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Missing Persons Really Missing?

By Victoria Remley

What would you do if someone you knew went missing? Would you trust the government and your local police officers to find them? Would you know where to start looking for the person that went missing?

I set out to explore the types of people that go missing the least, but I ended up writing about my frustration with government agencies and the runaround they gave me. I wanted to look at missing persons gender, age, race, what they looked like and where they lived. Instead, I found a confusing system of incomplete documentation and a lack of communication between a number of state and federal agencies charged with making missing persons information available. I worked with the Ohio Attorney General, National Crime Information Center, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and the Youngtown Police Department.

In order to understand why this is such a big issue, these are the public records laws in Ohio:

The public must have access to public records. To do this, a public office, or the person responsible for public records, should organize and maintain records so they are available for inspection or copying. These documents should be readily available to the public.

If the public’s records request gets denied, the public office that denied the request must provide the requester with an opportunity to revise their request. The public official should tell the requester how the public office maintains records and how they can be accessed. If they deny the public’s request, an explanation must be provided as to why it was denied.

My instructor in my Data Journalism course, Shelley Blundell, guided me in requesting the documents I needed from many state and federal agencies. I wanted to make sure I worded my request correctly. Even though Blundell checked my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests before I sent them, many times my requests were denied, or I was redirected to another agency.

I wrote my story on the denials I received. How do you find someone that has gone missing when getting documents, or even understanding the process related to finding them, is so challenging?

I started this process with data from Dave Davis and Mary Beth Earnheardt, journalism professors at Youngstown State University (YSU). Their data consisted of missing persons reports for Youngstown, Ohio from the Youngstown Police Department (YPD) for the years 2004 to 2017.

Davis and Earnheardt collected this data through a request for information to go with their missing persons project. I wanted to look at the demographic of people least likely to go missing and most likely to go missing. Blundell told me to focus on the data from NamUs (Ohio Attorney General), a missing persons website. She said to get the names of people categorized under unidentified remains.

Blundell said to go through Davis’s data and NamUs data and pick out the missing people that matched. She said to put that information into a spread sheet. Blundell said to find out who Davis contacted at the YPD. I did all of this, and found out that out of the seven names pulled from NamUs, two of them could not be found when entered into the Ohio Attorney General database and 13 of the 16 names could not be found in the YPD data from Davis. The information I tried to collect from the Ohio Attorney General, the National Crime Information Center, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and YPD added to Davis’s information.

Ohio Attorney General

I worked with the Ohio Attorney General first.

  • Date of Contact: Sept. 26, 2018
  • Agency Contacted: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine
  • Initial contact type: I made a phone call to the Ohio Attorney General.
  • Reason for contact: I requested raw data files associated with missing persons reports made available at https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Law-Enforcement/Local-Law-Enforcement/Ohio-Missing-Persons/All-Missing-Persons.
  • Response: No one answered my phone call. I left a message and got a call by someone from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation with the Ohio Attorney General.

I called the main Ohio Attorney General number and left a message when I received no answer. In the message, I explained that I was looking for raw files associated with missing persons reports available on the Ohio Attorney General’s website. The links on the website would not allow me to scrape their data and put it into a spreadsheet.

I got a call from Christine Shuff at the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) on Sept. 26. After explaining what I needed, Shuff said she would file a report with the Ohio Attorney General and they would send the documents they possessed, or the Ohio Attorney General would send a response letter.

Shuff emailed me saying I can find the most current information regarding missing persons and unidentified remains on their website and the Ohio Attorney General does not keep historical missing persons reports. She said a public office does not have to provide requested records when they do not exist.

The information the Ohio Attorney General possesses comes from LEADS, the Law Enforcement Agencies Database System, which is not public record. LEADS is the Ohio police’s database for missing persons files. Each city’s police station puts their missing persons data into LEADS from their offices. Shuff said I should contact the BCI with my questions.

That same day, Sept. 26, Blundell told me to focus on the data Davis gave me instead of trying to get data from the Ohio Attorney General, National Crime information Center (NCIC), The Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department or the YPD. More information about those agencies will be discussed below.

On Oct. 1 I called the Ohio Attorney General. I wanted to find out why they denied the request I filed with Shuff. The person I spoke with said the Ohio Attorney General’s Office did not have access to the data on their website, so they could not give the raw data files to me. The NCIC puts the Ohio Attorney General’s website together and does not give out their information as public record. The Ohio Attorney General links to NCIC. Even though NCIC puts the Ohio Attorney General’s website together, they each have their own websites.

On Oct. 2 I called the Ohio Attorney General again to try and figure out how I could get the information I needed. I was very confused at this point because I was working with NCIC and the Ohio Attorney General at the same time while both agencies transferred me to different people constantly. Information related to NCIC can be found below.

The person I spoke to at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office said they would put a records request in for me for “downloadable versions of databases that appear on the website for both missing persons (child and adult) and unidentified remains (child and adult) from 2014 to 2017.” I never got a response.

I exhausted all of my resources at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, so I did not contact them again.

National Crime Information Center

I worked with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) next.

  • Date of Contact: Oct. 2, 2018
  • Agency Contacted: National Crime Information Center
  • Initial contact type: I made a phone call to NCIC.
  • Reason for contact: I requested raw data files associated with missing persons reports made available at https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Law-Enforcement/Local-Law-Enforcement/Ohio-Missing-Persons/All-Missing-Persons.
  • Response: I got an email from ioau@leo.gov saying the email address was denied.

On Oct. 2 I called NCIC and I told them I needed downloadable versions of the database  that appears on the Ohio Attorney General’s website for both missing persons (child and adult) and unidentified remains (child and adult). I told them I needed data from 2014 to 2017. They told me to send an email requesting the data to ioau@leo.gov. I read the email back to the woman I spoke with to make sure it was correct, and she said it was. That same day I got an email saying the email address got rejected. I did not call NCIC back because they transferred me so many times just to get the email address that I did not know how to contact the person who gave it to me.

On Oct. 9 I called the FBI Field Office to try and get the data I needed. The NCIC is a department of the FBI. No one answered my call, so I left a message. I did not manage to speak to anyone. I did not hear back from them and Blundell advised me on Oct. 8 to contact alternate resources of information.

Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office

I worked with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office next.

  • Date of Contact: Sept. 18, 2018
  • Agency Contacted: Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office
  • Initial contact type: I made a phone call to the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office.
  • Reason for contact: I requested raw data files associated with missing persons reports for Jan. 1, 2014 to Jan. 1, 2017.
  • Response: I spoke to Deputy Rich.

On Sept. 18 I called the Sheriff’s Office and told them what files I needed. They told me I needed to talk to Deputy Rich. He called me the same day, but I missed his call. I called back but he did not answer, so I left a message. I sent a FOIA request to Rich at the Sheriff’s Office for the documents I needed.

On Sept. 26 Rich did not call me back and I had not contacted the Sheriff’s Office since Sept. 18. I spoke with Deputy Feay about the documents I needed, and he sent me to Rich. I spoke with Rich, the same person I left the message for on Sept. 18, and he told me he would put documents for the Mahoning Valley together within the next few days. He told me to send him a FOIA request for the data (See Appendix 1). Rich also said I would want to look at the YPD’s Investigative Unit’s website for the missing persons in the detective division. He said I may want to speak with Sgt. Meyers and look at the regional FBI crime statistics. I did neither of those things because I thought I could get what I needed from Rich.

On Sept. 26 I faxed a FOIA request to Rich (See Appendix 3). The same day, I called Rich and he told me each city’s police station handles their own missing persons cases. So, the Poland Police Department handles their own missing persons cases, the Boardman Police Department handles their own missing persons cases and so on. All police stations upload their missing persons files to LEADS.

Rich’s department, the Sheriff’s Office, dispatches for Milton, Millsworth, Poland, Springfield, Middletown and the outlier cities of the Mahoning County. All police stations on the border of the Mahoning County fall under the Sheriff’s Office’s jurisdiction. Every other police station in the Mahoning County handles their own missing persons reports.

I told this information to Blundell on Sept. 26 and decided to focus just on Youngstown, Ohio’s missing people. I called Rich back and told him I decided to focus on Youngstown’s data. Rich called me the same day and left a message for me when I missed the call. The message said he received the fax I sent him that day and he forwarded it to the Youngstown Police Records Division. He said Feay at the Records Division would handle the request. He gave me Feay’s phone number and told me he would not have anything to do with the request from now on.

I did not call Rich back after receiving his message, but I heard from the Sheriff’s Office again.

On Sept. 27 the Sheriff’s Office called me. They followed up to make sure I got the files they sent me. I said I received them, and they told me that going forward I would be working with the Youngstown Records Department only. Details about what happened with the YPD Records Department can be found later in the story.

On Oct. 2 I called the Sheriff’s Office again because I confused myself about what they told me last. They told me to talk to the Youngstown Police Department Records Room. I sent them a FOIA request and they denied it (Appendix 3). I exhausted all of my resources for this source, so I focused only on the YPD.

Youngstown Police Department

I worked with the YPD last. I contacted them because I did not have access to Davis’s records at the time.

  • Date of Contact: Sept. 25, 2018
  • Agency Contacted: Youngstown Police Department
  • Initial contact type: I made a phone call to the YPD.
  • Reason for contact: I requested raw data files associated with missing persons reports for Jan. 1, 2014 to Jan. 1, 2017.
  • Response: I missed a few calls before making contact.

On Sept. 25 I called the YPD. I did not contact anyone that day.

On Sept. 27 I sent a FOIA request to the Records Room for unidentified remains and missing persons. I sent the request as a fax (See Appendix 2). I made a few unanswered phone calls. I also missed a few calls before I made contact with the YPD.
On Oct. 1 I got an email from the Records Room saying they do not have annual reports for unidentified remains or missing persons. They suggested contacting the coroner’s office and Chief Lees to get the YPD’s annual reports. I called Chief Lees later that day, but he did not answer so I left a message for him. I never heard back from him.

At this point, I exhausted all my resources at the YPD, so I went to Blundell to see how to proceed.

On Oct. 8 Blundell told me I should not contact the YPD and NCIC anymore. She said to ask the YSU Police Station if they have specific records for missing persons. She told me to email William Rogner with the YSU Police as a last resort and ask for YSU’s missing person records. She said to give Rogner the same specifics I gave to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, NCIC, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and the YPD. That same day I emailed Rogner to see if the YSU Police possessed the records I needed. They replied in an email saying he looked in YSU’s reporting system for the data I requested and did not find any missing persons or unidentified remains reports for the dates I requested.

On Oct. 9 I called the YPD to request both missing persons (child and adult) and unidentified remains (child and adult) records from 2014-2017. I called YPD because I wanted to try one more time to get the records I needed from them. I do not know who I spoke to that day. I did not have any records from them at this point and I was desperate for any records they could get me. The police told me they did not possess any records.

After calling YPD and the Records Room to get data and being denied, I focused on Davis’s missing persons files. Detailed information of my cell phone’s call log can be found in Appendix 5.

I pulled the only 12 Youngstown missing persons cases the Ohio Attorney General’s Office showed on their website and put them in a table. I called this Microsoft Excel file “Missing Person Inconsistencies.” I made separate tables for NamUs and YPD and put those 12 cases in each table. I then went through the Ohio Attorney General Office’s website, the NamUs website and Davis’s data and marked whether the databases showed all 12 cases. The yellow rows meant the data could not be found in the databases. Green rows meant I found the data in the databases and the information matched. Orange rows meant I found the missing people in the databases, but some of their information was either missing or was different from Davis’s files. Blue meant the files Davis collected could not be found in YPD’s database. Doing this allowed me to see what data each agency possessed.

I looked at three years of missing person entries from Davis’s YPD data sets and analyzed them. To understand my analysis, readers need to understand what each category means. Returned missing is a police runaway report for a juvenile. A missing persons report means an adult is missing.

From my analysis I concluded that in 2014 there were 37 abductions, 46 kidnappings, seven runaways and no missing persons reports, returned missing or returned persons in Youngstown. 42.1 percent of the missing people were abducted, 50.5 percent were kidnapped and 7.4 percent were runaways.  

In 2015 there were seven abductions, 32 kidnappings, 10 returned persons and 11 runaways in Youngstown. There were no returned missing or missing persons reports. 11.9 percent of people were abducted, 54.2 percent were kidnapped, 16.9 percent were returned persons, and 16.9 percent were runaways.

In 2016 there were 179 abductions, 24 kidnappings and six runaways in Youngstown. There were no missing persons reports, returned missing or returned person. 85.3 percent of people were abducted, 11.8 percent were kidnapped and 2.8 percent were runaways.

In 2017 there were 34 abductions, 247 kidnappings, 205 missing person reports, 350 returned missing, 369 returned persons and 1,786 runaways in Youngstown. 1.1 percent of people were abducted, 8.3 percent were kidnapped, 6.9 percent were missing person reports, 11.7 percent were returned missing, 12.3 percent were returned persons and 59.7 percent were runaways.

Once I had the YPD files, it took me a few hours to put the statistics together. I separated Davis’s files by years in excel and put each year into Google Sheets. I then used the ‘insert a chart’ button in Google Sheets to create pie charts with percentages of the ways people go missing each year. I used these statistics to create my narrative.

These steps, provided by the Ohio Attorney General, can be taken when someone in your family or someone you know goes missing:

  1. Contact your local law enforcement agency to file a missing persons report.
  2. Take steps to help investigators after a report is filed.
  3. Raise awareness in your community regarding the missing person.
  4. Take care of yourself.

From this experience I learned that NamUs and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office gets their information from NCIC. YPD and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office uploads their information to LEADS. This is an issue for many reasons and this process raises many questions. First, why do NamUs and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office have different data if they both get it from NCIC? Do these agencies not work together? How does NCIC make sure they communicate their data to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office? Does NamUs have a role in all of this? What types of people are reported and not reported? Could these cases be solved if agency records were more consistently organized and shared data more effectively? How do we know who is actually missing? All of these government agencies do not communicate well and do not know where the community can access their data. How can people know that missing people reported by these agencies are actually missing? What do people do if someone they know goes missing?

Many questions came to light throughout this story. I started writing a story about who goes missing and ended up writing about the agencies that control missing person cases. I learned that my questions will not be answered until the government agencies responsible for public records create a better system of organization for their documents. The missing persons databases needs to be transparent so that the average citizen can report a case and follow it.

 

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4

Appendix 5

 

My phone’s call log held this information related to my journey for data. All the numbers here are for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, NCIC, The Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and the YPD.

Call Log:

On Sept. 20 I got call at 1:42 p.m. from 330-861-0906. On Sept. 21 got call at 12:04 p.m. from 330-899-2280. On Sept. 24 got a call at 4:22 p.m. from 330-533-4161. On Sept. 25 I called 330-533-4161 at 11:59 a.m. I did not talk to a human and the call lasted 6 minutes 7 seconds. On Sept. 26 I called 614-466-3840 at 8:13 a.m. On Sept. 26 I called 330-480-5034 at 8:30 a.m. On Sept. 26 I called 330-480-5030 at 3:04 p.m. I called 1330-742-8900 the same day at 3:15 p.m. Then I called 330-742-8905 at 3:18 p.m. On Sept. 26 I got a call from 740-845-2182, a London number at 9:12 a.m. On Oct. 1 I called 740-845-2100 at 8:35 a.m. At 2:28 p.m. I called 330-941-2207. Oct. 2 I called 800-282-0515 at 11:52 a.m. I called 800-282-0515 at 11:52 a.m. I called 304-625-2000, a West Virginia number at 12:09 p.m. Oct. 2 I called 866-448-7849 at 1:25 p.m. I called 330-746-5600, the YPD, the same day at 1:28 p.m. I called 800-282-0515 at 3:27 p.m. the same day. Oct. 2 I called 304-625-2000 at 3:28 p.m. On Oct. 10 I called 304-625-2000 twice.

2014

                                                                                                Source: YPD data from Dave Davis
Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

 

 

In 2014 there were 37 Abductions, 46 Kidnappings, seven Runaways and no Missing Persons Reports, Returned Missing or Returned Person. 42.1 percent of the missing people were abducted, 50.5 percent were kidnapped and 7.4 percent were runaways.

2015

    Source: YPD data from Dave Davis
                                                                                               Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

In 2015 there were seven Abductions, 32 Kidnappings, 10 Returned Persons and 11 Runaways. There were no Returned Missing or Missing Persons Reports. 11.9 percent of people were abducted, 54.2 percent were kidnapped,                16.9 percent were returned persons, and 16.9 percent were runaways.

2016

Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

In 2016 there were 179 Abductions, 24 Kidnappings and six Runaways. There were no Missing Persons Reports, Returned Missing or Returned Person. 85.3 percent of people were abducted, 11.8 percent were kidnapped and      2.8 percent were runaways.

2017

Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

 Source: YPD data from Dave Davis

In 2017 there were 34 abductions, 247 kidnappings, 205 missing person reports, 350 Returned Missing, 369 Returned Persons and 1,786 Runaways. 1.1 percent of people were abducted, 8.3 percent were kidnapped,                6.9 percent were missing person reports, 11.7 percent were returned missing, 12.3 percent were returned persons and 59.7 percent were runaways.