May 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm

4,000 missing without trace in Mich.; families keep searching

Wherever Sharon Murray heads, she seeks her younger brother.

Randall Childs, 52, and his girlfriend, Karen Young, left their apartment on Detroit's west side one day in June 2011. Neither has been seen since.

Nearly two years after a missing person report was filed, and an investigation that has yielded few clues, "I look for his face — it doesn't matter where," Murray of Plymouth said. "It could be at a mall, a grocery store, the park. … I'm always scanning the crowd, looking for Randall."

Murray's story is among those from the nearly 4,000 missing people the FBI counts statewide on a list it has been maintaining nearly 40 years.

Their families desperately seek answers from police, even strangers, while other crimes — murders, break-ins, drug rings — grab headlines and the public's attention. The missing leave empty bedrooms, vacant work stations and unfilled seats at graduation dinners, birthday parties and family gatherings — and private heartache.

Even as the calendar changes and scant evidence emerges, relatives continue their quest: hanging posters, turning to social media, combing through abandoned houses and chasing any rumors or sightings.

"Their loved one is missing. They are frantic," said John Broad, president of Crime Stoppers of Michigan, which offers rewards for information on missing person cases. "They don't know what to do — they just know that they have to do something."

Emotions rise during events such as National Missing Children's Day, which is Saturday. And the void widens when focus shifts to newer and more publicized cases: the Norton Shores gas-station clerk who vanished last month and the rescue of the three women apparently held in a Cleveland house for years.

"My son — he's somebody's child, too," said Leitha Sims, whose son Derrell, 21, disappeared from Detroit in 2011. "He has people who love him. … It's upsetting but there's not much I can do but pray and try to keep my faith and my hope alive."

The FBI's National Crime Information Center listed 3,976 missing persons in Michigan as of May 13, compared to 3,015 in early 2012. Those figures do not name locations and are reported by authorities based on a number of criteria. The statistics have been compiled since the 1970s and include decades-old cases.

State and federal laws often guide how authorities issue notices for missing youth. And in some cases for medically vulnerable senior citizens, a Silver Alert can be issued.

But there are no state statutes that mandate police report on a voluntarily missing adult older than 21, said Det. Trooper Sarah Krebs of the Michigan State Police.

Each police agency has its own policy on handling missing persons reports; many typically are taken within 24-48 hours.

Kathy Wilson of Westland called police and filed a missing person report within hours of her daughter leaving home Feb. 11.

That morning, Christina Balog told her mother she felt nervous and "I need to go for a walk." She left without a phone or ID and has not returned.

Days earlier, Balog, 43, had been released from the Behavioral Center of Michigan in Warren, where she had been treated on and off for months.

She had never left home for long, and always kept in touch with Wilson or her 16-year-old son.

Officers combed a nearby park with a K-9 team as well as tracked her Medicare use but could not trace her, said Sgt. Norm Brooks of the Westland Police Department.

Relatives checked with her friends, "and for the whole week I called the hospital until they recognized our voices," Wilson said. The family made posters and placed information online.

As the months pass, they begin to fear the worse.

"What would make her not call to let us know that she's alright?" said her brother, Mark Wilson. "I have no idea unless someone is holding her against her will."

Some 'at-risk'

Missing persons cases generally fall into two categories: voluntary or involuntary, said Erick Barnes, a former police officer who directs the University of Detroit Mercy's Center for Cyber Security and Intelligence Studies.

The voluntarily missing often lack social anchors, Barnes said. "If you have family, friends, a job or something you're striving toward, those anchors tend to keep people who may be under stress from fleeing."

Once a person without those ties becomes overwhelmed from personal loss, health issues or major changes, he said, "the instinct to flee kicks in."

With that, "there are people that take off and don't want to be found," said Detroit Police Lt. Dale Greenleaf.

Some may already be "at-risk" for disappearing, said Cynthia Caron, president and founder of LostNMissing, a nonprofit that helps search for missing people nationwide.

Caron said these include people who have cognitive, mental or emotional disorders; use alcohol, drugs or engage in drug trafficking; have committed a crime; and "those who may 'choose' to go missing and step away from their present lives and sometimes due to emotional turmoil and/or the inability to cope with stress."

In March 2011, weeks after her 24th birthday, Bianca Chanel Green dropped off her son with relatives, and vanished.

The next day, Lisa Greene was alerted by her cousin, who saw a Facebook message from Green saying she planned on leaving.

In a series of texts, Green told her mother she was pregnant, "can't take it anymore" and planned to take a bus to the South. "She said she would call me when she got to her destination — and she never did," Greene said.

Greene obtained her daughter's credit union statement, which showed an Internet transaction in Georgia, but no later activity. She filed a missing persons report and moved her daughter's belongings into storage.

Investigators found few leads. The case is open, police said.

Families frustrated

Like other families looking for information on their loved ones' cases, Greene has turned to advocacy groups, including the Black & Missing Foundation.

Co-founder Natalie Wilson said she launched the nonprofit after the family of a missing black woman struggled to find media coverage of her case.

For some families, their perception is that the media or others do not extensively cover a missing minority's case because it might not interest their audiences, Wilson said, hindering investigations. "If the public is not aware this person is missing … how can someone come forward?"

Families voice other frustrations, too.

"I believe they're not looking for her because she has a record. Just like a nobody's gone missing. That's how I feel they feel about her," said Beatrice Dinwiddie, whose sister, Donna Hudson, a former felon, disappeared in Detroit last June. "But she's our sister and we still love her."

Yet even with focus and resources, leads can elude detectives and relatives.

'I just want to know'

Since Randa Jawhari vanished from suburban Flint on Feb. 11, 2009, police have pored over surveillance video, sought a person of interest, traced cellphone records, interviewed acquaintances and tracked tips from hundreds of calls, "but we still haven't come up with anything significant," Fenton Police Det. Ron Skarzynski said. A Facebook page and website also have been unproductive.

Meanwhile, relatives maintain mementos: shoes, clothing, a painted portrait.

"You just try to hold on to whatever you can," said her sister, Naheda Jawhari. "… But nothing is satisfying. … Nothing can replace a loved one."

The family of Detroiter Joe Hill, who vanished in 1981, still clings to his memory — and hope for closure.

"My heart is broken," sister Darlene Carter said. "It's going to be broken until he shows up or they find his remains. I'm not going to be right until that happens, period. Good or bad — I just want to know."

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Sharon Murray, sister of Randall Childs, stands near a billboard seeking information on her brother’s disappearance. Childs and his girlfriend vanished June 7, 2011, after they left their apartment on the west side. / Steve Perez / The Detroit News