Soulful searching | IndyStar.com
April 9, 2007
New Indiana missing-persons group is easing families' anguish with care and compassion
By Tim Evans
Darlene Pitts pauses every day to look at a small framed picture of her younger sister, then says a short prayer.
Nearly 14 years after Lola Katherine Fry disappeared, Pitts still hangs on to hope that Fry -- or her body -- will be found some day.
"If you give up hope," Pitts said, "the only thing left is despair."
Now, a new group -- and legislation that could put Indiana at the forefront of efforts to improve searches for adults -- may give families more help finding the nearly 1,300 missing Hoosiers.
The newly formed "IN Hope, Indiana Missing" has brought comfort and compassion to families in several recent missing-person cases. And though the end results are more often cause for sorrow than joy, the group's efforts can bring much-needed closure.
"When an adult goes missing, people don't know what to do or where to turn, other than the police, and that isn't always a positive experience," said Patti Bishop, Delphi, founder of IN Hope.
"Our goal is to help families going through this horrible experience so they know what they need to do, what their rights are and what to expect. We also want to supply manpower, expertise and technology to help law enforcement agencies with searches."
More help faster
Bishop was inspired to reach out to others after struggling -- with little help -- to find out what happened to her step-daughter, Karen Jo Smith, who disappeared from Indianapolis in December 2000.
"The whole experience can just be devastating, from the concern and pain of losing someone you love to the frustrations of dealing with the authorities," she said.
Many law enforcement agencies don't make missing-adult cases a high priority, unless there is clear evidence the disappearance involved a crime. Unlike a child, an adult might simply have left and not want to be found. Also, without a crime scene, clues are often scarce.
Bishop is optimistic that families of missing adults will face fewer roadblocks and heartaches because of her group and new legislation, House Bill 1306, which is awaiting the governor's signature.
"Molly's Law" is named for missing Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis student Molly Dattilo, whose family also is involved with IN Hope. It requires law enforcement agencies to get involved sooner and follow a standard protocol when an adult goes missing.
The law also requires coroners to take additional steps to identify John and Jane Does and to preserve DNA for identification.
Indiana will be among a handful of states to adopt laws designed to make information on missing adults more accessible and widespread, said Kelly Bennett, a case manager with the National Center for Missing Adults. "Traditionally, there hasn't been nearly as much interest and support for missing adults as for missing children, but that is starting to slowly change," she said.
"In some places, it can be hard to even get police to make a report. A lot of times, there is that presumption: 'They are adults, and they can take care of themselves.' There is more to most missing-adult cases than someone just walking away voluntarily."
In Indiana, there were 1,279 missing adults in the National Crime Information Center database as of Jan. 31. Nationwide, about 51,000 adults are missing, with some cases dating back 20 years.
The NCIC listings for Indiana also include 22 men and women whom coroners have not been able to identify.
Bennett said no statistics are available on how many missing adults are found -- either dead or alive.
Planes, boats, ATVs
Bennett said groups such as IN Hope -- which Bishop modeled after similar organizations in Texas and other states -- can help families and the police.
Maj. Luckie Carey of the Carmel Police Department, who worked with IN Hope on searches that found two people in Hamilton County this year, agrees.
One volunteer provided digital imaging equipment used in an aerial search that found Charles Rickey's body. He had disappeared after watching the Super Bowl at a Northeastside pub.
IN Hope members also helped with a ground search for Carmel resident Valerie Lynn Vickery-West, who disappeared Feb. 19. Her body was found March 11 in woods near her home.
Bishop and others involved with IN Hope also helped search for missing Purdue University student Wade Steffey, whose body was found March 19 in a dormitory utility room, more than two months after he was fatally shocked there by an electrical transformer.
Randy Norfleet, 48, Lafayette, hooked up with IN Hope through the Steffey case.
Unlike many other members, though, Norfleet has no personal tie to a missing person.
"Once you get involved in this -- when you see what these cases do to the families -- you realize it's just the right thing to do," he said. "This is one of the most meaningful things I've ever done in my life."
One of the biggest assets IN Hope has to offer is specialized equipment such as digital cameras and remote-control planes, which can be used to make detailed aerial photos of search areas. Other members have a boat equipped with sonar, specially trained dogs and all-terrain vehicles that they make available for law enforcement and family searches.
Group members also provide emotional support from the unique perspective that can come only from personal experience. Bishop and Pitts have been trained through the National Center for Missing Adults in providing support to other families.
Pitts is resigned to the fact that her sister is probably dead; the former exotic dancer who was trying to turn her life around likely was a victim of foul play. As she pushes for closure by trying to find her sister's remains, Pitts said, she finds solace in reaching out to families of other missing Hoosiers.
"Helping families who are going through a lot of the same things we went through years ago and seeing their hope," she said, "that's what creates hope for me now."