The Best Kept Secret in Law Enforcement

The 1984 movie told us what to do when there's "somethin' weird and it don't look good." Back then, the answer to the question "Who ya gonna call?" was "Ghostbusters!" of course. It's too bad that there isn't a hotline for today's law enforcement agencies to connect to when things "don't look good" — or is there?

If the situation is a missing child, there is a resource that will come to the rescue: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The antithesis of the lighthearted "Ghostbusters," NCMEC takes missing and abducted children very seriously. The center assists with everything from abduction and child sexual exploitation cases to age progression and facial reconstruction services, family reunification, training and technical assistance for law enforcement, and the issuing of Amber Alerts. In addition to a paid staff, NCMEC relies on volunteer experts with a broad range of experience that an agency couldn't buy for a million dollars.

In fact, agencies can't buy it for any amount of money because NCMEC provides it all for free.

Filling the need

The genesis of NCMEC was the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz from the streets of New York City, coupled with the 1981 disappearance of another 6-year-old child, Adam Walsh, from a Florida shopping mall. Adam's parents, Revé and John Walsh, turned to law enforcement for help, but found there was a lack of coordinated effort on a state or national level to search for lost and missing children. There also was no organization to assist them. The disappearance of the two children led an effort to place the photos of missing kids on milk cartons, and then to a nationwide movement.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Missing Children's Assistance Act into law in 1984. This legislation established a national clearinghouse of information regarding missing and exploited children. Congress designated the nonprofit organization NCMEC to act as that resource.

NCMEC works in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ's) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The organization has access to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). It also operates a national network, which links to law enforcement through 50 state clearinghouses.

According to a 2002 DOJ report, 2,185 children are reported missing each day, totaling nearly 800,000 missing kids a year. About 200,000 of the reported incidents were family abductions, but 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical" kidnappings — crimes that involve someone unknown to or only slightly acquainted with the child. This kidnapper traditionally holds the child overnight, transports him 50 miles or more, and then kills the child, demands a ransom or intends to keep the child permanently.

Volunteers to the rescue

As any law enforcement officer knows, "stranger" cases are among the toughest to solve, and any case involving a missing or exploited child is not an easy one to work. In the past 23 years, NCMEC has come to the assistance of law enforcement in almost 130,000 missing-child cases, which have resulted in the recovery of more than 110,000 children.

One way NCMEC provides assistance is through Project ALERT. The Project ALERT program, which has been in existence for 15 years, is made available completely free of charge to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Project ALERT provides skilled, retired law enforcement officers who donate their time to assist as consultants with missing and exploited child cases. NCMEC coordinates and picks up the tab for all costs associated with travel and resource materials.

NCMEC co-founder John Walsh says this resource is provided because of the relative inexperience various agencies may have with cases involving child victims.

"Since many law enforcement agencies have never handled a serious missing-child case, it makes all the sense in the world to help agencies with retired law enforcement personnel who have been professionally trained in this type of investigation," Walsh says. "This dramatically increases the odds of getting these children back alive."

There currently are more than 150 active Project ALERT representatives, each of whom averages more than 20 years of law enforcement service. These volunteers have backgrounds in federal, state and local investigative agencies, and have served at all ranks.

According to Ernie Allen, president and CEO of NCMEC, "We may have an agency that is not sure what to do, doesn't know how to organize a search or has a long-standing case. They would like an expert to come in and take a look at it with two fresh eyes to see what else can be done."

That's where the Project ALERT volunteers step in. At the request of the investigating agency, the group will perform a myriad of tasks, including acting as case consultants, performing long-term case reviews, conducting witness interviews, helping with address verifications, providing surveillance, acting as search-and-rescue coordinators, and serving as family liaisons.

Project ALERT representatives also will perform community outreach services for the requesting agency, including taking the role of a public speaker or roll-call trainer, or staffing a conference booth.

Another mode of assistance through NCMEC is Team Adam, a resource patterned after the National Transportation Safety Board's system for sending specialists to the site of serious transportation incidents. Rather than focusing on transportation incidents, Team Adam sends trained, retired law enforcement officers to the actual site of serious child abductions and cases of child sexual exploitation.

The specialists, who work in full cooperation with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, take an advisory role only. Their purpose is to assist local investigators, provide access to NCMEC's extensive human and technological resources, and assist the victism's family and the media as needed. Team Adam also provides the latest computer and communications technology to the investigating agency to enable rapid distribution of critical information to other agencies and personnel.

The fact that Team Adam specialists work at the invitation of the investigating agency and serve only as advisors is something that team member Ron Olive stresses. "We never come in and take over a case," Olive says. "That's not why we're there."

Searching a landfill

In May 2004, the Lubbock County (Texas) Sheriff's Office received a report that 16-year-old Joanna Rogers was missing. For two years, rescuers searched for her, but to no avail. Then, in 2006, they got a break. A local suspect in a murder case admitted choking the teen and stuffing her body into a suitcase, which he then left in a Dumpster.

The next step for the Lubbock agency was to confirm the suspect's story by locating the body, but this presented a huge problem, according to Capt. Tony Menchaca. "We knew nothing about landfill searches," Menchaca says. "But NCMEC sent in Lee Manning and Ron Olive to help."

Manning, a retired lieutenant with 28 years of experience in search and rescue with the Massachusetts State Police, is a current member of the board of directors of Northeast Wilderness Search and Rescue Inc. in Ware, Massachusetts. He brought to the Lubbock case his experience as a former Incident Management Assistance Team commander and state police civilian search and rescue coordinator.

Olive, who spent 30 years in law enforcement, including 22 with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) where he worked mostly in counter-intelligence and also served as an ASAC, is an expert in searching landfills. Tasked with finding the dismembered body of a sailor while working for NCIS, Olive says he contacted other law enforcement agencies and did a lot of research to figure out how to conduct a landfill search. One of the few experts on this topic, Olive is presently putting together a guide on searching landfills for law enforcement agencies.

Last year, these retired officers used their expertise to lend a hand to the Lubbock Sheriff's Office. After a month and a half of strategizing, the agency was ready to begin the search. But they ran into another problem — money. Although NCMEC's services are free, the sheriff's office had to finance the $4 to $5 million needed for equipment, uniforms, food, water, decontamination and other items necessary for a landfill search.

Fortunately, the county stepped in and provided heavy equipment, including dump trucks and front-end loaders, plus the personnel needed to run the machinery. This assistance brought the price tag down to $100,000, which still wasn't in the sheriff's budget. But the agency received a victim's assistance grant through the governor's office, which covered the balance of the expenses.

An emotional roller coaster

With the funding and plans in place, the search could begin. Although a landfill search sounds straightforward — just start digging until you uncover what you're looking for — it is a complicated operation. "We moved about 43,000 truckloads of debris," Menchaca says. "We covered an area 200 feet long, 175 feet wide and 30 feet deep."

The search required the use of road graders, excavators, front-end loaders and dump trucks. Uniforms, special boots, goggles and other supplies were needed for the searchers, as were food, water and decontamination. The search was complicated by the fact that the suitcase they were searching for was near a landfill liner, which prevents contaminants from entering the local water supply. The searchers had to be sure the heavy equipment did not damage the liner but still excavated the correct area.

"It was an emotional roller coaster," Menchaca reports. "Every day we thought we would find her, and every day we didn't."

Finally, after two months of searching, the body of Joanna Rogers was recovered from the landfill. The case set a record for the longest amount of time a body was in a landfill before being recovered.

The best kept secret

"I can't brag on the guys from NCMEC enough," Menchaca says. "The expertise and direction they gave us got us off the ground. There's no way we could have begun to do all this without NCMEC's help."

Menchaca admits that until Manning and Olive showed up to assist with the Rogers case, he was unfamiliar with NCMEC.

"I spent most of the 29 years of my career in narcotics, and I didn't know about NCMEC until I got into investigations," he explains. "I didn't deal much with cases involving children before that."

Although NCMEC can provide an incredible amount of assistance and resources, many agencies don't know they can take advantage of these services. In fact, it seems to be the best kept secret in law enforcement.

Part of the reason for NCMEC's low profile is that volunteers take a back seat in investigations, Olive says. "We're not going to show up and jump in front of the news cameras. We stay in the background."

Unless, of course, the investigating agency wants the NCMEC representatives to deal with the press. Then the volunteers are glad to provide their assistance. But because they serve in an advisory and assistance role, the volunteers don't get a lot of press, which may contribute to the lack of awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement alike.

NCMEC itself, however, did call attention to the Lubbock Sheriff's Office on Valentine's Day 2007. That was when the organization presented Sheriff David Gutierrez and Menchaca with the Team Adam Law Enforcement Award for excellence in law enforcement in recognition of their extraordinary efforts in the Rogers case.

Olive, who was present at the awards ceremony, was humble about his own part in the operation, giving the credit to the Lubbock Sheriff's Office. "These men handled one of the most difficult recovery cases in Team Adam history," he says. "Their relentless focus and commitment to finding this young girl's body, despite extremely difficult and adverse conditions, makes them among the nation's finest in the law enforcement community."

Olive also praised the Lubbock search participants for their selfless contributions. "This was a case where the searchers paid no attention to the extreme temperature changes, heavy rainfall, and hazardous and deplorable work conditions," he says. "The team continued because they wanted to end the torment the Rogers family endured every minute of every day for more than two years. They would not stop until they achieved that goal."

Who ya gonna call?

Since its inception in 1984, NCMEC has served as a national clearinghouse for information on missing children and the prevention of child victimization.

To find out more about the resources and services NCMEC provides to law enforcement agencies, or to volunteer your expertise, visit NCMEC's toll-free hotline number is (800) THE-LOST, or (800) 843-5678. The organization also can be contacted directly at (703) 274-3900.

Spread the word so the next time a department is faced with a missing child case, they will know who to call.