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.
 

They Took Our Child: Leah Henry

One Third Of All Abductions Occur On School Routes
On May 1, 2001 at 3:45 p.m., 11-year-old Leah Henry stepped off the school bus about a block from her home in Houston, TX. Within moments she was lured into her kidnapper’s small, hatchback sedan. Leah’s parents called the police when they could not locate her by 8:30 p.m. Within two days the authorities had tied Leah’s disappearance to the recent kidnappings of two other little girls. Fortunately, those girls had been released after several days of captivity. However, the abductors behavior had become more violent with each victim.

 

On May 4, 260 miles away Sheriff’s Deputy David Billeiter responded to a tip about unusual activity at a shack near rural Kerrville, TX. Upon arriving, he blocked in the small hatchback. Deputy Dilleiter knew that he had his man when the driver exited the vehicle with gun in hand. When the perp opened the passenger door to pull Leah out, she instead scooted out the driver’s door. With his weapon pointed at the Deputy the kidnapper told Leah to, “Run to the cop”. The deputy secured Leah inside his vehicle and backed away from the scene. Moments later a single gunshot rang out. The kidnapper had committed suicide.

 

“He shot himself and it sucks for the victim,” Leah recently told me. “I knew that he wouldn’t be able to hurt any more children, but I was left with all that pain. Nobody knows, nobody can imagine.”

 

LeahHenryTherapy
“I hated therapy. I started going as soon as I got free, but I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to close up. I felt like the therapist just smiled at me while I cried, so I stopped going. Instead I locked myself in the bathroom and did homework until my hour was up. I had to find my own therapy.”

 

“I struggled to find my voice, but in high school I finally connected with an art therapy teacher. She said that whenever I thought of him, whether it was an emotional or physical trigger, to write it down. For two years I collected those notes in a box. When I felt like I didn’t have any triggers left my two closest friends joined me for a little ceremony where I burnt the box. It symbolized my ability put being a victim behind me. It felt good, because I was a survivor and not a victim any longer.”

 

“About 2 ½ years ago I decided to move to Washington to start over, but I put off my trip because my best friend, my dog, was sick. When he finally passed it rocked my world. I lost weight and I wanted to give up. I needed change, so I put everything I owned in my car and took off. I drove 16-hours straight to Colorado where I stayed for a week hiking mountain trails with a friend’s dog. Then I drove another 16-hours to my destination. Moving to Washington State was the best choice I made in years, because the solitude was cathartic.”
10985431_1627965650751446_6313703640179960303_n“I still struggle and sometimes I can feel myself fall into victim mode, but that is not me. I am strong and I have a voice. There are certain places I visit, like a waterfall in the mountains, where I can forget everything bad. I bought another black lab and he goes everywhere with me. I no longer have to surround myself with people because I have finally learned to appreciate my own company. Washington has turned me into a boring old woman and I kind of like that.”

 

Perfect Timing
“The opportunity to do They Took Our Child came at the perfect time, because I was finally ready to tell my story, my way. When you contacted me about doing the show, I was very open to sharing my full story and felt it was an opportunity to also visit my mentor, teacher, and dear friend Art Letourneau. After agreeing to do the show, I texted him to tell him about my upcoming trip and was also hoping to see him while I was in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he passed that very morning before he could read my text, but I know he would be very proud of me. Last week, I was sitting on the lake finishing the book ‘Hope’ by two of the survivors of Cleveland abduction. I closed the book to a rush of unsettling emotions. Moments later Katie from They Took Our Child called to tell me that my show would be airing a week later. Participating in this show has brought about a lot of powerful healing moments for me.”

 

“I now know that it is okay to have those feelings, and to share them so that I may help the next person who is afraid to speak out or face difficulties. In turn, it helps me to know that I can make that kind of difference. My story, along with every other survivors story, is powerful and worth being heard becauseiIt could save someone’s life.”

They Took Our Child: Midsi Sanchez

Midsi signedThe August 10, 2000 kidnapping of 8-year-old Midsi Sanchez was as typical as it was unique. Like 1/3 of all attempted child abductions in the United States, Midsi was taken by a dangerous predator while walking home from school. However, unlike most who went before her, Midsi utilized her own skills and street smarts to escape almost certain death.

 

“In the beginning, when I came home, everybody wanted to know what happened from A to Z, but I didn’t want to share my story for other people’s entertainment,” she told me recently. “That included kids at school and counselors. Pretty much everybody but my family.”

 

Because she refused to share her story Midsi did not receive psychological counseling and she became an object of ridicule and bullying at school and on the street. She responded to these abuses the same way that she responded to the kidnapper: defiantly fighting her tormentors almost daily for the next several years.

 

Her family, on the other hand, swept her ordeal under the rug. “They didn’t want to talk about it. Even now, when they interviewed for this show, it was very hard for them,” she said. “I was a hot mess. I was stuck, stagnant and in turmoil for all those years. I couldn’t move forward. I didn’t care about myself or anybody else. At one point I thought I was so gangster that I wanted to go to prison.”

 

“I got drunk at 12 and didn’t sober up until Sandra Cantu went missing in 2009. I knew that if I shared my story with her family it would give them hope because I got away successfully. So I did. Things started falling into place because I got to see what happens on the other side. For 10 days I felt connected and powerful, because I was part of something bigger than myself. I was connected to the community and God and Sandra. Her soul was with me. I felt her in me. We were similar in so many ways and I was sure that she would come home alive.”

 

Midsi and Marc“When Sandra was found dead I was devastated. I took it personally and started drinking again. Six months later I was almost killed in a DUI automobile accident. Then I found out that I was pregnant. I cried when the doctor said that I was having a girl. Life was so hard and I feared so for her safety, but you know what? Had I not gotten pregnant I probably would have stayed on the path to destruction, but now I needed to be strong and sober for my little girl. I needed Annelyse so much. She saved my life.”

 

“It helps to work with a good production crew because I have worked with other people who are not so nice. My experience on this show was amazing. I felt like they really cared about me and my family which is very important because my mom and sister were re-traumatized by getting in front of the camera to tell my story.”
Midsi They Took Our Child“Now I tell my story because there is a purpose, it is not about entertainment. I share my story because it is necessary for others to understand that survival is possible and that one can become positive in life because of it. I represent every victim and I am the voice for every missing child because I have been there and I have done that. Marc, each time we put ourselves in these positions to help families, I get stronger and it gets easier and I truly think that we grow by helping others.”

Madyson Middleton and Cecil the Lion

Maddy Maddy

Two stories of murder and mayhem gripped our collective consciousness this week. On Sunday we heard the first ominous reports of a missing 8-year-old girl in Santa Cruz, CA, and on Monday it was revealed that an American dentist had stalked and killed Zimbabwe’s famed Cecil the Lion. Within days revelations about the death of the child spread a veil of sadness over the San Francisco Bay Area. As the truth emerged surrounding the death of the lion an explosion of anger and hatred gripped the entire nation, if not the world. My question is why would the death of an animal, any animal, trigger a collective emotional reaction that dwarfs that of the rape and murder of a little girl?

Maddy AJMaddie Middleton was a sweet little girl who was minding her own business, playing in her yard, and enjoying a warm summer afternoon when 15-year-old neighbor AJ Gonzales lured her into his apartment with the promise of ice cream. Once inside Gonzales attacked, bound, raped, beat and strangled the little girl to death before dumping her remains in a recycle bin like a piece of trash. While this outcome shocked everyone from the boy’s mother to the casual television observer, the visceral reaction barely registered when compared to the outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion.

Maddy CecilMinnesota dentist Dr. Walter J. Palmer traveled to Zimbabwe to hunt and kill a lion with a bow and arrow. He paid $55,000.00 to secure proper permits, hired professional trackers and guides to ensure that his hunting expedition would be legal and successful. Cecil the Lion was wounded with an arrow, stalked for 40-hours, killed, skinned, and beheaded. Dr. Palmer’s claim that he was unaware that the lion was lured from a protected national park are speculative at best.

Maddy PalmerProtests have sprung up in front of Dr. Palmer’s home and office calling for his extradition to Zimbabwe and prosecution over the death of Cecil the Lion. Countless hours have been invested on various Cable News outlets about Dr. Palmer’s lack of empathy, calculating ambitions, and cold soul. Countless death threats and the scorn of a nation have driven him underground.

UntitledIronies cascade upon each other. The very same people who are demanding that Dr. Palmer be extradited to Zimbabwe either ignore or are unaware that Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since 1980, is one of the most egregious human rights violators on the face of the earth. Between 1982 and 1985 alone he was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of 20,000 of his own countrymen who were then buried in mass graves. Where are the protests against Robert Mugabe?

 

Of course, the larger and more alarming irony is that the outrage over the death of an animal is so much more amplified and visceral than the outrage over the murder of a little girl. I am not defending Dr. Palmer. I think that what he did is despicable and he should be ashamed of himself. However, the killing of Cecil the Lion is not comparable to the murder of Maddy Middleton. I understand that certain people are more invested in animals than they are in children. Without conservationists, zoo keepers, and others who work to protect animals our world would be far less satisfying. But never forget, Cecil was the king of the jungle and challenges to that authority can emerge from anywhere. Maddy was a defenseless child with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. She cannot protect herself, so it is our responsibility to protect her. This is not apples and oranges. This is about priorities, and sometimes I fear that our priorities need a serious adjustment.

Finding Ways to Remember Joan

By Rosemarie D’Alessandro

D'Alessandro 1Forty-one years ago, I survived one of the most horrific experiences anyone could ever have to go through: the rape and murder of my seven-year-old daughter, Joan, at the hands of a neighbor to whom she was delivering Girl Scout cookies. He lived just three houses away and claimed that he knew how to lure children because he was a teacher. Her case became an historic one, causing changes in Girl Scout rules and making parents more vigilant in how they monitored their children. In a way, society would never be quite so innocent again.

 

Since then, I have worked to find ways to help protect other families from a similar experience, while commemorating my daughter and all she gave to the world during her brief time here. Through social action, setting up a new foundation, and creating a memorial, I have found new meaning and the strength to go on.

 

Joan was a happy, contented child with a twinkle in her eyes and a smile that warmed your heart. She stood up for herself, even at three years old, without reservation. She had a gentleness about her that went along with her spunkiness and social nature. Her outgoing character was balanced with enjoying peaceful times alone. She wasn’t afraid to try out a new experience such as ice skating or diving from the high board, putting herself into it wholeheartedly. A classmate told me how Joan brought her into the group and made her feel accepted.

 

I will always remember her last words she spoke to me as she ran out the door: “I will be right back.”

 

The loss was so great. I went through three months of complete shock; the smallest things could cause me enormous pain. But I knew I had to make a decision about whether to move forward, and I chose to live my life. To me, her death on Holy Thursday and being found on Easter Sunday was in its own way a message of hope.

 

The meaning of this message became all the more clear in 1993 when I found out that her killer was eligible for parole, 20 years after my child’s murder. I knew that I had to fight this. I began a grassroots movement by speaking to the media and starting a petition and ribbon campaign, in her favorite color green, to advocate for the denial of parole for the killer. Eighty thousand signatures helped to keep him in prison.

 

I would have to fight again each time the killer became eligible for parole, raising awareness of the safety of all children and families. During this process I saw a bigger picture, and that something had to be done to change this process. I therefore fought for the adoption of laws guaranteeing that such criminals would remain behind bars for life without the possibility of parole. We found success with Joan’s Law, which mandates that anyone who murders a child during the commission of a sex crime will never get out of prison. However, it is not retroactive and cannot apply to us.

 

But, at least three Joan’s Laws were signed and went into effect in New York, New Jersey, and finally on the federal level. I remember standing in front of the Capitol steps with Marc Klaas and Congressman Bob Frank as we pushed for Joan’s Law and other, stronger child safety regulations. At present, I am working on a new law in New Jersey to expand Joan’s Law to protect children under 18. Hopefully, Joan’s Law can be the goal for other states as well.

Joans-Joy-New-Design_01

I continue to commemorate Joan in other ways as well. In 1998, Joan’s special inspiration guided me to form the Joan Angela D’Alessandro Memorial Foundation. The Foundation helped bring attention to child protection safety, enrich the lives of at-risk and underprivileged children, and promote victims’ rights.

 

Since its formation, more than 19 fundraisers have been held and the Foundation has donated funds through its Fun, Education, and Safety Program. At-risk children and youth from Paterson and Passaic, NJ, have been able to go to the Washington, DC, Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Amish Country, and the New Jersey shore. The YCS Holly Center in Hackensack, NJ, has been able to take 65 children to Great Adventure for a dream day and children from the Jumoke School in Connecticut have been able to learn about careers with working dogs.

D'Alessandro 2

Then, in 2013, the 40th anniversary of Joan’s passing, I began to work on a project that would ensure that Joan and the safety of all children would never be forgotten. This past June my vision became reality with the creation of the Joan Angela D’Alessandro White Butterfly Sculpture and Garden in the center of the town of Hillsdale, NJ, by the train station. This permanent granite sculpture tells Joan’s story and stands with pride in the midst of a colorful, lush garden with a custom-made bench that has Joan’s signature on it. The White Butterfly that is carved on the front of the sculpture is a symbol of Joan’s spirit bringing hope and joy. It became a sign after I saw a white butterfly at the site where Joan’s body was found in 2006.

 

The sculpture and the surrounding garden will leave a lasting impression on all who view it for many years to come, and help to spread Joan’s story and promote social justice and child protection awareness. Joan’s legacy goes on with all the children she has saved and continues to save. Wouldn’t it be impactful if there were child safety sculptures and gardens in other states too?

 

For more information and to get involved, please visit our website at www.JoansJoy.org or email Rosemarie D’Alessandro at Rosebd@email.com.

Media Relations & Missing Children

What would you do if your child was kidnapped? How would you handle media relations? Below you will find time tested strategies, ideas, and concepts that you can adapt to help you through the most difficult of times as well as maximize your media opportunities.

 

Cooperate with the media: They can be intrusive and annoying, but media can broadcast an image and the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a son / daughter to more people in just 30 seconds than you will accomplish stapling flyers to telephone poles in 100 years. They can ask questions that feel prying and insensitive but ultimately are valuable.

 

Some missing children can not be resolved quickly and can continue for weeks, months, or years. Some cases are never solved. To encourage an ongoing investigation you need the support of a proactive public. If we allow the community to forget the case, the efforts of the authorities will be reduced and the ability to recover your child / a decreases dramatically.

 

The most effective method of obtaining and maintaining support is to ensure that the public is invested in the welfare of your son / daughter. Radio, television and newspapers provide an opportunity to humanize his son, thus making it an emotionally society for research.

 

We have broken the media experience into three categories: Mainstream Media; Social Media; & Press Releases and Press Conferences. Please feel free to use any of the strategies, examples or ideas as they apply to your situation.

Mainstream Media

Social Media

Press Releases & Press Conferences

Amber Alert Insanity!

Missing MomClarksburg, MD law enforcement is searching for 27-year-old Catherin Hoggle, who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, in connection with the disappearance of her two young children. Her 2-year-old son Jacob was last seen at his grandparents’ home on Sunday afternoon (9/7/14), shortly before his mother drove him to get a pizza. When Ms. Hoggle returned three hours later without her son or a pizza she told her parents that she had left Jacob with a friend for a stay-over. The next morning (9/8/14) she drove away with her three-year-old daughter Sarah. When she returned she told her common law husband Troy Turner that she had dropped both kids off at daycare. When she was not forthcoming about the children’s whereabouts later that day Mr. Turner decided to report the incident to the police. Before he could do so Catherine Hoggle disappeared inside a fast food restaurant. Neither she nor her children have been seen since.

 

Little Jacob and Sarah are in grave danger and the police need every tool in their arsenal if they are going to recover the children alive, yet an Amber Alert has not been activated. The case does not fit the Amber Alert criteria because a car was not involved in the children’s disappearance.

 

The Amber Alert has always had great potential. However, that potential has been stymied by a fundamental misunderstanding of its intent and purpose. The Amber Alert was not created to be activated under specific conditions. Instead, it was meant as a partnership between law enforcement, media, and the public. It offered the public a viable means of assisting in the recovery of kidnapped children.

 

The Amber Alert as currently utilized in the United States is myopic, inflexible and most certainly costs children their lives. Maryland can remedy similar situations in the future by enacting legislation, issuing an executive order, an administrative rule or whatever means is necessary to include children who have been taken by a biological parent with severe mental illness, regardless of whether a car was involved or not.

Who Killed Jenise Wright?

402764def040dcb6ca08b8f7b02580edSix-year-old Jenise Wright, whose remains were found in the woods near the trailer park where she lived with her parents and two siblings in Bremerton, WA, was one of those children who never had a chance. She was a trusting, loving little girl who never met a stranger and she was apparently given free rein to run wild and unsupervised from the time she was only three-years-old. As a result she will never celebrate her seventh birthday.

Jenise Wright's Parents

Jenise Wright’s Parents

As difficult as it is to look past her father’s criminal history, it is his comments since Jenise disappeared that are particularly troubling. I want to be clear that the foundation for my concerns is based on my own reaction and state of mind when Polly disappeared more than 20-years ago. One of the many life changing experiences that are still seared into my brain was the immediate, laser focus I was able to achieve upon learning that Polly had been kidnapped. There was no ambiguity about my purpose, or question as to my intent. My job, for better or worse, was to find Polly.

 

However, the day after Jenise was reported missing her father told a local reporter that, “my mind is still spinning”. I can understand psychological or spiritual turmoil because I too grappled with both of those emotions, but intellectually I was in blinders with one goal in mind. To complicate matters even more so, James Wright called his missing daughter “a spoiled little brat” and “the princess of the household” who “always gets her way most of the time.”  I am at a total loss as to why, given the gravity of the situation, the father of a missing child would characterize her in such unflattering terms. He should be investing people in the search for Jenise, not whining about her perceived shortcoming.

 

Hillary Clinton popularized the term it takes a village to raise a child, but she did not mean that as an excuse to defer parental responsibility and allow friends, neighbors, and strangers to assist in that role. Combined with Mr. Wright’s criminal history and his odd behavior and statements since the search started and a very troubling possibility rears its ugly head.

 

Finally, the omission of any statement from the authorities warning the community that a cold blooded killer is on the loose speaks volumes.

How Abigail Hernanzed Escaped from the Belly of the Beast!

Abigail-HernandezPretty young girls like Abigail Hernandez are kidnapped so that they can be sexually exploited. That is what happened to Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Shouf, Shasta Groene, Tara Burke, Shawn Hornbeck, and Steven Staynor (all of whom lived to tell their stories). It was also the motivation behind the kidnappings of the vast majority of kids, including my Polly, who were ultimately murdered as a result of their abduction.

 

I suspect that she got away by earning her kidnappers trust and securing enough freedom to affect her escape, or he was distracted and she took advantage of an opportunity, or some combination of the two. It is also possible that she convinced him to let her go, although knowing the mind set of desperate sexual predators, I find that unlikely.

Crazy Nate Kibby

Crazy Nate Kibby

The important lesson here is that she managed to stay alive long enough to escape Crazy Nate Kibby, a dangerous sexual predator.

Facebook, Twitter & the Fate of the Missing!

girlsTwo recent kidnapping cases that have captured the world’s attention have demonstrated the importance and power of Social Media as it applies to missing children. In one case a foreign government’s ambivalence over a mass kidnapping was exposed as the world took note and promised action. In the other social media empowered a girl held captive for decade to break the bonds of abduction and abuse.

Boko

A militant Islamist group called Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls from a boarding school in the northern town of Chibok, Nigeria on April 14, 2014. This jaw-dropping mass abduction received little attention outside of Africa and the Nigerian Government’s indifference to girl’s plight prompted the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign which has thus far been tweeted more than a million times. As a result the world has taken note and France, China, Canada, and Great Britain have all joined the United States in sending advisors to Nigeria to help recover the girls. The case remains wide open and it is difficult to envision a happy ending, but if it hadn’t been for the Twitter campaign the girls would have either been killed or sold into slavery in obscure anonymity.

Alleged kidnapper Isidro Garcia

Alleged kidnapper Isidro Garcia

Ten years ago a fifteen-year-old girl who had just arrived in the United States from Mexico was stolen from a park near her mother’s apartment in Santa Ana, California. The incident was reported to the police, but the case soon went cold, until this week when the now twenty-five-year-old woman told her story to the Bell Gardens Police. She had been kidnapped, drugged, raped, tortured, conditioned and told that her family would be deported if she went to the authorities. The kidnapper eventually forced her to marry him and two years ago she had his baby. Finding her sister’s Facebook account finally empowered the young victim to break the chains of her psychological captivity. Her abductor, forty-two-year-old Isidro Garcia, has been charged with kidnap for rape, lewd acts with a minor and imprisonment.

 

Less than a decade ago both of these cases could have easily disappeared altogether. Instead, because of Social Media and the Internet, several things have happened. Many countries with no dog in this fight have volunteered to aid in the recovery of more than 200 young kidnap victims, so the morally bankrupt Nigerian government can no longer sweep their plight under the rug. Unlike Nigeria, our government and our people care very much about the rights of the individual. Now, one child, kidnapped more than a decade ago, has an opportunity to put her life back in order knowing that her tormentor will never be able to touch her again.

 

As the Internet and Social Media become more ubiquitous there will be even more opportunities to expose the plight of the unfortunate and rescue the victims of abduction and abuse. This is an exciting time in the war to recover kidnapped children: a very exciting time.