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Notes from the Field: Solving Missing Persons Cases in Indian Country

Missing persons cases are overwhelming — not just for families, but for communities as a whole. When someone goes missing and is never found, families lack closure. The impact of the loss can spread through the whole community.
Date Published
November 20, 2019
By
Cornelia Perry, Criminal Investigator, Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations

As an officer at the Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations, I’ve worked numerous missing persons cases and witnessed firsthand the devastating impact families and communities endure.

It was around 2006 that I handled my first missing person case. Twenty-two-year-old Jilleda John was reported missing from Del Muerto, Arizona. We followed every lead that came our way and conducted countless interviews, but still we came up with nothing.

Two months later, her remains were recovered in a rural canyon road. This case, like many other missing persons cases that involve foul play, remains unsolved.

In 2008, I was involved in a search for Roy Etsitty — a missing elderly gentleman from Chinle, Arizona. At the time, missing persons reports were generally taken only after a waiting period. Furthermore, federal and state laws do not require law enforcement to take missing adult reports, but a patrol took a report for Roy from his family.

Even now, reports are sometimes not taken because it is understood that adults have the choice to go wherever they want, and that some adults may choose to leave their homes voluntarily. These gaps make reporting and investigating missing persons cases even more difficult. Roy Etsitty is still missing.

There is, however, good news — many of our investigations result in people coming home to their families. We also resolve other cases and bring justice for those who do not make it home. In December 2014, Dennis Charley and Ronald Hardy went missing, along with their vehicle. I assisted with the searches and investigations. Four years later, in 2018, the individuals responsible for their deaths were sentenced to federal prison on racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations (RICO) charges.

Working on these cases and others has demonstrated that we need a better protocol for collecting reports on, and finding, people who go missing.

When people go missing, many factors may interfere with appropriate reporting and investigation. Jurisdictional issues may play a role in how reports are filed. Evidence collection may be hindered due to a variety of circumstances. Although the FBI takes cases of missing children as soon as they are reported, cases of missing adults are harder to handle. Currently, there are very few laws that require reporting missing adults, and this may delay investigation. Differing policies and procedures across districts and jurisdictions also make it difficult to determine which cases have been adequately reported and investigated and which require more attention. Missing persons cases constitute a good portion of every agency’s caseload. By working together, with families, victims, and communities, we have the power to bring many people home to their loved ones.

Improving Protocols

Fifteen years ago, I became a police officer at the Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations.

Then, as now, one officer could handle a case from the preliminary contact all the way to federal court. When a case is called in, a patrol officer will arrive on scene or meet with the victim. After the preliminary investigation is completed, the case is referred to a criminal investigator. From there, the investigator will contact the FBI or submit the file to a federal court for prosecution. As such, I handled every part of every case that came my way during training with senior investigators. Working such a broad variety of cases in my district opened my eyes to the law enforcement needs of my community.

The best way to ensure that a missing person case gets the attention it requires is to keep track of it. Even with limited staff and resources, a lot can be done if organization is prioritized.

At the Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations, as at many other agencies, reports of missing persons come in through dispatchers. As often as we can, we first touch base with those who reported the missing person, or with the first law enforcement point of contact, to obtain the reports that have come in. We also check the missing persons posters in our offices to make sure our files are up to date.

Next, we contact the person who reported the missing person to see if the missing person has been found. Often people who go missing return home on their own. If this is the case, we complete all reports and close out the case. This ensures that our caseload is manageable so that we can direct resources to cases that are still open.

If the person has not returned, we follow up with the person who reported as quickly as possible and collect as much information as we can. We visit the home and collect evidence, including DNA from family members. We take a report of all necessary information. We then enter case information into appropriate databases, including the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS).

NamUs is an especially helpful resource for us. Founded by the National Institute of Justice, this database is a free resource that is available to everyone, even the public. Law enforcement officers, medical examiners, and coroners can update cases and access confidential evidence on the platform. Family members and the public can recommend possible DNA matches and provide more evidence to law enforcement.

NamUs acts as a force multiplier by allowing more people to make matches between missing persons and unidentified remains. We upload as many missing persons cases to NamUs as we can. It is a major resource in handling those cases.

The Future of Missing Persons in Navajo Nation

The real number of missing persons in Navajo Nation is currently unknown.

By using our protocol, we have slowly but surely been clearing missing persons cases in our agency. Sometimes we do a lot of work on this issue. At other times, our attention is required on other cases and we spend less time on missing persons cases.

Over time, we are chipping away at cases, organizing them, updating our files, and keeping family members apprised. Just recently we were able to resolve the case of a missing woman — a big win in our book. Resolving cases can be extremely rewarding. It feels good to give families the answers they are looking for; even if the answer is tragic, it brings closure.

An unexpected success of this endeavor has been increased reporting of missing persons cases. I am finding that keeping in touch with families, closing out minor cases, and keeping cases active has built trust in our agency. Increased reporting shows me that the community is gaining greater trust in our agency to help them find their loved ones. Building trust means that we can build strong partnerships with families and agencies to return people home quickly and safely.

Our ultimate goal is to determine the true number of missing persons per district in Navajo Nation. When we determine that number, we can focus resources more effectively and have a greater impact on reducing missing persons cases. 

We want to prevent this hardship for as many families as possible. We also want to stress to people that they need to communicate with their loved ones about where they are going, with whom, and when they will return.

Hopefully, these tactics will prevent a future missing persons case. In the meantime, we will keep working to reduce our caseload and bring closure to as many families as possible.

About “Notes From the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes From the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes From the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

About the Author

Cornelia Perry is a 15-year veteran of the Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations. She serves as a criminal investigator. Ms. Perry is deeply invested in issues of missing persons at Navajo Nation. She spearheads efforts to update records and reports of missing persons in all seven districts across Navajo Nation.

Writing and editorial support was provided by Trisha Chakraborty, Ph.D., a science and technology policy fellow from the American Association for the Advancement of Science on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

Cornelia Perry, Criminal Investigator, Navajo Nation Department of Criminal Investigations, "Notes from the Field: Solving Missing Persons Cases in Indian Country," November 20, 2019, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/notes-field-solving-missing-persons-cases-indian-country
Date Created: November 20, 2019