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Reporter's reflections on missing persons investigation - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Reporter's reflections on missing persons investigation

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The idea for KSBY's missing persons investigation began in June 2015 in Minnesota, where I used to work as a reporter. 

I traveled there, then on to Iowa, to take part in a 20-year-anniversary walk to remember news anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit. Jodi disappeared without a trace on her way to work at KIMT TV in Mason City, Iowa, on June 27, 1995. 

Before moving to California to work for KSBY, I often covered Jodi's case, along with the unsolved abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, Minnesota. As a reporter for WCCO TV in Minneapolis, I got to know those victims' families and see the pain they experienced not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Jacob and Jodi are still missing. I never will forget them. 

During my June trip to Minnesota, I stopped by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and met with the director of its missing persons unit. I was struck by all the photos Kris Rush had in her office, including one of a murder victim whose remains were found last year after she had been gone almost 30 years. (This case really hit home: The victim was the sister of a woman previously married to a WCCO photographer I worked with for many years.)

The meeting at the crime bureau last summer left me wondering: Just how many people have vanished here on the Central Coast? How many families in our area are left waiting for answers? 

I was well aware of Kristin Smart, the Cal Poly student who disappeared in 1996, and I expected there were dozens of other cases. But I never imagined the list eventually would exceed more than 300 and go back several decades. (The high numbers surprised even some veteran police officials contacted during our three-month investigation.) 

I was also surprised to find that the information we sought would not be immediately accessible in a state or national data base. 

To get answers, I reached out to every law enforcement agency in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in July. We also searched online for national missing person data bases, news articles on unsolved cases and Crime Stoppers reports. 

Using the California Public Records Act, we requested names, photos and information on every active missing persons case. We provided the agencies with the names of everyone from their jurisdictions listed on the California Department of Justice missing persons website and asked for any additional cases not on that public website.

We also requested a complete list of the number of cases the state Justice Department has from the Central Coast, including any in their non-public investigative files. (Police agencies are required to report their cases to the state.) 
 
The responses from local law enforcement agencies varied. The San Luis Obispo Police Department was one of several agencies that quickly provided the information we sought. It was a different story with the Santa Maria Police Department, which handles a much higher volume of serious crimes. As the Central Coast's most populated city, Santa Maria already has recorded nine homicides so far this year. 

It took more than two months, and multiple requests, for the SMPD eventually to come up with a final list of 155 missing persons. That number is more than half of the total for all cases in the two counties. In contrast, the San Luis Obispo Police Department has just eight unsolved cases, and the City of Santa Barbara has 19. We expected Santa Maria to have the biggest list, but were very surprised to see the huge number compared with San Luis Obispo's.

Finding dates of birth for the missing persons also was very labor intensive for Santa Maria police. While most departments had the birth dates or ages of missing persons available fairly quickly, SMPD staff spent weeks looking up the information in boxes of files. The department recently brought a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office detective on board as a volunteer to help investigators work on missing persons cases and develop a new policy for handling them.

When we asked SLO Police Captain Keith Storton why that city has only eight current cases, he told us they clear many missing persons reports through diligent investigations. 

The SLO Police Department also receives a lot fewer new cases to investigate than Santa Maria: 104 missing persons reports in 2014 and 71 from January to September of this year. Captain Storton said most involved  juvenile runaways who soon were found. 

In contrast, Santa Maria averages 700 missing persons reports every year. As of October 26, the SMPD had 547 cases.

About 110 Santa Maria cases are more than a year old. That number is more than half of the 200 cases Minnesota's missing persons coordinator Kris Rush reported for her whole state, which has a population of more than 5 million people.

As for Santa Maria's high volume, SMPD Commander Phillip Hansen noted the city has more than twice the population of San Luis Obispo. He also pointed out Santa Maria has "significantly different demographics" than San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. 

Commander Hansen added, "A substantial percentage of our community members are immigrants and many are part of a migratory work force. This circumstance can create difficulties in not only locating the missing person, but also in maintaining contact and follow-up with family members and/or the reporting parties." 

As part of our investigation, we interviewed the elderly parents of a Lompoc woman, Crystal Kinney, who has been gone almost four years. It was heartbreaking to listen to Wayne and Norma Kinney talk about their missing daughter and the agonizing wait for answers. 

We obtained surveillance video of Crystal leaving the Lompoc Home Depot store, where she had joined her father on a shopping trip. The video shows the last trace anyone has seen of Crystal.

Our investigation found growing concern about the disappearances of people with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. That issue prompted the creation of Project Lifesaver, a program supported by the sheriff's offices in both counties. The program provides dementia patients with bracelets whose signals can be tracked by search teams when someone wanders off.

We also learned that most adults who go missing choose to do so, and that it's not a crime for someone to just take off. 

Once we gathered names of missing persons from law enforcement agencies, KSBY Digital Executive Producer Katherine Worsham and I began building a data base of that information on our website. Katherine also created a slideshow with dozens of photos we obtained of missing persons and produced individual stories about many of the missing, based on information provided by law enforcement. 

The California Department of Justice reports there are 314 active missing persons cases on the Central Coast -- compared with the 250 names provided by local law enforcement to KSBY, and contained in our data base. That's a discrepancy of 64 cases between the lists. The DOJ, however, declined to provide KSBY with details about those 64 cases, many of them apparently contained in the non-public portion of the DOJ's missing persons database. 

When we searched the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, we found several names that were not listed on the CA DOJ website. 

Our purpose in putting all this information on KSBY.com is to have the most comprehensive public database available of missing persons on the Central Coast. We will update it regularly with any additions or deletions.  

We hope keeping these cases in the public eye will help families find answers to what happened to their loved ones who vanished.

Related links:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
KristinSmart.com
Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center

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