If you watch a lot of crime dramas, either on television or on the silver screen, you might have heard a law enforcement character say something to the effect of, “You must wait 24 hours before reporting a person missing.” It surprises many Americans that this is a myth perpetuated by mainstream media to cover narrative plot-holes. In fact, waiting even a few hours can compromise a missing persons investigation, as the first 72 hours are the most important when investigators begin searching for a missing person.
Close your eyes and try to remember what you had for breakfast three days ago. If you have a repetitive routine, this might be easy for you. Unfortunately, when it comes to interviewing witnesses, investigators just aren’t that lucky. Dr. Bryanna Fox recently told ABC news, in an interview regarding the importance of time in any investigation, “The information that law enforcement gets tends to be a little more accurate, and they are able to act on the information and hopefully get that person who is missing quicker.” The passage of time is one of investigators’ greatest obstacles when it comes to missing person cases. Not only does time hinder a witness’s memory, but evidence is also lost and cannot be properly secured. Leads go cold as time is lost, and the trail slips through investigators fingers.
Those who report a person missing will be one of law enforcement’s greatest assets as a person closest to them, but the pool of human resources doesn’t end with their friends and family. As those close to the missing person begin to fill law enforcement in on their routine, investigators take that information and use it to piece together their movements in the hours before they disappeared. They interview members of the public who are affiliated with the person’s routine, such as their neighbors, coworkers, employees of the grocery store they frequent, hair stylists, mechanics, etc. Locating these witnesses as soon as possible is paramount to providing accurate accounts of what they saw, heard, or noticed during this crucial time frame. It’s important investigators retrace the missing person’s steps as soon as possible in order to gather any physical evidence that might lead to their whereabouts. Take a familiar scenario, for instance: A young woman leaving her job late at night is attacked and abducted between the business and her vehicle. The vicinity of this abduction is the initial crime scene. Time (and weather, if outdoors) can erode evidence of a struggle. Scientific methods and investigation procedures become less effective when technicians are unable to observe the crime scene in the same condition at the time of the abduction. Another common issue with the passage of time is securing video footage. Surveillance technology has become so ubiquitous in the United States many investigators, especially those in large municipalities may be able to track a perpetrator’s movements street to street, creating a partial road map to the missing person’s whereabouts. However, depending on the quality of this surveillance equipment, these devices may automatically recycle valuable footage before it can be preserved by investigators, thereby resulting in a dead end.
It’s not uncommon for a person to go missing on their own terms. Perhaps they want a fresh start, or they’re running from law enforcement. Adults are free to disappear, if that’s what they wish, but loved ones should still remain concerned. The first 72 hours of a missing person investigation can be the difference between life and death, as the missing person might be in danger. When law enforcement believe a missing person might not have vanished of their own accord, they classify the person as “missing endangered.” This classification is often reserved for minors under 18, or senior citizens over 65, but definitions vary from state to state. In Indiana, endangered missing persons bulletins are often accompanied by a Silver Alert, which applies to senior citizens and adults who might be imminently harmed. Indiana recently began issuing Silver Alerts when children are reported missing as well to instantly distinguish the circumstances of their disappearance. For instance, a child who is abducted by a custodial parent or family member are often not in immediate danger, qualifying them for an Amber Alert. When there is evidence to the contrary, however, law enforcement in Indiana can issue a Silver Alert to classify the child as endangered missing. Dr. Michelle Jeanis, a criminology professor at the University of Louisiana, describes a horrifying reality that sends fretful parents into a tailspin. In the rare case of a stranger abduction, children are killed only a short time after they’ve been taken. Senior citizens and adults who may have disabilities, mental illnesses, or who are otherwise unable to take care of themselves are also at high risk. Consequently, time is of the essence when it comes to reporting these individuals missing so investigators can jump on their trail to ensure they are reunited with their families safe and sound.
Social media platforms and mainstream media coverage are two of the greatest assets for investigators working on a missing persons case. In tandem with their efforts to follow the trail, the media can publish press releases with the missing person’s picture, identifying information, and the circumstances of their disappearance. As smart devices continue to climb in ubiquity, this means members of the public can have all this crucial info in their hands in seconds. A woman having her hair set in a stylist’s chair may check her social media timeline to see an alert from local law enforcement about a runaway teenager they recognize from the bus stop on their commute. She can alert authorities so investigators can immediately follow that lead. This increases the chances the teen may be found safe and returned to their family. By the same token, members of the public may recognize composite sketches of abductors or other persons of interest.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a person’s disappearance, time is of the essence when it comes to an investigation. When reporting a friend or loved one missing, it’s important you are armed with all possible information for investigators. Deductive reasoning will allow them to shape viable leads to follow in pursuit of their trail. Any knowledge about their personal relationships, routine, and habits will prove more useful than expected. This information allows investigators to make the most of that crucial first 72 hours, increasing the chances the missing person will be found safe and reunited with their loved ones.
Jayme Closs’s harrowing story of survival has captured the attention of the entire nation. The 13-year-old Wisconsin teen went missing almost three months ago on October 15,2018, after a cryptic phone call to 911 triggered a call from police to the Closs home where officers made a grisly discovery. Jayme’s parents, James and Denise Closs, were found shot dead and their 13-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found.
The slaying of her parents and evidence of a home invasion qualified the missing teenager for an Amber Alert by authorities, and search efforts immediately began for Jayme as investigators began to piece together what had happened in those fateful moments. 87 days passed as Jayme’s anxious family and concerned friends waited for updates in her case. Then on January 10, 2019, Jayme showed up on the street in the remote neighborhood of Gordon approximately 70 miles away, asking a passing dog walker for help. The woman grabbed Jayme and took her to a neighbor’s door, where she told the neighbor, “This is Jayme Closs, call 911!” Not too long after her reappearance, police were able to apprehend Jayme’s captor, 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson, who was found wandering the nearby neighborhood—likely searching for Jayme.
Investigators say Jayme’s escape was one of the luckiest breaks they’ve ever seen in a missing person case. Jayme’s case is already being analyzed as atypical, due to the surfacing information that has investigators completely floored. When Jayme reappeared last week and told law enforcement about the details of her abduction and escape, many officials were surprised. Investigators told NBC 26, “Most abductions are committed by perpetrators who live within a couple miles of the victim.” Despite the distance from the Closs home, Barron County Sheriff Christopher Fitzgerald said he does not believe her kidnapper took her across state lines. With over 88 days’ worth of evidence to comb through, investigators will be attempting to track their movements since Jayme’s disappearance.
When asked about this gigantic body of evidence, Fitzgerald told CNN, “…we’re looking for receipts, where the suspect may have been over the last 88 days. Did he take things with her? Did she go with him to the store? Did he buy clothes for her? Did he buy food?” Investigators also told NBC only about 1% of abductions are committed by someone who is not a member of the victim’s family, nor geographically located near the victim. Much of the most pertinent information in any missing persons case is collected within the first 48 hours of the investigation. Captain David Poteat of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department said when it comes to the abduction of children, the window of time is even smaller. Because of the atypicality of her case, investigators are already proffering Jayme’s case will be studied by current and future members of law enforcement for “years to come.”
As they continue to sort through evidence, Fitzgerald said Patterson likely hid her from friends and visitors, offering no further explanation. “All I know is that she was able to get out of that house and get help and the people recognized her as Jayme Closs right away.” What Jayme eventually described to investigators was a crudely constructed makeshift cell. When Patterson was expecting friends or relatives, he forced Jayme to hide under his twin-sized bed in his room. He would stack laundry baskets and plastic totes around the bed with barbells sitting against them so Jayme could not get out. He also left music blaring in his room so Jayme could not hear what was going on throughout the house. One of the people who made a number of visits while Jayme was being held captive in the Gordon cabin where Jayme was held was Patterson’s father, Patrick Patterson. He told Jean Casarez of CNN, “All I care about right now is Jayme’s family. I want to get them a note.”
Investigators have also stated when it comes to questioning Jayme about her traumatic experience, they are taking it one day at a time, “When she wants information, we’ll give it to her; and when she wants to tell us things, we’ll take it from her.”
There were many theories about the circumstances behind Jayme’s disappearance in the weeks right after she went missing. Law enforcement and citizens alike proffered it might have been a home invasion gone terribly wrong, but as of this week, Fitzgerald has stated Jayme was the only target in this crime. Once questioned by police following his arrest, it became clear Patterson had been watching Jayme for a number of weeks before he took her, but was scared off on both prior occasions. Patterson targeted Jayme and took great pains to ensure he would not be found out. He shaved his head to avoid leaving his DNA at the crime scene. Once he abducted Jayme, he took her clothes and destroyed the evidence. The criminal complaint filed by the Barron County District Attorney said Patterson first saw Jayme getting on the bus to school when he was passing by on his way to work. Sections of the complaint are enough to make one’s arm hair stand at attention, “The defendant states when he saw (Jayme) he knew that was the girl he was going to take.” Jayme also told investigators after Patterson placed her in the trunk of his car, she heard police sirens close by not long after Patterson began driving. After Jayme was found alive, the responding officers noted on their way to the Closs home on October 15th, they passed only one vehicle.
The bottom line for investigators is this: If Jayme had not possessed the courage and fortitude to escape her captor, they would never have found her. On January 10th, she managed to push aside the totes and squeeze out of her makeshift cage. Jeanne Nutter was the dog walker she approached on the street, wearing no coat in the cold weather. Nutter took her to the door of her neighbors, Peter and Kristin Kasinskas. Law enforcement now has to decide what happens to the combined reward amount of $50,000—$25K from the FBI, and another $25K from the Jennie-O Turkey Store, where Jayme’s parents worked. Nutter helped Jayme to safety, and the Kasinskas called 911 to get her help, but they are saying they don’t want the reward. Peter Kasinskas was quoted in an interview by the Associated Press earlier this week saying the reward money should go to Jayme, “She got herself out.”
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) contains over 89,000 active missing persons cases (as of May 2018). That’s over 89,000 families who are left with a gaping hole in their lives and in their households—missing fathers who taught their children to ride bikes and were never too busy to help out with a science project—mothers who made PB&J sandwiches just right, and never forgot to leave the hall light on. Most notably, many families are left without half of their household income when a parent or guardian goes missing. The missing person may have set up a life insurance policy to ensure their families would be cared for in the event of their death, but stymied law enforcement have recovered no remains, so the insurance company refuses to pay out. The family is left without any soil to begin filling the hole where the missing loved one once stood.
The emotional roller coaster that ensues when a loved one goes missing is fraught with fear, confusion, and desperation for answers. Every waking moment, you wring your hands, hoping the loved one is safe and simply unable to communicate for rational reasons. Days go by—you cooperate with investigators and give them all the available information you have on the missing person. Weeks pass, but life goes on, even amidst a tragedy. When you consider the financial ramifications of picking up after a partner or spouse vanishes, the numbers are discouraging. A 2012 report by Legal Momentum determined the median income for two-parent families was $89,455. The median income for a single mother household was $25,493, while a single father’s income is $36,471. Those single parent incomes account for 31% and 40% of the two-parent income, respectively. How is a single parent suddenly supposed to take care of their family when nearly half their household income evaporates following the disappearance of their partner or spouse?
In the days or weeks following the death of a parent or loved one, the beneficiary of their life insurance policy will contact the company and submit a death certificate to prove the owner of the policy is deceased. In the case of a missing person, there is no death certificate without first coordinating what is called a “presumption of death.” The Indian Evidence Act, Section 108 states presumptions of death can only be made when a person has been missing for at least seven years from the date of the initial missing persons report. This is known as the First Information Report (FIR). After the mandatory period has passed, the beneficiary may receive the claim.
In addition to the too-familiar scenarios normally surrounding missing persons—people who run away, people who are abducted, people who fall off of cruise ships or disappear from trails in national parks, etc.—other events that often fall under this legislation are missing persons who vanish during the calamity of natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. After the flood that devastated Uttarakhand in 2013, P Chidabaram, the Finance Minister of India, asked the country’s largest life insurance provider, Life Insurance Corporation of India, to waive the traditional seven year period, having the company sign indemnity bonds so claims could be closed swiftly. The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season was particularly devastating, with two of the total eight hurricanes rated a category three or above. Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle like tissue paper, blowing Mexico Beach completely off the map. Initially, 285 people were unaccounted for in the town’s population, but was later reduced to 46 as residents were either located post-evacuation, or rescued from the wreckage. The California Camp Fire has killed 60 people to date—the deadliest in history—has displaced thousands of families attempting to outrun the flames, with many unable to contact their loved ones and let them know they’re safe. On November 14, 2018, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released a list of 103 people who have been reported missing since the blaze began. “If your name is on the list, it means that someone is looking for you,” Sheriff Kory Honea said. “Let us know that you’re okay, so that we can stop our search for you and start looking for someone else.” That list has now swelled to 300 names and is expected to continue climbing.
Working closely with law enforcement is a major tenant of a successful claim on a missing persons’ life insurance policy, particularly on the presumption of death. The Indian Evidence Act only requires a beneficiary to wait seven years from the date of the FIR before filing the claim, but depending on where you live in the United States, law enforcement can use evidence to prove a missing persons’ death, even when a body cannot be found—for example, the case of Mike Williams, a man who went missing on a duck-hunting trip in Florida in 2000. Police found his boat floating abandoned on Lake Seminole, which prompted them to drag the lake in search of his remains. When no trace was found, authorities formed the theory Mr. Williams had fallen off the boat and was subsequently eaten by alligators. This theory of the accident explained why no body was ever recovered, allowing his widow to obtain a death certificate and collect on his $1 million-dollar insurance policy. Seventeen years after her husband was reported missing, Denise Williams was indicted on murder charges after her second husband (and Mike’s best friend), Brian Winchester confessed to killing Mike in conspiracy with his wife for the insurance money.
Law enforcement’s theory about Mike Williams disappearance created a loophole you could drive a truck through, but not all beneficiaries of life insurance policies can depend on this loophole. In some states, with the help of legal representation, beneficiaries of the missing insured can begin legal proceedings that would accelerate the issuance of a death certificate, but this comes with a much higher burden of proof, and demands a pool of evidence that would stand up to the most thorough, independent investigation procedures. In the event such evidence of death cannot be found, there is a procedure in place for those who must wait seven years following the filing of a FIR. After seven years, the beneficiary of the insured, or the heir of the insured, must submit the following documents to the insurance company:
Claimant’s statement form signed by the nominee of the legal heir
Copy of the FIR and the missing person’s report filed with the police
Original policy contract documents or indemnity bond
Copy of death certificate, or a court order presuming the person is dead after the lapse of seven years
When a loved one goes missing, a family is left in a stasis, paralyzed by their fear and ‘what-if’ games while the world selfishly continues to spin. Eventually, families need to pick up the pieces, a process eased by the financial support set up for them by the missing insured, but only if they can file a claim. If you have recently set up a life insurance policy for your family, educate them on the process of filing a claim should you go missing without a trace.