Posted 7/14/2005 11:53 PM
Groups spotlight others missing
By Mark Memmott, USA TODAY
When Kelly Jolkowski's 19-year-old son Jason disappeared in 2001, she and her husband "had no idea what to do."
"We basically sat there and waited for the phone to ring" as Omaha police began to investigate, Jolkowski says. "We didn't know there were other resources out there."
She says at least 10 days were lost. Days they could have been distributing fliers, calling the media, holding vigils to attract TV cameras, contacting support groups, collecting information â€” steps that might have led them to Jason, who remains missing. At 19, he was too old for an AMBER Alert, the system first used in Dallas in 1996 and soon after across the nation to quickly publicize a child's disappearance.
What Jolkowski didn't know then, but which she and many other friends and family of the missing have unfortunately learned: There is a small but growing number of national organizations that try to help spread the word when anyone goes missing.
The help and advice such groups give, say Jolkowski and others who are going through the painful experience of missing someone, are invaluable.
Finding strength in numbers
Such groups are especially important, Jolkowski and others say, because the national media don't appear interested in all types of missing persons. Most of the media's attention goes to cases involving white women or white girls, such as 18-year-old Natalee Holloway of Alabama. She disappeared May 30 in Aruba.
Jolkowski, who decided to found one organization herself (Project Jason), says she now believes one of the most important things everyone should do is be prepared.
"If you are loved by someone you need to put together a personal identification kit. If you love someone, you need to put together a personal I.D. kit for them," she says. "People look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them that, but it's true."
There is a free "personal identification kit" at http://www.projectjason.org
. It details the type of information and material to collect. Those include photos, hair samples for DNA and dental records.
The point of such kits: When distraught, loved ones may forget key bits of information that could help identify a missing person and help police when they're publicizing that person's description.
Two of the better known groups that assist families are the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and its sister organization, the National Center for Missing Adults. Both can publicize disappearances and advise families and loved ones on what to do.
"We don't investigate and we're not psychics," says Erin Bruno, one of the case managers at the Missing Adults center. The center can post information about a missing person on its Web site, put together press releases to generate publicity and offer advice to families on other ways to get attention.
John Walsh, host of the Fox network's America's Most Wanted, became a national advocate for missing persons after the 1981 kidnapping and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam. He and his wife, Reve, co-founded the center for Missing & Exploited Children, and he supports the emergence of groups such as the Missing Adults center and Project Jason.
But, Walsh says, "while there may be tons more resources" since his son was killed, "the ranks are still so thin. We put up space shuttles for billions of dollars, but the FBI has tens of thousands of missing persons in its computers who no one is looking for."
Producers, editors and media critics agree that few missing persons cases get the kind of attention from the national media as that of Holloway.
Who gets the headlines?
That coverage, coming after national attention to the murder of Laci Peterson, the cross-country trip of "runaway bride" Jennifer Wilbanks and the rescue of Utah schoolgirl Elizabeth Smart, has also raised questions about the media. One question is whether the national media, especially cable networks, give too much attention to stories about missing young white women as opposed to cases involving minorities and men.
Robert Spellman, 27, of Los Angeles, disappeared April 12. His case has gotten so little attention that the National Center for Missing Adults recently used Spellman to illustrate a press release titled "Missing Men Need Coverage Too."
Thomas Hoeflaak, 56, went missing May 31. He was last seen in Grand Blanc, Mich. A friend, Leilah Ward of Ocala, Fla., is a spokeswoman for his family. "The first week you're in total disbelief," she says. "The second week you go from weepy to angry." His case also has been mostly ignored.
Also still waiting to find out what happened to their loved one are the friends and family of Tamika Huston. The 24-year-old black woman from Spartanburg, S.C., disappeared a year ago. Her case has gotten almost no national media attention.
After USA TODAY wrote about Huston's case June 16, and after America's Most Wanted reported about it in March and again June 25, Spartanburg police got some new leads but no breakthroughs, Lt. Steve Lamb of the department's criminal investigation division said in an e-mail to USA TODAY.
Huston's case is due for another round of media attention later this month, when Dateline NBC is planning to air a report. Dateline correspondent Josh Mankiewicz says "there's really no point in anyone trying to refute it." The national media spent "an inordinate amount of time on stories where the victims are attractive, young, white women."