How to Handle a Missing Persons Case

Your loved one didn’t come home. Or maybe he or she didn’t show up at work. Someone you care about is missing.

What do you do? How do you handle a missing persons case?

From experience, I can tell you not to panic, no matter the amount of heartache you’re experiencing. You may feel like crying, screaming, and having a fit, but those emotions won’t help find the missing person. Stay calm. Treat this situation like any emergency – a calm mind can better determine which steps to take and how best to develop a plan of action.

When my sister, Elizabeth Ann Pfeifer, went missing, my mother realized something was wrong because all of Elizabeth’s friends from the various groups she ran with began calling. No one had seen her in a week’s time. My father went to the Katy Police station to file a missing person’s report. This act began the investigation. By that time, however, we were working against the clock.

I think swift action and face-to-face conversations with the police are crucial. Sadly, my parents did the best they could, but this event was so traumatic, it was too hard for them to deal with. I probably made more phone calls to the lead investigator than my parents did, and I also spent time with the police when they came to my parents’ home to look at Elizabeth’s room and her belongings. However, I can tell you that wasn’t enough.

My advice? Instead of calling the police, set up interviews and meetings. Speak with the police face-to-face. I think my sister’s case would have been handled more effectively had I shown up in person rather than calling and checking in every few weeks. Also, demand answers. While investigators can’t tell you everything or information that would compromise the case, you deserve to know how the case is going and if there are new leads or suspects. You also deserve to know if the case’s trail has run cold.

Joseph L. Giacalone, a veteran law enforcement supervisor and cold case commanding officer, offers the following advice.

“First, don’t wait too long to call the police. If you think there is something wrong, go with your instincts. The longer the time from when the person is missing until it is reported the less likelihood that the case will be solved. The police need to establish a timeline.

“[It is helpful] if the family can establish a list of friends, especially boyfriends/girlfriends, phone numbers, credit cards, or any other item that can be used to track the missing person. If the disappearance looks as if it is involuntary, a list of people that the family believes maybe involved [can aid police]. The more information that a family has the faster the investigation can proceed. In addition, it is very important for family members to know what social media the missing [person] uses and if they have a cell phone.

“The biggest mistake that families make is that they wait to long to report their loved one missing. The person disappeared in the past, but always came home and they go by that. So, they wait.”

Again, do not wait if your loved one hasn’t come home or didn’t show up when they were supposed to. Time is of the essence in missing persons cases. Every second that goes by can make or break the final outcome.

Joe also advises families to rein in emotions and use caution when handling the case. “Every case is important to the police. Sometimes anguished family members don’t feel that the police are doing enough and get upset. It is understandable. Staying in contact with the investigator is a good thing. Active family members help push investigations along, however, calling every five minutes is not going to make people move any faster.”

Now that you have the information to aid investigators in a missing persons case, you’re armed and ready to go. However, there are things friends and family members can do to impede a missing person investigation. I asked Joe about the flip side of being too interested, and how family members and friends can get in the way of law enforcement.

Joe says, “Some family members can take it too far and launch themselves into the investigation. Going out and conducting interviews with people that may be suspects is never a good thing. It is difficult, but family members must try to control their emotions and let the initial stages of the investigation be conducted by the police. If they think someone is involved then by all means call the investigator, but never do it yourself.

“Also, the family should be careful of what they say to the media. Do not make accusations or vent your frustration. Sometimes a member of the family gets too involved with the media and starts to enjoy the spotlight taking away attention to the person that is actually missing.

Joe’s advice is great wisdom for those looking for solve a missing persons case. We all want our loved ones to come home, and to be part of our lives. Things do go wrong, unfortunately, and no on is immune to a tragedy. Should you have a missing persons case, remember the following:

  • Don’t let time slip by. The longer the case goes unsolved, the harder it will be to solve.
  • Put up flyers, contact the media, and get the community involved. In my sister’s case, we were asked not to broadcast her disappearance. That was the wrong thing to do! While police were supposedly chasing a phantom brown truck driven by an unknown man, the real killer walked away without consequence.
  • Work with, not against, the police. Do as you are instructed unless you think the case is not getting the attention it deserves. In that case, you can hire a private investigator or talk with officials above the investigators who are handling your loved one’s case.

Joe Giacalone also offers insight into the minds of investigators. While you might think the case isn’t moving along, or that no one cares but you, consider the steps you can take. “The most frustrating part of working with old cases is that the older the case, the more likely the evidence is lost or destroyed – either by accident or by disaster.”

Be proactive, as Giacalone suggests. “Putting up flyers and reward money are ways that help generate tips. Ask the police if the local Crime Stoppers program can put up reward money for information. If Crime Stoppers will put up reward money, then the tip hotline’s phone number should be the only number used on all communications with the public – even the ones the family puts out.

“Also, the family should sign and use the free U.S. Department of Justice’s website: National Missing and Unidentified Persons system or NamUs for short. The family can add the case, upload photos, dental contacts, and other critical information. It is very important to do this and is often not done. I wrote an article on how the public can use the site.”

I want to thank Joe Giacalone for working with me to get this article written and published. Joe volunteered his time for a lengthy interview process, and I really appreciate the information he’s shared. I hope this helps others who have questions about missing persons cases, how they are handled, and what to do if your loved one doesn’t come home.

About Joe Giacalone:

Joseph L. Giacalone is  19 year law enforcement supervisor that has held many prestigious positions but his favorite was that of the commanding officer of a cold case squad. He has a Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice and is an adjunct professor. Joe is the author of the “Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators” published by Looseleaf Law.

You can follow Joe on Twitter: @ColdCaseSquad or @JoeGiacalone. Find Joe on the web at Cold Case Squad.

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