Regardless of how aggressively authorities investigate a missing persons case, experts say the missing person’s family and friends often do not stop looking until their loved one is found. They might organize search parties, schedule prayer vigils, appeal for public help on social media, contact the media, even hire private investigators.
Disseminating information through the media has contributed to solving cases because those stories keep the public aware and inspire community involvement, said Monica Caison, founder of the North Carolina nonprofit organization CUE Center for Missing Persons.
But when cases are downplayed, or authorities announce that a missing person is not in danger, such as in the Jessica Rehfeld case, “then the general public will not participate in searches and move on,” said Caison, who established CUE in 1994.
“It makes this process very difficult, but families know their loved ones and they have to fight the fight no matter what.”
Caison said authorities often are right in their case judgments, but added that the wisdom of their decisions can be evaluated after the missing person is found.
In an interview earlier this month, Rapid City Police Department Capt. James Johns said he issued a statement that Rehfeld appeared to be in no immediate harm — one day after announcing that she was missing — in order to avoid "this overwhelming shadow of people going out and taking matters into their own hands and trying to find Jessica."
At the time the statement that police believed Rehfeld was not in danger was released to the public, the 22-year-old Rapid City resident was already dead and buried in a shallow grave in the woods near Rockerville, police now say.
Every day, there can be as many as 85,000 people missing throughout the United States.
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In South Dakota, 110 children and adults were officially considered missing as of April 30. The state Attorney General’s office says information about these missing people have been filed with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a database that informs law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Many people who go missing in the U.S. end up being victims of homicide, according to a 2007 article published by the National Institute of Justice, which maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
The conventional approach to locating missing people is to initiate a criminal investigation into their disappearance, but in many cases, the investigation begins when human remains are found, says the article “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.”
When missing people are killed, their bodies are often found by strangers, such as hunters, fishermen and members of search parties, rather than law enforcement officers, said Marc Benson, a North Carolina law enforcer-turned-private-investigator who has assisted CUE.
Meanwhile, a mental health counselor who specializes in grief and loss issues said he would advise law enforcement officers not to declare a missing person safe unless they have hard evidence of it. If authorities turn out to be wrong, their credibility can suffer.
“It fundamentally comes down to a level of trust. How much can we trust the police?” said Kenneth Doka, a professor at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle. He also works with the families of New York state troopers who have died in the line of duty.
“When you make statements that somebody’s safe, and obviously you don’t have definitive proof of it, then the next time you make that statement, people are gonna say, ‘Can we trust it?’”
In cases of missteps, authorities can regain the public’s confidence by admitting mistakes, Doka said. “They need to say, ‘This is what happened. This is why it happened. This is how we’re gonna be sure it doesn’t happen again.’”