http://goerie.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101222/NEWS02/312229957/0/pizzabomberErie area police investigate hundreds of missing persons cases
Published: December 22. 2010 1:16AM
By MIKE MACIAG
When Janeane Shanahan stopped receiving phone calls from her son in May 2002, she knew right away there was a problem.
The Celoron, N.Y., woman and her family talked to Damien Sharp, then 22, nearly every day before he disappeared in Warren, Pa.
She now waits for another call: Notification that her missing son's remains have been found.
"That's the call you wait for, but it's also the one you dread," she said. "It is a day-to-day struggle."
Eight years later, police continue to search for Sharp.
Area law enforcement agencies investigate hundreds of missing-persons reports each year. Most are runaway teenagers who eventually return home, but others under rare circumstances develop into high-profile cases, often remaining unsolved for years.
Erie police had received 284 reports of missing persons this year as of mid-December.
A total of 27 cases reported this year -- mostly juveniles who ran away from home -- were still open.
Pennsylvania State Police have investigated 90 missing-persons cases this year in Troop E, which covers Erie, Crawford, Warren and Venango counties. The missing person was considered "endangered" in 19 cases.Race against time
The first few hours are often the most critical when police begin to track down a missing person.
Erie police Lt. Kirk Werner said investigators interview friends and family to learn about the individual and glean clues to where he or she may be.
Police record the person's physical description, habits, cell-phone number and other vital details. This information is entered into the National Crime Information Center, a database available to nearly every law enforcement agency nationwide.
Officers also usually search the person's home and the surrounding area.
"Many times, children will be found sleeping under a bed or in the closet," Werner said.
Depending on the situation, state police could issue an Amber Alert for abducted children believed to be in imminent danger.
Lt. Daniel Spizarny said Erie police investigate all reports of missing persons. The circumstances dictate the number of officers assigned to a case.
"In a case where it's obviously not a runaway, it has a much more urgent response," Spizarny said.
Red flags raised during interviews with friends and family also boost police response.
"When they act out of character, those are the ones that stand out," Spizarny said.Tragic cases
Authorities in central New York said it was uncharacteristic for then-missing Mercyhurst College student Jenni-Lyn Watson to unexpectedly leave home Nov. 19.
Law enforcement officials searched for more than a week, covering a 1,200-acre wooded area in Onondaga County. They discovered her body Nov. 27 behind a storage shed in a park north of Syracuse.
Watson's ex-boyfriend, 21-year-old Steven Pieper, of Liverpool, N.Y., was charged with her murder.
Police scrutiny is heightened in these cases and others involving missing children, abducted adults and those with mental-health issues.
Titusville resident Charles J. Speer, a 76-year-old who suffered from dementia, disappeared June 26.
State police Troop E spokesman Sgt. Mark Zaleski said concern grew when no activity was detected on Speer's cell phone and credit cards.
"Knowing that his mental capacity was limited, that certainly set off the resources to try to locate him as soon as possible," Zaleski said.
Four months later, a person walking a dog spotted Speer's Nissan Maxima near a creek bed off Route 322 in Venango County. Speer's body was found inside.Finding runaways
Most missing-persons cases never escalate to the point of physical injury or death.
The vast majority of reports police investigate are juveniles who run away from home.
Zaleski said 66 of the 90 cases reported to area troopers so far this year were runaways.
Many teenagers leave home because parents don't allow them to do what they want, he said.
"A lot of these children are going through growing pains," Zaleski said.
Other times, they'll decide to take off with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Some residents also flee Gannondale, Harborcreek Youth Services and other youth facilities, Zaleski said.
On average, Zaleski said, most runaways return in a few days.
"A lot of these resolve themselves on their own after we start taking a look at friends, boyfriends, girlfriends and places where they hang out," he said.
More investigators work the case if circumstances shift or the person remains missing for an extended period of time.
"Every step, it's constantly being evaluated in what resources are put towards it," Zaleski said.
For Erie police, Spizarny said one investigator oversees most missing-juvenile cases. The investigator maintains regular contact with friends and family, whom police rely on for updated information.
Police encounter many of the same runaways on a regular basis. Millcreek police Capt. Michael Tesore said one male juvenile had been reported missing 10 times this year.
The department had completed 74 reports of missing juveniles and four missing-adult reports as of last week. All cases had been resolved, Tesore said.
Area police often use missing persons' cell-phone records to pinpoint their location. In recent years, they've also mined social networks for tips on where they may be.
"You can never be 100 percent sure that there was no foul play involved," Tesore said.Kahler case
Susan Burg still waits for the return of her daughter, Sabrina Kahler, more than eight years after she disappeared.
Kahler, then 20, left her family's home at East Third and Lighthouse streets on June 24, 2002.
She was last known to be swimming in western Erie County with David Heck, an acquaintance who is now in state prison on unrelated charges.
Burg, of Erie, successfully petitioned Erie County Judge Stephanie Domitrovich to declare Kahler legally dead in 2009.
Erie police continue their probe into the case. Burg's family also hired three private investigators to help find her.
Burg said she believes Heck, who has not cooperated with investigators, is key to solving the case. "I don't feel that she's alive, but I have hope that she'll be found," Burg said recently.
To cope with her pain, Burg communicates with families of other missing persons throughout the country.
"Losing a kid is the worst thing in the world, and to not know where she is on top of it, it's even more devastating," she said.Search for Damien Sharp
Like Burg, Shanahan, 46, attends missing-persons conferences and talks to other families for support.
"Until you have a missing family member, you don't realize how many people out there are missing," she said.
No one has seen her son, Damien Sharp, since he was dropped off at a Warren home on Memorial Day weekend in 2002.
Warren Police Department Investigator Anthony Chimenti remembers taking the original report from Sharp's family when he worked as an officer in 2002.
Years later, he said, the case remains a top priority for the department.
"It's been plaguing our department for eight years that we haven't solved it," he said. "You have to work backward on a lot of cases, but with this one, you really have to go back."
State police and the FBI also assist in the case, classified as a homicide/missing person. Chimenti, who is leading the investigation, said he still regularly receives tips.
"I'm confident that this is a solvable case and that it can come to a resolution," he said.
Shanahan does not believe her son is alive but clings to hope that his remains will be found.
She'll spot people bearing resemblance to him. Circling around them, she'll get a closer look.
The phone occasionally rings with a number she doesn't recognize and hangs up. Shanahan calls back, hoping for information.
She said her anger fuels her passion to find him.
"At this point, I don't care who did it, just let me find his remains," she said. "They took generations away from me. At least let us have some peace."
Attending funerals is particularly difficult for her, but she recently attended a service for a friend's son who had died. She consoled the family and offered support.
Shanahan, though, is still waiting for closure.
"I watched the mother kneel down at the casket, touch his hand, and tell him goodbye. I realized the person who took my son away from me had robbed me of that," she said.