionate high profile missing persons advocate and she has featured hundreds of missing person cases on her program since it began running on HLN in February 2005.

There is no question that Nancy’s advocacy has had positive results. Last December a viewer in San Francisco recognized a missing twelve year old girl that had been featured on Nancy Grace and called the police. The case was solved and the girl returned to her family.

Strong advocacy raises the profile of any issue informs the public, and promotes solutions. Just look at the progress that has been made as it relates to the missing. In 1993, we didn’t have sex offender registration or community notification, now Megan’s Law has been adopted throughout our country. Back in the day, law enforcement didn’t have any protocols to deal with missing person investigations, now there are national, regional, and local protocols, not to mention the Amber Alert. When Polly was kidnapped, America had a turnstile system of justice that regurgitated the same high profile offenders again and again, who systematically committed crimes of ever escalating violence. Now we have truth-in-sentencing and three-strikes-and-you’re-out. Crime is down, violence is reduced and more missing persons are being recovered.

By the time the second episode of Nancy Grace: America’s Missing aired on Jan. 18, it became obvious that the show had struck a chord. Two of the missing children profiled in the first program had been recovered and a real time tip was phoned in as the show profiled Lindsey Baum, who has been missing since June 26, 2009. On the third show we learned that the maltreatment of children with disabilities is 1.5-to-10 times higher than of children without disabilities, and that immediate family members perpetrate the majority of neglect, physical abuse, and emotional abuse.

The Associated Press story, reprinted in the Huffington Post, dealt with the substance of the new venture, but the comments it generated were inspired by anger and jealousy. The vast majority of the commentary completely ignored the issue or the fact that this limited series provides a long sought breakthrough for those invested in the plight of the missing. They paid no attention to the broken hearts, lost souls or desperate families who are pinning their hopes on the prospect of having a previously dead case profiled in primetime. They chose to ignore the fact that for many people this is an important issue and for some it is the most important issue. Instead they seemed to mock tragedy, advocacy, and hope. The people who read and comment on the Huffington Post consider themselves sophisticated, intelligent, socially and politically aware. However, at least in this forum, and there is nothing else upon which to judge them, are mean spirited, small minded, and cynical.

I used to think of my heart as a walnut, because for some years I lost the ability to cry. If that is true, then the anonymous posters on the Huffington Post must have hearts the size and consistency of a pomegranate seed: small and bitter with a hard core.