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...

Jeanette Zapata died during an argument with her husband in which he hit her many times over the head with a drafting tool and then strangled her. He wrapped her body in a tent and buried her on some property he owned, removing it when he decided to sell the property, and putting it in a storage locker. Alerted to renewed police interest in the case by a relative, Eugene Zapata cut the remains into pieces and disposed of the remains in a landfill.

Although the original jury on the case hung 11 to 1 for conviction, Eugene Zapata agreed to a plea deal in which he told police the truth about his former wife’s death in return for a reduced sentence of five years. Eugene Zapata was 69 years old when he agreed to the plea deal.

Kaiser told the crowd that the Zapata conviction was based strictly on circumstantial evidence. “The report of a missing person is potentially a criminal investigation and must be viewed that way by everyone in the investigation,” say Kaiser and Flynn-Statz.

The case, which remained open only three weeks before being closed after the initial report, was reopened in 2004 as a cold case. Investigators found new evidence to bring Eugene Zapata to trial. Among the most convincing evidence was the total lack of proof that Jeanette Zapata still lived: There had been no bank account activity, her Social Security number had not been used, no passport had been issued and none of her licenses had been renewed.

Not every missing persons case can be treated as a homicide, but as Kaiser and Flynn-Statz proved, when there is sufficient circumstantial evidence, a homicide prosecution is possible.

Tools of the search

The crowd also heard from seasoned missing persons investigators, a renowned forensic anthropologist, an expert in landfill searches and an advocate who operates a nonprofit aimed at bringing to light the problem of the missing mentally ill, addicts and the homeless.

Dr. Frederick Snow told police that, while crime scene investigators and processors do a good job of handling most scenes, when a body is discovered outdoors—particularly after a lengthy period of time—it is best to bring in a consulting forensic anthropologist. Snow says his profession is trained to notice details that others do not. He referred to several cases in which small bones that proved crucial to the investigation were newly discovered after being overlooked by crime scene investigators.

Kevin Coffey, a 30-year veteran of the Lost Angeles Police Department, spoke about the value of integrating volunteers into the missing persons investigatory process. Coffey said that using volunteers has increased the department’s success rate in these cases. LAPD found that with the help of volunteers, the department could cover more investigative ground faster and keep costs down.

Lee Reed, an officer with the City of Abilene PD, conducted a seminar on the art and science of landfill searches. Reed, who breaks down the searches using mathematics and a scientific approach, told listeners that he had located the evidence sought by police in 20 of the 23 searches in which he had participated. Recovered evidence includes both bodies and weapons.

Libba Phillips, founder of Outpost for Hope, shared her personal story, which was also the basis for a Lifetime TV movie. Her sister, Ashley, is a mentally ill drug addict who has drifted throughout the country, often leaving her family scrambling to find her. Both law enforcement agencies and medical facilities have been hesitant to help Phillips and her family in their frequent searches for Ashley. Phillips told the crowd that, based on her experience, there are millions of individuals living off the grid in this nation. Many of these individuals have children that are endangered and disappear. Since no one is officially aware these kids exist they are at high risk for abuse, trafficking and prostitution. Phillips says she believes that many of those living on the streets are among the missing populations reported to police agencies.

Other speakers addressed subjects ranging from constitutional laws regarding search and seizure, working with DNA databases, human trafficking, wilderness searches and handling cases of runaway children. The closing speaker was the minor child of a missing woman who told the audience how he deals with not knowing where his mother might be.

The future

Next year’s conference will take place in Appleton in March. A few scholarships are available to help defray the cost of attendance.

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