September 22, 2013

Time is of the essence for missing people

Investigators have to weigh a number of factors as they determine the response to a report.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

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Melissa Nelson and Jeremy Nelson recall their brother Christopher Nelson’s life as Jeremy clutches his brother’s remains at the family’s home.

Photos by Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Sheila Nelson, mother of Christopher Nelson, recalls her son’s life and death at the family’s Pease Hill Road residence in Anson.

The protocol police take when someone is reported missing varies based largely on the person's age, McCausland said. The disappearance of missing toddler Ayla Reynolds in December 2011 launched an immediate search the day she was reported missing because she was so young, he said.

In any case, one of the first things police do is fill out a missing person report, notifying police agencies in the state or region that the person is missing, he said. The media could be involved, but that is usually a decision made by the agency taking the report, he said. A description of the person, whether he or she has access to a vehicle, vehicle information and the person's history are recorded, he said.

It is critical that authorities are alerted as soon as a person is missed, said MacDonald.

"We ask ourselves, 'What's the background of this person? What are their habits?' There's an investigation that goes on first," he said.

MacDonald said that searches are as much about investigation as they are about searching on foot. If at the beginning of the search it's known the person has transportation or if he's left a sign of having traveled somewhere by road or in a motor vehicle, it could be a sign that he's not in an area that is searchable by foot, he said.

Frequently, missing people aren't really missing. Particularly healthy adults. "It's not unusual for an adult to go two or three hours or more without communicating with anyone," said McCausland. He said he wasn't familiar with Chris Nelson's story but that in general the disappearance of an adult with no history of medical or mental illness does not elicit the same response as would the disappearance of an elderly person or a child.

For those cases there are two types of alerts used nationally for those age groups: Amber Alert and Silver Alert.

Amber Alert is a broadcast system that notifies law enforcement and the public only in serious child abduction cases.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an Amber Alert is activated only when circumstances meet criteria that includes law enforcement confirming there's been an abduction, the person is 17 or younger and there is sufficient descriptive information about the child, the child's captor or the captor's vehicle.

In Maine, an Amber Alert has been activated once, in the 2009 abduction of Hailey Traynham by her father in Sanford.

The alert is used to get the word out to news media as well as law enforcement, said Suzanne Goucher, president and chief operating officer of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, which worked with law enforcement to launch Maine's Amber Alert program in December 2002.

She said sometimes an Amber Alert is not used if the abduction is by a parent. For example, there was no Amber Alert issued in the August abduction of two Fairfield children by their mother, Bethmarie Retamozzo.

The Waterville Police Department said at the time that no alert was issued because the children were reported more than five hours after they were last seen, but Goucher said there is no specific time element attached to Amber Alerts.

However, she did say that an Amber Alert is meant to quickly notify news media and law enforcement about an abduction and if the message has already spread, there may be no need.

A Silver Alert, which has been used many times in Maine, is used to raise awareness of missing persons who have dementia or other cognitive problems and are often elderly. Depending on whether the person has access to a vehicle, that system can also notify the Maine Department of Transportation to be on alert, McCausland said.

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