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

ANSON - The day Sheila Nelson's son Chris disappeared didn't start out any different from most days.

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

He left with his dog Sully about 4 p.m. for a walk along the roads by their home. He asked his mother for a water bottle and filled it at the sink.

"'Mom, I'm going out for a walk,' he said. Those were the last words he said to me," said Nelson. Darkness approached and Chris, 41, wasn't home from his walk, which usually lasted about an hour.

"If he would have been in his car I wouldn't have worried. I would have thought he was spending the night somewhere, but he wasn't. He just went out for a walk," said Nelson. She and her husband were looking for him on the road he usually took when it began to rain. They used flashlights, but the rain was getting worse and the visibility was low.

So they waited on the porch swing of their home, hoping they would see their son walk up the driveway.

The day Nelson disappeared was the same one that 86-year-old Arthur Wakeman of Benton disappeared from his home, too. About 30 miles away on Sept. 11, Wakeman's disappearance launched a two-day 65 person search. He was found alive two days later, lying in a depression near a snowmobile trail about a mile from his home.

Meanwhile, Nelson's body was found by his mother and sister the morning after he disappeared. Their family wonders why more people didn't search for him and whether if they had, if it could have made a difference.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people reported missing last year, most were found. According to the National Criminal Information Center, 661,593 people were reported missing in the United States in 2012. All but 2,079 have been found.

The number of missing people in Maine varies from day to day, according to Todd Matthews of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known to most as NamUS. People are reported missing, then many are found quickly. For instance, on July 31, NamUS listed 73 people reported missing in Maine. The organization's database uses some information not available to the public, so a complete list for last week wasn't violable.

Matthews said many people choose to disconnect from life -- and men seem to do it more frequently than women. "It is legal," he added.

The Maine Department of Public Safety does not keep track of the number of missing people reported in Maine each year, according to spokesman Steve McCausland.

McCausland echoed Matthews.

"It is no crime to disappear in this state, so police have to review a number of circumstances if someone is missing," he said. "Many times an individual doesn't report in to family members or goes off for two or three days. A lot of factors come into play to determine how intensive a search for a missing person is."

INVESTIGATION IS KEY

Every report of a missing person begins with an investigation.

The circumstances under which authorities search for and find missing people are as varied as the people that vanish. Because of practical reasons like the size of the state and the limited information that is available in some cases, not every report of a missing person automatically launches an extensive search and rescue party. However, authorities do have certain procedures they follow and systems of raising awareness among the public.

"Every scenario is a little different. Sometimes there is historical data that can help us pinpoint how far the person may have gone and what their behavior is like that can help us locate them. It's not an exact science but history has a tendency to repeat itself," said Cpl. John MacDonald, spokesman for the Maine Warden Service. "We have policies and procedures in place and protocol."

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.

Sometimes a missing person may disappear on purpose or run away, said MacDonald of the warden service. In March, 12-year-old Micah Thomas, a Hall-Dale Middle School student, never arrived home after he was dropped off by the school bus. Police and the boy's family hasn't commented on how or why the boy disappeared, but his grandfather said at the time that an incident on the school bus may have spurred Thomas to avoid going home when he got off.

"He decided to take a little walk," said Rob Morris, Thomas' grandfather. "It wasn't a great decision, but he seemed to make one or two good decisions after that."

LOOKING FOR CLUES

Depending on the background of the person and what clues there are about their disappearance, a physical search may take shape. For example, if the missing person is elderly and has dementia, searchers might ask if the person enjoys walking. Searchers look for medical information and records of past thoughts, such as if the person is suicidal, or has a history of mental illness.

"Based on searches we've done in the past we can usually draw some conclusions as to where they are and what a likely behavior might be for that person," said MacDonald. Interviews and investigation help to find them sooner, he said.

Sometimes physical evidence can lead to recovery, as in the case of 17-year-old Nicholas Joy, who disappeared off the backside of Sugarloaf Mountain while skiing last winter. His footprints in the snow led Joseph Paul, a 44-year-old firefighter trained in search and rescue, to find Joy in the woods.

Other times, individual circumstances dictate the parameters of the search, said McCausland. One of the first things needed for a search is a sense of the geographic area where a person might be.

"In many cases there is not a search because there is no area in the report. There needs to be specific information on an area, and many times there isn't -- Maine is a big state. There needs to be additional information about where to look," he said.

MacDonald said the warden service averages 450 search and rescue calls per year. The service is generally not the first to be notified of a missing person, but is called in to make sure that the person is not lost or missing in the woods or wilderness, he said.

'HARD TO SIT AND WAIT'

A search usually begins at a point last seen, the place the person was last spotted, if there is one. In August the disappearance of Vaughn Giggey III, 40, of Skowhegan, from his Main Street apartment provided a starting place to search for him.

Skowhegan police and family members searched for Giggey from the time he was last seen on a Friday night, when he left to walk to his mother's house about two miles away, until game wardens and state police joined the search the following Monday. His body was found that Tuesday.

There is no formula for how many searchers are sent out, but as time goes on, the search becomes more intense and more people are involved, said MacDonald. If a young child is missing, the outpouring from the community is usually greater than normal, said MacDonald, which means authorities would have to manage volunteers who want to help.

One of the most well-known searches missions in Maine was the search for 12-year-old Donn Fendler, who became separated from his family while hiking Mount Katahdin in 1939. Fendler's disappearance launched a hunt that became front page news around the country and involved hundreds of volunteers. He was found alive nine days later by the owner of a camp, who heard him moaning and crying in underbrush along the Penobscot River, 35 miles from where he was last seen.

Terrain, temperature and environment must also be taken into consideration.

On the rainy day that Wakeman and Nelson disappeared, heavy rain and thunderstorms complicated the search.

Wardens searching for Wakeman noted that any trace of footprints or other evidence would have been washed away or lost in the mud while more than two inches of rain fell in the area.

Nelson's family, who searched for their brother and son with flashlights, believe they may have missed him because of the low visibility and fog that was setting in.

In the case of missing Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay, MacDonald said the terrain made the search among the most difficult they've done and meant that only qualified and trained searchers were used for a majority of the search.

"We have to have highly skilled and trained people searching, because if we don't we may end up searching and rescuing other people during the search already going on," he said.

When three snowmobilers disappeared into the frigid waters of Rangeley Lake in late December, the search to recover their bodies was prolonged months because of extreme wind, cold and changing lake conditions that included thin ice and open water. The bodies of the men, Glenn Henderson, Kenneth Henderson and John Spencer Jr., were recovered from the lake in mid-May, months after they were lost. John Spencer Sr., father of John Spencer Jr., said at the time that the time in between was agonizing for family members of the missing men.

"For parents and loved ones, it is hard to just sit here and wait. Words can't even begin to describe it," he said.

Decisions to scale back or stop searching for someone are made with the families based on the likelihood of finding the person, said MacDonald.

"When the likelihood that all reasonable efforts have been exhausted, that may be the time we stop searching," said MacDonald. He said wardens are still searching for Largay, who disappeared in July.

MacDonald said that 95 percent of people are usually found within 12 to 24 hours of when they are reported missing. The search for Wakeman took place within what is a typical time frame for a search, but authorities had extra concern because of his age, he said.

ANY TIME TOO LONG

Dale Lancaster, deputy chief of the Somerset County Sheriff's Department, said that on September 11, his department received a call around 9:45 p.m. from Sheila Nelson saying her son had taken his dog for a walk and hadn't returned. He said the department filled out a missing person report and that the two deputies that responded searched the area but couldn't find Nelson.

Lancaster said police have filled out a preliminary report saying there was nothing suspicious about the death. The cause appears to be a medical issue, he said.

Lancaster said there is no time parameter for a missing person case. It is imperative they are reported right away so deputies can fill out a missing person report, notifying all agents in the agency to be on the lookout for the person.

He said the department probably would have started a search for Nelson, nicknamed Shemp by his family, the morning after he was reported missing. In any case, he said it is necessary for authorities to look at the state of the person and the many unknowns. Had Nelson been a child they probably would have started searching immediately, said Lancaster.

"There was nothing that would indicate this person had mental issues, and it's not illegal for an adult to not come home at night," he said. A comprehensive search would have begun in the morning, less than 12 hours after Nelson was reported missing, said Lancaster.

For Sheila Nelson though, any amount of time was too long to wait for searchers. Nelson stayed up all night on September 11. She watched the sunrise with her daughter and as soon as it was daylight they resumed their search, eventually finding Sully, her son's dog, who had his baseball hat in his mouth. Not far away they found Chris Nelson's body.

Police believe Nelson died of a medical issue, but won't know for sure until the test results from the autopsy are returned.

Nelson said that for the rest of her life she will wonder if a search could have been launched earlier that may have found her son alive and could have brought him medical care.

"It may not have been forever, but it seemed to be a long time by the time anyone got here," she said.

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

rohm@mainetoday.com

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)