A behind-the-scenes look at missing persons investigations
CHICAGO - The hit Fox show "Alert: Missing Persons Unit" features two Philadelphia police officers searching for their missing son while helping other families find a loved one who has also disappeared.
In a FOX 32 special report, Anita Padilla looks at how these investigators do their jobs and all the challenges they face in real life.
"Probably get a call at least every day. Somebody’s calling to report a juvenile, runaway or adult that’s missing," said Sgt. Lana LeMons, a detective with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
LeMons has been with the Lake County Sheriff's Department for 14 years working criminal investigations, including missing person cases.
"We often talk about the CSI affect in law enforcement, where you watch these awesome shows on TV and they manage to have all these awesome databases where they are moving screens and tracking people," LeMons said.
She says that’s not how it is in the real world. While they do have some fancy tools to track a missing person, LeMons says technology is not the most important one.
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"It’s definitely boots on the ground. Going door to door, talking to people, getting information, developing leads," LeMons said.
She says "boots on the ground" played a key role in unraveling one of the toughest cases she's had.
"A case we had maybe a year and a half ago where a young lady ended up in our waterway and turned out she was the victim of a homicide," LeMons said "And there was actually no one looking for her. It made it challenging at first until we could identify who she was."
LeMons and other investigators from the Lake County Sheriff’s Department knocked on doors, made phone calls and got as much media attention as possible so they could identify the young woman, who was also seven months pregnant.
"If it weren't for the alert person that worked where she was living who called us and let us know, we possibly wouldn't even know who she is right now," said Lt. Chris Covelli, from the Lake County Sheriff’s office.
While Yarianna Wheeler's body was found floating in Lake Michigan near the shores of Waukegan, it was Cook County prosecutors who charged her boyfriend, Robert Drummond, with the murder of the Chicago woman and her unborn baby.
When a woman or juvenile goes missing, LeMons says her biggest concern is if they've become a victim of human trafficking.
"In our country, what people don’t realize, is there is like 50,000 women and children being trafficked right here in the United States," LeMons said.
How long it takes to find a missing person can vary from hours to days to years.
"We have a missing boater that’s been missing for a few years. We have a missing local defense attorney. He’s been gone a couple of years," LeMons said.
"These cases are very difficult. There’s a reason why they weren’t solved the first time around," said Commander Jason Moran of the Cook County Sheriff's office.
Moran oversees the Cook County Sheriff Department's Missing Persons Project. It was officially launched about two years ago with a focus on women who have been missing for at least three years.
FOX 32 went along as they searched a local forest preserve for clues in one case.
While missing person cases can be hard to crack, Moran says in most cases the person either returns or is located. He also says these cases have one advantage others don’t when it comes to time.
"In cold cases, there’s sometimes a different relationship. The passage of time sometimes helps. Relationships change. Technologies change," Moran said.
Investigators were hoping that would be the case last month when they canvassed an intersection in Richton Park.
Tracie Bell, a secretary at the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, was last seen there five years ago.
"The goal was to renew interest in the case, get some new leads for the case and hopefully jog some memories," said Sgt. William Jackson of the Cook County Sheriff's office.
Sheriff Tom Dart says his team are experts in this area because of all the work his department has done on trying to identify eight deceased young men from the John Wayne Gacy case.
"It really opened up, particularly my eyes, to the fact that this whole universe of missing persons is not some anomaly from the 1960s." Dart said.
These days, when an adult or child goes missing, it can be for a number of reasons. Sometimes it has to do with mental health or substance abuse issues. Sometimes, they've become a victim of human trafficking.
And other times, it’s simply this.
"Do we have a person or two who left their home and just doesn’t want to be with their spouse anymore? Absolutely," LeMons said.
"I’ve been here approximately eight months and we’ve found three of them like that already," said Fulvio Compagnone, an investigator with the Cook County Sheriff’s office.
"They wanted to start a new life. And they went in different states. In different countries we found them. Changed their names. Changed their identities."
That’s not against the law, if you are an adult of sound mind.
In a case like that, Compagnone says they inform family members you have been found safe but do not disclose where unless the person wants them to do so.
"Everybody has different things going on in their lives. So at some point it got so bad they just wanted to fall off the grid," Compagnone said.
One more note -- for the cases where they are trying to identify an unknown body, investigators say they need more families to be willing to give them a DNA sample to make comparisons.
Investigators say your DNA will only be used to search against other unidentified bodies that have been found and not entered into any type of criminal database.
Investigators also said that missing person investigations are never closed.
If someone you know is missing or have information about a particular case, please contact police.