HOLMBERG: Not all missing persons cases are created equal

Posted at 1:56 PM, Oct 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-09 14:09:06-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Don't feel bad if your don't recognize Joy Schultz's name or her face. She not young - she's 51 - and she's not a photogenic co-ed at a state university. She wasn't busy on social media and there's no surveillance video of her shortly before she disappeared.

Yes, Joy is just another missing and imperiled adult we haven't heard about. Not only is she missing from her home, she's missing from our collective consciousness.

She disappeared near the town of Shenandoah in Page County on September 7. She was last seen with her husband at a yard sale the day before. Her car was in her driveway. Her purse was soon found on Interstate 81. Her cell phone was found this past weekend on state Route 33. Police there now believe someone may have killed her.

Meanwhile, most of us know all about another missing person's case that started six days after Joy's, in nearby Charlottesville.

Vast search crews, even drones, have been combing the area for University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham, 18. Intense media coverage began almost immediately, fueled by street surveillance video that showed her wandering the late night streets.

There's nothing new about some cases catching on in the media and with the public, while others sort of vanish.

"It is kind of a hit or miss," said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. "Sometimes it's about what the public seems to engage with. Sometimes it's what the media are able to engage with. And, of course, it does come down to law enforcement and what resources law enforcement has available to them."

The state police keep a database of missing children and adults that serves as a tool for law enforcement across the country as well as a resource for any citizens who want to help.

There are about 300 children and teens and 40 or so adults in the VSP databank. The vast majority of minors, about 95 percent, are runaways, have left voluntarily or are involved in custodial issues, Geller said.

Adults can also be runaways or people who want to fade from view. All are treated with urgency, she said. AMBER alerts are issued for missing or abducted children.

Geller said the agency has worked hard to generate interest in adult cases, not always with the same success.

"That's a challenge for us in law enforcement," she said.

Case in point, retired Army Sgt. Hattie Brown, who disappeared in Halifax County on May 16, 2009. She is believed to be victim of foul play. For years the state police have "tried to generate a great deal of media publicity to bring it to the forefront," Geller said.

They have had some success, but nothing like the instant media firestorm in Charlottesville or other cases involving young, pretty white women. We can become so caught up in these cases, with every tiny twist being reported, digested, and now, analyzed and discussed on social media by legions of armchair detectives.

Feast or famine.

Sugie Heng of the Richmond area said she knows how it feels to have someone she cares about disappear without anyone noticing.

"It hurts," she said.

Her friend, 41-year-old Elizabeth Ann Thomas (Toman), disappeared under suspicious circumstances from near the airport in May of 2007. Her belongings were left behind and she didn't get her disability check. Her case was in the local news just briefly.

"It's hard to know that the scale, or whatever people are on, she didn't make,' Heng said.

It's really hard to weigh these cases individually. In the Hannah Graham case, for example, once reports surfaced about possible links to other high-profile cases involving young missing women, it became prime national news.

Some parents or siblings are more willing to step into the spotlight and push for attention. Circumstances and social media footprints certainly can draw attention.

But so can photographs showing young, pretty, vibrant women, typically white and not poor. It doesn't really even matter if they were engaging in risky business, which is typically a story-killer for those who don't fit the profile.

No, there's definitely nothing new about this. Here's a column I wrote about this subject for the Richmond Times-Dispatch nine years ago:

Let's just admit that all missing persons are not created equally, that we, as a nation, don't get excited unless you're white, fairly attractive, young, female and grew up in a home without wheels.

Taylor Marie Behl , the now-nationally known 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman, is the latest MWG ( Missing White Girl) whose plight has reached escape velocity in the media.

"It's been crazy," a Richmond police officer said Friday of the intense national interest in the Behl case. "Totally unbelievable."

Cable TV, network and print reporters from across the country are calling or coming here, ravenous for any titillating tidbit to feed the MWG machine that previously spat out endless tickertape detail about Natalee Holloway, Jennifer "Runaway Bride" Wilbanks, Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy.

Anyone who knew Taylor Behl is a hot commodity.

"Hey everybody," one of her apparent childhood friends posted on an Internet journal Wednesday. "I've been talking to reporters about Taylor Behl all day today, and a lot of yesterday. I was on the channel 8 news today, and I'll be on Inside Edition (NBC) tomorrow ..."

That girl's posting drew a electronic request from a Washington Post reporter: "Can i talk to you about taylor behl 's disappearance? please email me at ..."

We could argue endlessly about why this case has spun into a media hurricane when so many others don't even show up on radar. Surely her photogenic and insistent mother, bless her heart, got the whole thing turning. The fact that a cute new student at a respected urban university disappeared mysteriously -- with a cybertwist -- added to the intensity.

Certainly the sharklike feeding schedule of 24-hour cable news helped churn it into a froth.

But does that fully explain why we know so much about Taylor Behl , and absolutely nothing about young women such as Takeisha R. Tyler?

Takeisha, 18, has been officially missing from her home in the 2400 block of Barton Avenue in North Richmond since Aug. 5.

She is one of the six other active missing -persons cases involving young women -- ages 18 to 22 -- in Richmond, a police spokesman said Friday.

There have been roughly 100 missing -persons cases inside the city limits so far this year.

As far as Richmond police are concerned, Takeisha is still missing , although you haven't seen members of a local, state and federal task force climbing up the rickety steps leading to her mom's Barton Avenue apartment.

It's a tough place, this last-known address of Takeisha's. The ground-floor apartments are boarded up.

I found out Friday that Takeisha's mom has seen her daughter recently on an ugly stretch of North Avenue nearby. It's an area ruled by drug dealers and streetwalkers -- a place where you can lose your life, or your soul.

Truth be told, Takeisha is not so much missing as she is lost. "She needs help," her mother said. "You can't tell that child nothing."

Only God knows who is in more danger -- Takeisha or Taylor.

Takeisha's peril is complex, and paralyzingly common, isn't it? Her missing -persons case is clouded by the same kind of poverty and hidden cultural dysfunction that Hurricane Katrina revealed in New Orleans.

Richmond, too, is filled with these kinds of missing and lost souls, the ones we just can't seem to "find" as they drift into housing projects, substandard schools, prisons and cemeteries.

But we see Taylor's Behl 's case much more clearly, don't we? Something terrible has happened to this sweet girl, or she's pulling a Huck Finn.

It's not that simple. The evidence indicates Taylor has her own complex life.

We could see there really isn't that much separating these missing and lost souls -- and do a better job of "finding" them -- if only we cared about them equally.