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The compassion that drives a search for people who are missing

Often, the person is found but not alive. And a missing person case becomes a murder case. But not always. And in either case, the family wants to know.

Viola Martin, who was 56 when she reportedly last was seen, has been missing since Dec. 26, 2009.
Viola Brown Martin, who was 56 when she reportedly last was seen, has been missing since Dec. 26, 2009.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Over the years, while working to identify the last anonymous victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was stunned by an unexpected development.

Investigators working the case found five other men who had been missing since the 1970s for reasons that had nothing to do with Gacy.

And the men were alive.

Clearly, Dart realized, people go missing more often than most of us might imagine, and not necessarily because there has been foul play. And sometimes, even after decades, they can be found.

“It is stunning,” Dart told us on Wednesday. “At a time when we have cell phones that track us, and Facebook and computer data and license plate readers, the idea that somebody could be missing defies logic for most people. But it’s actually not that hard for people to fall off the grid.”

Missing Person Project

Because that thought has nagged at him — and because he has seen the peace of mind that finding a missing person can bring to a family — Dart has launched a new effort to find some 170 persons who have been missing for three years or longer, using both traditional detective work and new. The initial focus of his Missing Persons Project, for practical reasons, generally will be on people who have disappeared in the past 10 to 15 years, but Dart is asking the public — folks like you and us — to contact his office with information about any case.

“Do not underestimate how valuable your input can be,” Dart said. “Maybe you want to tell us that ‘I saw her at the mall.’ Even if you’ve already talked to the police, you can contact us.”

Call 773-674-9490 or email investigators at ccso.missingpersons@ccsheriff.org.

Families want to know

There is a compassionate impulse behind this new initiative that appeals to us greatly. As veteran Chicago journalists, members of the Sun-Times editorial board have met and talked many times with the families of missing persons, sitting in their living rooms and taking notes while seeing the suffering in their eyes.

Often, the missing person is eventually found, but not alive. And the missing person case becomes a murder case. But not always. Sometimes somebody just disappears.

In either case, the family wants to know, to no longer have to wonder.

The first six cases the Missing Persons Project will take on, with three detectives dedicated to the job full time, are listed at the top of the project’s website. Maybe you knew one of these missing women. Maybe you know something that could be of help.

There is Tracie A. Bell, who was 54 when she went missing on March 6, 2018. A secretary for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, she was last seen in Richton Park.

There is Jerrica Lizette Laws, who was 24 when she went for a walk in Park Forest, leaving her purse at home, on Aug. 17, 2015.

There is Nyameka Amanda Malindi-Bell, who was 32 and living in Evanston when she failed to come home from work on Nov. 27, 2015. Somebody used her credit cards while going from Illinois to Chattanooga, and also at gas stations in Texas.

There is Viola Brown Martin, who was 56 when she left a daughter’s house in Glenwood on the day after Christmas in 2009. She never picked up her last paycheck at a medical facility. Since her disappearance, there have been several reported sightings of her in the Chicago area, but none has been confirmed.

There is Demetris Robinson, who was 42 when she was last seen at a sister’s house in Dixmoor on March 3, 2000. Neighbors saw her get into a car but they could not see if a man or woman was driving.

There is Annie L. Sanders, 72 who was living with a son in Broadview when she apparently walked away from the house and did not return on March 3, 1992. Once before she had walked away from home and been found by the police. She reportedly suffered from hallucinations.

All of these first six cases are of Black women, as it happens, but to review the full list of the sheriff office’s cases is to see that missing persons in Cook County come in all colors, ages and gender. The list includes 77 women and 93 men.

Finding a missing person

How do you find a missing person when the trail has grown cold with the years? Dart said it’s largely a matter of picking up where local police departments, strapped for resources and having done their best for a time, left off. Old witnesses are reinterviewed. Maybe they’ll feel freer to talk now. New, potential witnesses are approached.

There are also new ways of tracking down people through DNA evidence, of course, which Dart says his office will pursue.

So often, Dart said, a rift in a family becomes permanent when neither side really wants it that way. He recalled a case of a young man who had gotten into a row with his father and stormed out of the house. After having no contact with his family for years, the man finally called a sibling to let everybody know he was alive. He explained, “I thought you wouldn’t want to see me again.”

To which the sibling replied: “Dad’s last wish was to see you before he died.”

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