KSBY Investigates: Missing on the Central Coast - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

KSBY Investigates: Missing on the Central Coast

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A KSBY investigation reveals that hundreds of people on the Central Coast have vanished. Some gone for decades, without a trace.

The missing include a Cal Poly student on her way home from a party, an elderly man who wandered off in San Luis Obispo, an elderly woman on a walk near the ocean in Shell Beach, and two young children abducted in southern Santa Barbara County.

Years later, Kristin Smart, Vernon Erno, Helen Thompson, Ramona Price, and Todd Collett are still gone.

After months of digging and multiple California Public Records Acts requests, KSBY has developed the most comprehensive public database available of missing persons on the Central Coast. The roster of names is several times longer than the one posted online by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) for the two counties. The volume amazed even some veteran law enforcement officials.

The KSBY list includes Crystal Kinney, a 45-year-old Lompoc woman, who vanished on a shopping trip with her father almost four years ago.

"We miss her tremendously. She was such a part of our life," her father Wayne Kinney said in an interview with KSBY investigative reporter Caroline Lowe.

A few seconds of surveillance video outside the Lompoc Home Depot captured the last time Kinney saw his daughter. It shows Crystal going into the store with him on November 10, 2011.

"She was right there with me. So just as I was getting ready to get the the doorknob, I turned around to buy it and she was gone," said Kinney.

Crystal walked out of the store, alone. She turned right toward the hospital nearby and disappeared.

"I think somebody just picked her up there right along that corridor between Buellton and Santa Barbara. I think some guy, she was probably along the sidewalk, and somebody pulled up and got her in the car," said Kinney, who said his daughter took off once before. That time, she took a taxi to Goleta.

Because Crystal had diabetes and mental illness, police sent flyers to the media, asking for help.

"I hope and pray somebody good took her in and knew she was diabetic," said Norma Kinney, Crystal's mother. "It's hard for me to talk about her because I start to cry."

Our KSBY investigation found Crystal Kinney is one of about 310 missing persons on the Central Coast. We obtained the information from the California DOJ and every local law enforcement agency in our area, after making multiple public records requests.

The DOJ data reveals 236 missing persons reported in Santa Barbara County and 78 in San Luis Obispo County. Santa Maria police have the most cases: 155. San Luis Obispo police have 8 and Santa Barbara police have 19.

Two cases involving stranger abductions of two young children more than 50 years ago in Santa Barbara County have never been solved. 

Seven-year-old Ramona Price has been missing from Santa Barbara since 1961; three-year-old Todd Collett from Goleta since 1964. 

"It's a very discouraging statistic that we have, certainly one that we wish didn't exist. But, in this world, it is something we have to grapple with, unfortunately," said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, whose investigators have 39 cases in their files.

Kristin Smart is the highest-profile missing person on the Central Coast.

"There are some you are going to carry for the remainder of your career," said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Commander Aaron Nix. 

It will be 20 years in May since the 19-year-old Cal Poly student disappeared.

"No case is being more actively investigated than that one and it's daily," said Commander Nix.

Besides Kristin, there are 18 other "career missing cases" in Commander Nix's investigative files. 

"Career missing is someone who has gone missing and they stay missing," he explained.

They include a Cayucos homicide victim named Dorothy Autrey, Hugh Harlin of Morro Bay whose wife was murdered, and several people lost at sea.

"You'd like to give each person closure. Bottom line, somebody reported that person missing, someone cares about that person and they would like to know what happened. If nothing else, just to put a period at the end of that sentence," said Commander Nix. 
Our KSBY investigation found a growing trend of people who remain missing: elderly men and women who have Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

"When they go missing, they are much more difficult to locate because you are talking about someone who has a diminished capacity and who will check in and out of reality but are still capable of getting around. They become difficult to locate," said Commander Nix.

However, the records reveal most people who disappear aren't considered at-risk or victims of crimes. They are adults who simply chose to just take off, according to the DOJ.

"I think what a lot of people don't realize is that it's not illegal to just decide you want to check out of your life. That happens occasionally where people will be deliberately missing," said Commander Nix.

A 2014 DOJ chart shows abductions and suspicious disappearance cases are among the smallest numbers of missing persons reported to law enforcement.

"We have some that just vanished, without a trace, " said Commander Nix, referring to some people who go missing. 

For whatever reasons people disappear, their loved ones are left to wonder what happened and if they are safe.

For Crystal Kinney's elderly parents, it's been almost four agonizing years, waiting for their phone to ring. 

"We are just simple people and it's amazing that could happen and why it had to happen at our age," said Wayne Kinney.

"It would mean a lot to me, it really would," he said about finally finding out what happened to Crystal. "And of course in my mind, because of things that happened out there for people like that, I'm afraid what I'm going to hear will not be what my wife and I want to hear... Oh, we pray for her every day, we pray for Crystal every day."

Even if Crystal is found and she is no longer alive, Kinney said, "It would be closure to know what happened to her. That's what we want to know more than anything. What happened to Crystal? That's what we want to know and we sit here every day, hoping we will find out, if we live long enough," he said.

Law enforcement agencies in California are required to immediately investigate all reported missing persons cases and report them to DOJ.

As part of an initial investigation, Commander Nix said sheriff's deputies check out state and national criminal databases to see if there is a match, look at the missing person's credit reports, get DNA from the person or a close blood relative and obtain their dental records.

Our KSBY investigation revealed the policies of local law enforcement agencies varied in terms of how often they follow up on their cases with the state.

Some, including the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office, update missing persons cases in monthly reports to the DOJ. Their process includes checking back with the families of missing persons, running the person's name through the databases again and writing a supplemental report documenting what they did on the case, according to Commander Nix.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said it follows up and documents its cases every 45 days.

In contrast, the Santa Maria Police Department, which had more than half of all of the cases reported on the Central Coast, said via an assistant city attorney's email to KSBY, "It does not update its numbers on any type of schedule or regular basis. SMPD reports new cases to CA DOJ, and then, if there is a change, such as if a person is found, that information is reported."

If you have information on any missing person on our KSBY list, you are asked to call police or Crime Stoppers. In San Luis Obispo County, that number is (805) 549-STOP. In Santa Barbara County, anonymous tips can be made by calling (805) 681-4171. 

Missing Persons Lists:
San Luis Obispo County (updated 12/15/2015)
Santa Barbara County (11/2015)
Santa Maria Police Department (updated 1/7/2016)
Santa Barbara Police Department (updated 11/4/2015)

Related links:
State of California Department of Justice Missing Persons homepage 
National Missing and Unidentified Persons System 
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 
Missing Persons Investigations Guidelines & Curriculum, CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training 


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