Hunting For Missing Kids

October 1, 2002       Richard Williamson      

When Elizabeth Smart joined the list of missing children in the early morning hours of June 5, the search for the 14-year-old quickly expanded from her affluent Federal Heights neighborhood to the greater Salt Lake City area. By the end of the day, the entire nation was involved.

Lacking experience in managing volunteers and news coverage, much less preserving evidence and potential clues under extreme emotional distress, the Smart family turned to a Friendswood, Texas, nonprofit called the Laura Recovery Center Foundation.

Founded by Bob and Gay Smither in memory of their slain 12-year-old daughter, the Laura Recovery Center helps families of missing children organize searches within hours of a reported abduction. The organization is one of dozens that have sprung up across the country to commemorate young victims over the past 20 years.

"Almost as soon as the search is launched, the family of the victim often wants to start a 501(c )(3)," said Robert Walcutt, executive director of the Laura Recovery Center. "It’s a means for people to strike back at these predators and try to nail them before they harm another child."

At last count, 77 organizations working in fields related to missing children had attained 501(c)(3) status, according to Philanthropic Research Inc.’s GuideStar Web site. The Internet, although sometimes used as a snare for young victims, has fostered countermeasures by nonprofits and allowed quicker communications during a search.

Despite the growing numbers of such organizations, Walcutt said he sees surprisingly little overlap between missions that range from providing search dogs to lobbying lawmakers.

"Every one of the organizations does things differently," he said. "We’re one of the few that will actually go out and search."

Walcutt, an Air Force veteran, became involved in the search for missing children in 1991 as a volunteer with the Heidi Search Center in San Antonio. After taking part in the search for Laura Smither, he agreed to lead the new foundation. "There’s nobody who can claim that they are the exclusive organization. And, there’s none that can claim they are the experts at this because there are none," Walcutt said. "Every time we do one of these, we learn something."

When Elizabeth Smart disappeared, Utah law enforcement issued the state’s first "Rachel Alert," a system adopted less than three months earlier to combine the resources of broadcasters and police. Named for Rachel Runyon, a Sunset, Utah, girl who was abducted and killed in 1982, the Rachel Alert is modeled on the "Amber Alert" program developed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1996 after the slaying of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. Despite a massive response in three states, no trace was found of Elizabeth after weeks of searching.

While high profile cases, like Elizabeth Smart’s, activate thousands of volunteers, Walcutt has been involved in others that were more difficult. "We don’t normally see this response this quickly," Walcutt said. "We’ve had searches where we’ve had the family and half a dozen friends of the family show up and that’s it. In some communities, it’s like pulling teeth. Where people are living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to find people who can afford to take off work."

When Danielle van Dam disappeared from her bed north of San Diego in February, a volunteer trained by the Laura Recovery Center found the 7-year-old girl’s body 25 days later, Walcutt said. Laura Center volunteers also found the body of 34-year-old Jennifer Blagg under 15 feet of garbage in a Colorado landfill in June and continued to search for Blagg’s 6-year-old daughter Abby.

Those involved in the Elizabeth Smart search credit the tight-knit Mormon community for mobilizing so many volunteers so quickly. "It wasn’t like anyone in the LDS (Latter Day Saints Church) hierarchy said: ‘Let’s do this,’" said Otto Jones, a friend of the Smart family. "It just came together overnight."

Bob Smither and volunteers from his foundation helped the Smarts circulate fliers to gas stations, banks and other businesses where Elizabeth and her abductor might have been seen. A sophisticated Web site — Elizabeth Smart.com — was quickly established, and volunteers from community organizations were mobilized.

Elizabeth’s family praised Bob Smither as a very comforting influence. "Bob’s been down this road," said Walcutt. "He and Gay see things differently than most of us would. They would have a very personal feeling for the family."

Walcutt, arrived in Salt Lake City the day after Elizabeth’s abduction. The first volunteer on the scene was Dawn Davis, a former Smart neighbor, and part-time employee of the Laura Center.

"What we do is try to get the search center up and running effectively and quickly," Walcutt said. "We get people trained and after a few days, we step out of the picture. We don’t have thousands of volunteers. There’s only four or five of us that ever go out on something like this."

In mobilizing the community, the Laura Recovery Center recommends contacting the leaders of local scout groups, parent teacher organizations, churches, chambers of commerce, fraternal and professional groups, especially those with which the missing child’s family may be associated.

Diane Langeland, a neighbor whose daughter Kate was one of Elizabeth Smart’s closest friends, started at 4:30 a.m. that first day, serving as an intermediary for the family, organizing volunteers and screening calls. "This was harder on my family than September 11 because it was so personal," Langeland said. "Before this, we never felt unsafe in our neighborhood."

Said young Kate Langeland, "Everything’s changed." Kate studied harp with Elizabeth at a Suzuki school led by a popular Salt Lake instructor. Less than three months before Elizabeth disappeared, the two girls had performed in concerts at Temple Square to celebrate the Paralympics events linked to the Winter Olympics.

Feeling helpless in the search for her friend, Kate wanted to show her support for Elizabeth and her family. So, she and 41 other harp students, ranging from kindergarten to college, adorned their instruments with light blue bows representing Elizabeth’s favorite color for a series of fundraising concerts.

"My daughter had tears in her eyes when her friends suggested this," Diane Langeland said. "She said, ‘I don’t know if I can get through it, but let’s give it a try.’"

In a recent concert, Ed and Lois Smart listened stoically to such standards as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" that once filled their Federal Heights home as Langeland and other family friends thanked passers-by who stuffed cash and checks into a jar on a folding card table on Main Street.

To keep track of the money, the family opened a special account at a Salt Lake City bank. While there are no immediate plans to set up a formal nonprofit in Elizabeth’s name, the family expects to send any unneeded funds to the Laura Recovery Center, said Zeke Dumke, Elizabeth’s uncle.

"They don’t need a duplicate," said Dumke. "But we want to be able to organize an army of volunteers, people who are mobile within an hour any time a child is abducted. We’ve got to make it so tough on abductors that they can’t get away."

Like Elizabeth Smart, 12-year-old Laura Smither was a talented girl, an aspiring ballerina, certified scuba diver and cadet Girl Scout. On April 3, 1997, she was abducted while running in her neighborhood in the town of Friendswood near Houston, 20 days before her 13th birthday. Her body was found in a Pasadena, Texas, pond 14 miles from home, on the 17th day of a search involving more than 6,000 volunteers.

The chief suspect in Laura Smither’s abduction is serving a 60-year Texas prison sentence in the aggravated kidnapping of a 19-year-old woman. William Lewis Reece, then 38, was an Oklahoma parolee working as a construction worker a mile from the Smithers’ home. The day Laura disappeared, Reece and other members of the crew had been dismissed because it was raining. The closest the Smithers have come to a conviction is a $110 million civil judgment against Reece for wrongful death in Laura’s slaying.

Although child abductions by strangers make up a small percentage of the missing children reports, those are the cases where the child is most in danger, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. Of the estimated 725,000 children reported missing in 2001, between 3,200 and 4,600 are considered non-family abductions, federal crime statistics indicate. An estimated 354,100 children were abducted by family members. More than half of the 2,000 children reported missing per day are classified as runaways.

While crimes against children have always stirred deep emotions in local communities, a national groundswell to address the problem did not really take shape until 1980. That’s when the first National Missing Children’s Day was declared after 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished from the streets of New York City. Etan is still missing, and the day originally held in his honor has become an annual event.

Until 1984, gathering and sharing information about missing children was often uncoordinated, even among counties in the same state. Under the prodding of John and Reve Walsh, whose 6-year-old son Adam was abducted from a Florida mall and slain in 1981, Congress funded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a 501(c)(3) that draws 70 percent of its funding from U.S. Department of Justice grants and most of the rest from corporate donors.

"We are the only nonprofit organization in the country that has access to the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database," said Ben Ermini, a former Yonkers, N.Y., police investigator who now directs the missing children division for the center. "As soon as a law enforcement agency enters the case into NCIC, we get a copy of that information."

The National Center worked with the Salt Lake City Police Department on the Smart case, providing analysis by former law enforcement officials now on the staff. "One of our responsibilities is to coordinate the nonprofit organizations," Ermini said. "We work with them and provide them with training. We have a liaison for the nonprofits and a liaison for each state."

Even though the unsolved cases continue to accumulate, law enforcement and the National Center have enjoyed some successes, claiming the recovery of 65,047 children in 81,796 missing child cases.

One of the National Center’s greatest tools is its alliance with ADVO, the nation’s largest targeted direct mail marketing services company that sends out nearly 80 million advertising cards per week with photos of missing children, including enhanced images to show how a child missing for several years would look today.

ADVO, a Windsor, Conn., company that began its partnership with the National Center in 1985, claims that 116 children have been recovered as a result of the mailings. The National Center, meanwhile, claims that one in six children is found through its distribution of posters in stores such as Wal-Mart. Most of those, however, are children abducted by family members or runaways.

Another important tool for the National Center is ALERT (America’s Law Enforcement Retirement Team), made up of retired law enforcement officers willing to work as volunteers. The National Center pays for the retirees’ transportation and per diem expenses. Currently, about 135 retired officers are in the program, Ermini said.

Despite all those resources, children continue to disappear. During the search for Elizabeth Smart, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was abducted as she played in front of her grandmother’s apartment in Orange County, Calif.

Members of the Smart family immediately offered words of support.

"Our heart goes out to you," Cynthia Smart Owens, Elizabeth’s aunt, said after hearing of Samantha’s abduction. "We can feel your pain and we share it with you."

Richard Williamson is a reporter for the Dallas News Bureau.