Cleveland's handling of missing people challenged

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 4:59 PM

The discovery of 11 victims of an alleged serial killer, most of them poor, drug-addicted black women, has prompted calls for Cleveland police to respond faster and devote more resources to missing-persons cases.

Police, however, say they already have a comprehensive system for finding the lost and can't be held accountable for people they don't know are missing. Confounding the current tragedy, only three of the victims had been reported missing.

The case has raised anew the issues of how and how fast police should react when adults are reported missing _ especially departments stretched thin by slashed budgets and stymied by the likelihood that many people go missing voluntarily and have not met foul play.

Encouraged by the U.S. Justice Department in 2005, some states have passed stronger laws requiring police to be more aggressive in searching for missing adults. Just Thursday, authorities in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home to Cleveland, said they are considering creating a countywide missing-persons unit, in response to the serial killer case.

Authorities say Anthony Sowell lured women into his house in a tough Cleveland neighborhood with the promise of getting high, then strangled them and left their bodies inside or buried in the backyard.

Prosecutors have indicated they may seek the death penalty against Sowell, who remains in jail on five preliminary charges of aggravated murder.

Advocates in Cleveland say a missing-person's bureau might encourage people to come forward when someone disappears. They say some disappearances may go unreported out of a community perception that police wouldn't take seriously the disappearance of a black woman, especially a person struggling with poverty and drugs.

"Maybe black women are not the most important thing in this community to them," said Donnie Pastard of the group Black on Black Crime. "Something's wrong with the police attitude."

Cleveland police dispute such allegations and point to their detailed missing person's policy, updated in August, and say they hope to expand it to a countywide system.

Of the three women reported missing, one was reported to police in suburban Warrensville Heights.

Ohio has systems in place for quickly transmitting statewide all reports of missing children and elderly persons considered at risk.

Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association, said that unless a crime is suspected, there's not a lot police can do, especially in a city that has seen dozens of officers laid off in the past few years from budget cuts.

Those cuts eliminated numerous units devoted to street crime, burglaries and community policing, all of which could potentially have helped in the Sowell case, Loomis said.

"I don't know in this world that we live in that we could, at least here in Cleveland ... devote a whole bunch more time to those very general missing-persons reports," Loomis said.

Several states have toughened laws in the last five years requiring police to do more about missing adults, among them Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and New Jersey.

Police sometimes resist such efforts, saying the requirement taxes already strained departments and many adults often disappear by choice.

"Some people go missing, not because they've been abducted, but because they've abandoned family members and don't wish further contact," said Douglas Dortenzio, chief of the Wallingford Police Department and president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

Nationwide, mandates range from compelling departments to take reports immediately to requiring timely DNA testing on family members and any material from the missing, such as hair.

The new laws grew in part from a 2005 Justice Department conference aimed at creating common missing-persons procedures for all states.

Drew Kesse of Bradenton, Fla., ran into police resistance after his daughter Jennifer, 24, disappeared in Orlando three years ago. The responding officer said it was likely she'd just had a fight with her boyfriend.

That didn't sit well with Kesse, who pushed for a 2008 law requiring departments to take missing-persons reports on adults between 18 and 25 and submit to police databases within two hours.

"Everyone is someone's child _ I don't care what age you are," said Kesse, 52.

Jennifer Kesse has never been found and Kesse says he has to assume she's dead.

Advocates for stronger laws are also pushing legislation in several more states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin and South Dakota, according to Kelly Jolkowski, founder of Nebraska-based Project Jason, named for her missing son.

In July, Minnesota began compelling police and sheriffs to start searching right away when adults disappear under suspicious circumstances. Some law enforcement agencies in Minnesota had waited 24 or 48 hours to look into such cases.

The law is named for Brandon Swanson, 19, who disappeared in May 2008 after his car ran off a rural road in western Minnesota. He remains missing.

About 55,000 adults are missing at any one time, with two in three eventually accounted for, according to the Arkansas-based Let's Bring Them Home/National Center for Missing Adults.

In Cleveland, Barbara Carmichael filed a missing-person's report Dec. 2, 2008 on her daughter, 52-year-old Tonia Carmichael, with suburban Warrensville Heights police. She told police her daughter was a crack cocaine addict; her family claims that police didn't pursue her disappearance because of her drug history.

Police conducted follow-up searches on Dec. 4, Dec. 23, Feb. 9 and Feb. 10, including checks at several houses, bars and motels, according to a Warrensville Heights police report. Chief Frank Bova said he's satisfied the agency took Tonia Carmichael's case seriously.

The remains of Tonia Carmichael were the first to be identified, with police saying Nov. 4 that her body was found buried in the backyard with marks indicating strangulation.


On the Net:

Let's Bring Them Home/National Center for Missing Adults:

Project Jason: