'Missing in Arizona' seeks answers for families of long-term cases
Project to hold third annual event In Phoenix, October 21
A growing program in Arizona is providing fresh opportunities for answers to family members of people who are missing, including the chance to meet with experts in forensics, law enforcement and search and rescue at an all-day event in Phoenix on October 21.
That's when the third annual "Missing in Arizona" resource day will be held, with officials prepared to assist with both filing new cases and searching for information on old reports.
Linking family members to services is important to organizers like Christen Eggers, who works for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner and helped found the program.
"This is something that needs to happen, where we all can come together one day and share our resources to the family members, so they understand who they can contact, what's out there for them," Eggers said. "The buy-in from everyone is what's impressive, and then also obviously the resolutions that we have — it's amazing that we've had so many in these two years that we've done this, which is fantastic."
Sometimes the vanished family members are located alive. Sometimes they are confirmed to be dead. For the families, information and resolution are important; even the possibility that the project might find answers is welcome to some.
Reporting missing persons statistics is currently voluntary, and the numbers fluctuate daily as existing cases are resolved and new cases reported. The nationwide estimate is that 84,000 people are currently missing, about 2,000 of those people being in or from Arizona.
Arizona's numbers are high because of its location, tourists and mobile population, Maricopa County Det. Tony Rodarte said.
"A lot of people cut through here, they come and go," Rodarte said. "They may be traveling from another state to California, and then they become involved in a fatal traffic collision on the highway that ends up coming to us, or the car breaks down and they go looking for help and they succumb to the environment in the desert."
If a traveler is from out of state or a native's family lives far away, their chances of being reported or identified go down.
"We can put stuff in the media and on the news, but if there's no family watching that and seeing it, you're never going to see that the connection," Rodarte said.
Some families are hesitant to contact law enforcement because they've never talked to them before or because illegal activity like drugs may have played a role their missing family member's life, said Phoenix Police Detective Stuart Somershoe. Somershoe and Rodarte want all families to feel safe attending the event and that's one reason they partnered with Arizona State University to hold the event at the West Campus in Glendale.
"We're not out to arrest people; we're not out to get people in trouble," Somershoe said. "We're just trying to resolve these cases; that's what our focus is."
Rodarte said that their job starts by giving families a place to file their reports and then coordinating with any other jurisdictions that might be involved.
"We are truly providing a service to anybody, as long as there's a connection to Arizona, that's all that we ask, and if there's not a connection Arizona, we're still going help you out," Rodarte said. "We're still going to try and get you over to California, another state, whatever you have — we're never just going to be like, oh, we can't help you."
The Phoenix event is designed to centralize services for families including those who travel from other states or even other countries, Rodarte said. Staff will give families a contact person in the program and help them check for existing missing persons reports to update or file new ones. Family members can submit photos, records, personal items and even DNA and they'll have the chance to talk with experts. Grief counseling services and a closing candlelight vigil will also take place.
"This is one-stop shop and we really want to maintain that," Rodarte said. "The last thing we're going to do is say: OK, you've got to come back so we can do DNA or whatever, so we encourage people bring whatever you have."
Photographs, dental records, x-rays and other medical information can all be useful for a long-term missing-persons case and event organizers will be prepared to copy any of this material during the event itself.
"We try and streamline that process as much as we can," Rodarte said. "We'll have scanners where we can make copies of everything, send you home with whatever you bring."
There are also options for out-of-state families who can't attend in person; they will have an opportunity to participate, as Texas resident Colleen Dowdy learned last year.
"I've been trying to have my sister reported as a missing person since 1997," Dowdy said. "The Missing in Arizona day, the event they had just changed the world for my family because the Phoenix police actually listened, they cared, they took down the information, we were able to supply DNA."
When Mary Bernadette Brubaker moved to Arizona, it meant seeing less her family, most of whom lived in Boulder, Colo., but she kept in touch regularly through cards and letters as well as phone calls and she made the drive first from Tucson, then from Yuma, to visit when she could. So when she didn't check back in with the to confirm a Western Union transfer in the summer of 1997, they began to worry that something had happened to her.
In late 1996, Brubaker's boyfriend accompanied her on her last visit and the family could tell that things were tense between them. Brubaker and her boyfriend lived in an isolated area and, as she struggled with their tumultuous breakup, she told her sister Colleen Dowdy she was beginning to hear voices. Then communication from Brubaker stopped. Somewhere between Boulder and Yuma, Mary had disappeared.
"All those things put her as an at-risk missing person, yet none of this mattered to the police," Dowdy said.
At the time, they were told that Brubaker "had the right to go missing if she wanted as an adult, and that she would probably turn up."
To Brubaker's family that explanation didn't make sense.
For years, Brubaker's family reached out over and over again — to her ex-boyfriend, her neighbors and law enforcement. They searched for activity on her credit card or driver's license, hired detectives and later spent hours on the internet. But it seemed like Mary Brubaker had vanished without a trace.
"With this it's like every birthday, every Christmas, if something comes up and it's mentioned, then it's like a sting that you feel like, like just this burn and frustration and the hopeless, helpless," Dowdy said. "But I never give up hope that she's out there somewhere."
Brubaker's disappearance weighed heavily on the family including her son who was 13 when his mother vanished.
"We've been living with this question; this is just an unsolved mystery," said her sister, and it's a question comes up whenever the family gets together. "They all ask, every time: have you heard from Mary? Has anybody got any information?"
Dowdy especially collected information about her sister Mary's case. She also learned more about the challenges of locating missing persons — and tracing the names of unidentified bodies.
Arizona to national - 'Silent mass disaster'
Occasionally a big case will make headlines, like the case of Jaycee Dugard or the three Cleveland kidnapping survivors, but most of those who go missing daily are known only to their family and those working the case. This means that until they're personally affected, size of the problem is under most people's radar, said Somershoe, the Phoenix detective.
"Nationwide, there's probably about 84,000 people who are reported missing," Somershoe said. "Arizona, there's probably over 2,000 people reported missing right now, and again, these numbers are always changing."
While the numbers fluctuate daily as open cases are resolved and new cases are reported, Arizona regularly places in the top four states nationally for the number of reported unidentified bodies since nationwide tracking began in 2007 through voluntary reporting from law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners to the National Institute of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. Missing persons reporting was added in 2009. Arizona also consistently places near the top for the number of reported missing persons. Other states consistently reporting comparatively high numbers are California, Florida, New York and Texas.
Positioned on major transit routes for goods and people, popular for tourists from around the world, host city for conferences and major events, all of these factors as well as Arizona's location on the U.S.-Mexico border have given the state an unexpected spike in both missing persons and especially unidentified bodies.
"Besides the missing part of the equation you have your unidentified person, that's a huge problem," Somershoe said.
Some of the missing persons may be among these unidentified cases, two halves of story with questions that will go unanswered until they are connected, often through the work of regional system administrators like Dustin Driscoll, whose jurisdiction includes Arizona, California, Nevada and Hawaii.
"As a nation we have a problem that's a very big problem," Driscoll said. "We call it a silent mass disaster."
Simply entering a case for a missing person or unidentified person will start a process that may lead to answers as database staff, reporting agencies and even amateur detectives from the general public review entries for new information or even matches, said Todd Matthews, NamUs's director of Case Management and Communications.
"The system is capable of starting to resolve your case, just because you've entered it, whether you proactively sit there and participate or you react to it when people are making exclusions on your person," Matthews said. "It's like a candle being lit at both ends; you're going to get to the middle a lot faster."
A missing person's family can access NamUs cases too.They can help update the case if there's missing gaps like missing photos or incomplete medical records. They can also share the link with family, friends and even media if they want to bring fresh eyes to the case or raise awareness. Sometimes this process of checking, updating and sharing produces new information and new leads for a case that had gone cold, Driscoll said.
"Nobody wants to find their missing loved one more than a family member," Driscoll said.
So the Missing in Arizona program also builds case NamUs case entries for each missing persons report.
Hector Islas has just a few memories of living in Southern Arizona with his father Joaquin, and they are all from before he was five years old.
"He goes, 'Hector, come over here!'" Islas said. "He called me over, I was about four or five, and he showed me a Gila monster."
Islas also remembers his parents taking him to a creek to learn to swim — and the arguments they had before they got divorced.
"After 1970 when my mother divorced him, I never saw him again," Islas said.
For a decade, Joaquin Islas Moreno was always on the move to follow seasonal farm work across the Southwest, picking oranges and lemons in places like California's San Joaquin Valley, sometimes updating his family on his movements through long-distance phone calls and sometimes postcards.
"After 1980, those phone calls just stopped, they ceased; no more calls," Islas said. "We started to wonder what happened to him."
Islas's mother filed a missing persons report and checked with the Social Security office who said that Joaquin Islas's Social Security number had not been active since 1979.
Hector Islas, who was 16 when his father went missing, grew up with questions. Had his father abandoned Hector and his sister — or had something happened to Joaquin?
"There's this thing hanging over your shoulder, at the back of your mind," Islas said. "And it never gets resolved."
Islas dug deep into his family's history and genealogy. He learned that he was part of a kind of pattern, that both Joaquin and Hector's grandfather had also lost their fathers when they were very young.
Every few years Islas also followed up with Social Security, checked records at the vital statistics offices in California and Arizona, and sometimes just called law enforcement and hospitals in the areas his father had mentioned: Maricopa, Pima, Los Angeles, San Diego.
"Before I started this last, most recent search, I'm tired already," Islas said. "In 2015, I thought I'm going to give it my all and try one more last time."
This time he contacted the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and reached Rodarte.
"Det. Rodarte responded; he was like fantastic," Islas said. "He's the one who got the ball rolling."
Rodarte found the missing persons report that Islas's mother had filed, updated the information and put together a NamUs profile that included photos of Joaquin Islas.
These photos looked familiar to a small group of people discussing missing persons cases in January 2016 on a website forum called WebSleuths. They wondered if they had found the identity for a John Doe in Sacramento County.
"I never checked Sacramento County," Islas said. "I never thought my dad would be that far north."
On May 7, 1980, a man taking his dogs out in North Highlands found the body of another man in a blue and black plaid shirt lying face down in an almond orchard close to the train tracks. According to the case report, the dead man was found with a deck of playing cards, religious photos and $1.60. But there was no identification.
Unsure if the death was a crime, an accident or from natural causes, law enforcement took photos to document the scene and asked for an autopsy. They learned that the man had died of liver disease but nothing else about who he might be so he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the county cemetery. More than 20 years later, a forensic sketch artist reviewed the crime scene photos to compose a drawing that the coroner's office could share with the public. That's the drawing that WebSleuth users thought could be a match for the photos on Joaquin Islas Moreno's NamUs case profile.
Islas, Rodarte and the coroner's office began working to confirm the possible identity match. Then, Islas and his sister drove to Sacramento so they could meet with a caseworker there and submit DNA to could be compared to liver tissue saved from John Doe's autopsy.
Then they waited.
The DNA test results came back that fall and it was a match.
There were still some questions left, but after 36 years, Hector Islas knew where his father was and why he had stopped calling.
"This is a situation where the abandonee went over and rescued the abandoner from a forgotten unidentified status," Islas said. "I had a choice at out point. I could have stayed angry or I could have reached a place where I would forgive him — and I feel good."
Today, Islas is working with his family members on a plan to bring his father back to Arizona. He remembers how it felt to be searching — "It was very daunting, it was like, 'Oh my God, how am I going to find him?'" — and how it felt to finally find answers, even in a far-away country cemetery.
When they started working together, Somershoe, Eggers and Rodarte decided that what they would see as their first sign of success: one case that otherwise might not have been resolved.
"I believe that everybody came into this world with a name and I believe everybody deserves to leave it with a name, and I can assure you that Stu feels the same way, Christen feels the same way, Dustin, all of us that do this," Rodarte said. "Cases like that are the reason that we invested in Missing in Arizona."
Waiting for answers
Based on a similar effort in Michigan, the Missing in Arizona program grew from informal meetings between Rodarte, Eggers and Somershoe.
"Working around them it's infectious," Rodarte said. "They do tremendous work and the impact that they have on families was admirable, and I enjoyed being a part of that."
Their first goal was to resolve at least one case. At the 2015 event they took 22 new cases and updated 10 existing cases, in 216 they took 11 new cases and updated 11 existing cases. As of this May they have located eight of these long-term missing people alive and identified seven who have died — 15 times the success they had initially hoped for.
"When you speak with the families and you start working on the cases you develop that personal kind of relationship with your cases," Eggers said. "I mean that's just so powerful, I mean you have an individual that doesn't have a name and then on the other side there's a family out there wondering where their missing person is."
Next, they want to expand the services the program can offer, like looking for ways to connect families to continuing grief counseling services. They're also helping neighboring states like Colorado set up similar outreach programs. And most of all they hope that the program they create will eventually outlast them, continuing to exist and serve the community after they have retired.
"I think we need to start treating the families as victims," said Somershoe. "A lot of these people from this event, they don't receive the same kind of services that other victims of crime receive, and a lot of them kind of feel kind of dismissed or marginalized."
One day in fall 2016, as one of those who had felt marginalized, Colleen Dowdy sat down at her computer again, mixing and matching search terms including "Arizona" and "missing," and discovered that the second Missing in Arizona event was just days away. She immediately contacted Somershoe.
"I was able to contact them and they responded right away," Dowdy said. "They actually responded and they listened and they asked questions and they cared and they wanted pictures."
Within days, Mary Brubakers's family had a missing persons report on file and Mary had a profile in NamUs.
"I would want her to know that I've never stopped looking for her and that we love her and that I would never let her go again," Dowdy said.
Brubaker's family is still waiting for answers, but now they feel like they are not waiting alone.
"It put my heart alive again about the situation because the years of frustration had like worn me down," her sister said. "We were so happy, I mean we still are, we still just are so grateful that this opportunity came and that they listened and that they cared."