Searching for the missing, bridging the gap

From the conference’s opening moments to its closing remarks, the theme of 2012’s three-day meeting between various levels of law enforcement, private and public agencies and the families of the missing never lost its focus: Bring them home. The...


From the conference’s opening moments to its closing remarks, the theme of 2012’s three-day meeting between various levels of law enforcement, private and public agencies and the families of the missing never lost its focus: Bring them home.

The “them” in this case are the thousands of individuals across this nation who have disappeared. Some are children, others are adults, and all have one thing in common—someone, somewhere knows who they are. And the mission of the Fox Valley Technical College, Criminal Justice Center for Innovation’s National Training Conference is to bring all sides of the missing persons issue to the same table.

Mixing testimony and training

The conference, held every year in Appleton, Wisc., attracts criminal investigators from across the nation and, in some cases, foreign countries like Great Britain and Canada, along with representatives from agencies like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and families of individuals who have disappeared. Keynote speakers in past years have included Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from her own bedroom, and Beth Holloway, mother of missing teenager Natalee Holloway, who disappeared while on a post high school graduation trip to Aruba.

This year, attendees heard from keynoter Carrie McGonigle, a Southern California resident whose teenage daughter, Amber Dubois, vanished while walking to school. Amber’s body was later found dumped in a remote wilderness. After being arrested for the murder of a second woman and attacking a third, the girls’ killer was sent to prison for the remainder of his life.

Lisa Murray, also a family member affected by the disappearance of a loved one, spoke to participants about the effects of not knowing what happened to a relative. Lisa’s sister, 16-year-old Jeffrey Lynn Smith, vanished from her Little Rock, Ark., neighborhood on Dec. 4, 1985. At that time police listed her as a runaway. Years after she failed to turn up, Lynn, as her family knew her, has been reclassified as endangered missing.

Murray told attendees that her elderly mother, now in her 80s, has found no solace since her daughter disappeared. The loss of her child haunts her on a daily basis and she agonizes over the fact that, at her age, she doesn’t have much longer to put the issue to rest. Murray says at this point the family is at peace with the idea that Lynn is now deceased; there has been no sign of her in the more than 25 years since she vanished. However, they want to recover her body, if at all possible, and take her to a family burial place to inter her next to Murray’s other sister, who died when she was a toddler.

“We just want closure,” Murray says.

Bodiless homicide investigations

Murray found comfort in the presentation by Dane County (Wisc.) Assistant District Attorney Bob Kaiser and Madison, Wisc., Police Det. Marianne Flynn-Statz, an investigator with the department’s Sensitive Crimes Unit. Kaiser and Flynn-Statz recounted two cases they worked on together that resulted in successful prosecutions of bodiless homicides. Both cases were originally missing person cases.

In the case of Beth Kutz, a young mother of two who vanished on July 27, 2000, and has never been found, a jury argued their way to a conviction that landed Kutz’s estranged husband, Dan, in jail for life. A second case involving the disappearance of a flight instructor and mother of three has received national attention.

In 1976 when she disappeared, Jeannette Zapata was one of the youngest female flight instructors ever to receive her certification. Married to an abusive man who forced her into a life of deviant sexual behavior, Jeanette separated from him and obtained a court order keeping him away from her. It didn’t work. After abducting and killing his wife, Eugene Zapata managed to keep investigators at bay for three decades. He then stashed her body where it could not be found, only disposing of her remains when police began re-investigating the case.

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