Most missing persons cases stay low-profile
Last year, 1,900 people were reported missing to Pittsburgh police
Monday, May 16, 2005
Nearly 50 sympathy cards sit atop the wooden furniture in the living room of Ellen Kenney's home in Jefferson Hills.
When the cards and letters began to pour in more than three months ago, the sight of the pastel-colored envelopes in the mailbox made her cry.
Slowly though, Kenney is gathering strength from the messages of kindness -- "Thinking about you with my heart," and "I'm praying for you" -- sent by family, friends and acquaintances of her 23-year-old son, Patrick, who disappeared Feb. 1.
Patrick, who was laid off from his pipe-fitting job, told his mom he had to "take care of something" before leaving home about 6:45 p.m. He asked her to make a salad and baked potato to go along with the steak she was preparing for him. An indication, Ellen Kenney says, that her son Patrick was planning to return home. His white Cadillac Escalade was found abandoned on a Greenfield street two weeks later.
"It's heartbreaking," Ellen Kenney said. "We just want him home. Somebody out there has to know what happened to Pat."
Last year, about 1,900 people were reported missing to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Many of those cases were teenage runaways or children taken in custody disputes. Many cases can be solved within hours, when a person reported missing reappears. But the remainder, adults who seemingly disappear, can often elude detection.
Patrick Kenney's disappearance stands in contrast to two recent high-profile cases that generated national media attention: the still unsolved disappearance of Centre County District Attorney Raymond F. Gricar, or that of Jennifer Wilbanks, the missing Georgia woman who later turned up in New Mexico.
Gricar, was last seen leaving his Bellefonte home on April 15. His red and white Mini Cooper was found the next day about 45 miles away in the parking lot of an antiques market he was known to frequent in Lewisburg. Two witnesses reported seeing him after he'd been reported missing, but investigators have been unable to locate him. And they say there has been no activity on any of Gricar's credit cards or bank accounts.
And for a few days last month, the family of the 32-year-old Wilbanks, dubbed by the media as the "Runaway Bride," appealed tearfully to the public for help in locating the Duluth, Ga., woman who was set to be married in a lavish wedding just days before she disappeared while jogging.
Wilbanks was found alive in New Mexico and initially told authorities she was kidnapped but later admitted she left town on a bus because of anxiety over her wedding.
Authorities are considering filing charges against Wilbanks. Many in her community who searched hours for her, expressed outrage at Wilbanks' actions. Her disappearance cost local police more than $40,000 in stepped-up manpower.
For the thousands of family and friends of adults who are reported missing each year, the pain of simply not knowing what happened to their loved ones can prove overwhelmingly painful. For police, distinguishing cases of foul play from those adults who simply do not want to be found can prove complicated.
"First we try to establish, did the person walk away and try not to be found?" said Crysten Zett, one of two detectives at the city police's missing persons division. "If you're an adult and you decide that you're going to go to Las Vegas for the weekend and you don't want to tell anyone, you're allowed."
Zett said there is no waiting period for officers to begin investigating the disappearances of missing adults.
"We investigate everything," she said.
Investigations begin with extensive interviews with family and friends to determine a person's habits and possible medical conditions, and are followed by cell phone and bank record checks, which require a court-obtained search warrant, Zett said. But laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, imposes strict rules on doctors regarding the release of medical records.
Determinations about whether to involve the state police or the FBI are made on a case by case basis, Zett said.
Few missing adults receive media attention like the one involving Wilbanks, a fact that frustrates many families.
Erin Bruno, a case manager at the National Center for Missing Adults, a nonprofit organization based in Phoenix that provides support and guidance to the families of missing people, said she creates missing persons fliers and explains law enforcement procedures to families.
"We're kind of like an intermediary, a middle man between law enforcement and those families," Bruno said. "A lot of time, law enforcement has so many things going on, so we're able to answer those questions for the families." Joseph S. Shimkus contacted the organization in November, desperate for a revival of his mother's case.
It has been 32 years since Julia Shimkus left her Esplen home on a December evening on her way to her job as a cook at the Rockwood Lounge in the McKees Rocks Shopping Plaza.
But Joseph is still searching.
Through the years, he's written letters to the television show, "Unsolved Mysteries," lobbying to have her story featured on the show, and he's traveled to Atlanta, where he surmised his mother may have traveled with a male companion, knocking on doors and talking to local police.
In 1995, the owners of the home where Julia Shimkus lived when she disappeared, found bone fragments in a crawl space beneath the kitchen. The family was hopeful they would finally have some closure.
But the coroner ruled they were animal bones.
"It's been terrible," Shimkus, 63, of Valencia, said. "I want closure on the darn thing. I take that pic with me a lot of places when I'm down Florida or vacationing in Canada, I'm always looking. When I'm on a cruise. I'm always looking."
The investigation into the disappearance of Patrick Kenney is being handled by the Allegheny County Police, which assists the county's smaller departments with a handful of cases each year. Since his disappearance, there has been no activity on Patrick's bank account and his Escalade now sits in his parents' garage.
Ellen Kenney and her husband, James, scoured the neighborhood where Patrick's truck was found abandoned, knocking on doors, searching a wooded area, and sitting in a parked car for hours to see if anyone attempted to return to the Escalade. They came up empty handed.
The police, Ellen Kenney says, had already covered the ground, but they couldn't help themselves from searching for their son.