September 22, 2017
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How a single database of missing person cases could keep searches alive

By Christopher Burns, BDN Staff
George Danby | BDN | BDN
George Danby | BDN | BDN

Twenty-seven years ago, Virginia Douglas and her husband, Frank Douglas, pulled into the Reny’s parking lot in Belfast so she could use the store’s restroom. Virginia Douglas reportedly walked into the store and was never seen again.

The couple had come to Maine on a spur-of-the-moment trip from their home in Lexington, Massachusetts. No one the local police interviewed at the store recalled seeing her. They even doubted she had ever set foot in Belfast, according to news reports at the time.

Police suspected Douglas may have been the victim of foul play, but they could never confirm those suspicions.

Belfast police Chief Michael J. McFadden was living in the city when she disappeared, though he wasn’t working for the police department at the time. He said he can’t recall any other Belfast cases, either before or after Douglas’ appearance, in which someone vanished.

“People just don’t go missing in Belfast,” he said.

Douglas went missing all those years ago, but her name isn’t found on any official database for missing persons in Maine. And she isn’t the only person to be absent from them, either. The databases that are available often contain inconsistent information about who is missing in Maine. Without accurate information about these people, there’s a greater risk they may be forgotten and their cases stay unsolved.

‘Sometimes you don’t find someone’

For Lt. Brian McDonough of the Maine State Police’s Major Crimes Unit, time is the critical factor in any missing person case because witnesses’ memory, evidence and crime scenes deteriorate as the clock ticks away. The state police are particularly concerned about this, as their work on missing persons focuses on those who may have fallen victim to foul play.

The majority of cases are resolved quickly, according to Bangor police Sgt. Dave Bushey.

Bushey, who leads the department’s Criminal Investigation Division, said missing persons are a high priority for investigators. He reviews each case when it comes in and assigns one of his detectives right away. As a result, they “clear them on a regular basis.”

Those cases don’t always end happily. Cecil Worster of Bangor went missing from his home near the Hampden town line on Nov. 21, 2013, and police searches were unsuccessful. Five months later, he was recovered from the Penobscot River in Stockton Springs.

But then, “sometimes you don’t find someone,” McDonough said.

The numbers

What’s difficult is getting a handle on how many of these cases have gone cold in Maine. The Maine State Police list 16 names of missing persons on its website, with another two people who are believed to be missing listed as unsolved homicides. Not included are any missing person cases from local and county police departments.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, has 27 names on its list of missing persons in Maine. Unofficial lists on the Doe Network and The Charley Project websites, which are maintained by volunteers, have 18 and 25 names, respectively.

But the actual number could be higher because of inconsistent reporting over the years. Each list goes back only as far as 1971, and some names will appear on one list but not another.

Douglas, who went missing back in 1988, isn’t listed with the state police or NamUs. But her name appears on the Doe Network’s and The Charley Project’s databases.

According to Bushey, four people went missing in Bangor from 1991 to 2010 who still have not been found. Their names — Roderick Hotham, Sharon Beaudoin, Richard Morse and William Hilderbrand — don’t appear on any of the above lists.

Aside from the state police, no Maine police department posts information about unsolved missing person cases.

Bushey said he wasn’t sure why the Bangor Police Department didn’t have that information on its website.

“It’s not a bad idea,” he said. “We’re not opposed to it.”

While Maine may not have a publicly accessible database in which local police departments can record unsolved missing person cases, NamUs can fill that role for law enforcement, according to J. Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications at NamUs, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We actually already [provide a central database] within NamUs. Multiple agencies can have access to specific cases, [which is useful when] missing persons are multijurisdictional or involve local, county and state investigative agencies,” Matthews said. “There also is no need for states to track cases independently in fragmented databases.”

Yet, NamUs is underused, he said.

Law enforcement aren’t required to enter case information into NamUs, which is why some missing persons, such as Douglas, don’t appear on it. Anyone — family or police — can submit a missing person case to NamUs, and each case is verified with the investigative agency before entering it into the database.

Matthews noted Congress is considering a bill, Billy’s Law, that would merge information from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center with NamUs and make information about more missing person cases publicly accessible. It also would provide grants to state and local law enforcement to increase use of and promote reporting to NamUs. This is the fourth time Congress has considered this bill.

When the public has access to information about missing person cases, they can provide useful tips and leads to police departments, Matthews said.

But when that information is inaccessible, a case is less likely to attract attention once it is no longer in the headlines.

Trail gone cold

Even when the trail has long gone cold, police detectives never close the book on a missing person until that key piece of evidence is found.

McDonough of the Maine State Police said each missing person case is assigned to a major crimes unit detective, with some detectives taking on three or more cases that can date back more than 40 years.

They get acquainted with the case by talking with previous investigators and review evidence to see whether they can mount a new investigation, he said.

The detectives also contact family members to let them know someone is working the case and collect any other information about the case that they can.

Unlike more populous states, such as New Jersey, Maine has no state police unit dedicated exclusively to leading missing person investigations. So detectives assigned to these cases may not be able to devote much time as they investigate homicides and other crimes.

These cases don’t fall into a “black hole,” McDonough said. But “eventually things go cold,” he said. “You can only go over the case so many times.”

Bushey from the Bangor Police Department said his agency has been fortunate in that investigators have been able to locate most people who have gone missing in the Queen City. The cases that are still unresolved, much like the fresh ones that come across his desk, remain a priority.

“We take all [missing persons] seriously. They are assigned to a detective, and if anyone has information related to a case, they should contact us and we’ll put them in touch with that detective,” Bushey said. “We don’t forget about them.”


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