May 23, 2013 at 10:37 am

Advocates take team approach to search

They help families find answers by posting fliers, checking records, canvassing streets

As missing person cases languish, some residents and supporters have stepped out on their own to find answers and closure.

It Takes A Village Y'All, a grassroots community nonprofit group launched in 2010, has been working with Crime Stoppers and other agencies to spread the word about missing people and homicide victims.

Through social media and posting fliers across the city, members aim to saturate as many venues as possible with photos and information on the missing.

Why? "We know in this economy, money loosens up lips," founder Robert Lewis Robinson II said. "That's why we always get the fliers made up. … We blanket the city. … You never know where a tip may come from."

In some instances, that can prove especially beneficial.

Shortly before Christmas, a middle-aged woman with mental issues was reported missing. Within 72 hours of It Takes a Village posting her photo and a notice online, Robinson said, "This guy called me and said: 'I'm looking at her right now.' " The missing woman soon was returned home.

The group also bands together with families of missing people to canvass streets, organize rallies and search abandoned homes, if needed.

Going to such lengths is "worth it," Robinson said. "If it was me, and one of my family members came up missing, I would want somebody to come out and help. … It's our job as a community to make sure we go out and take care of our community."

Another resource is Heather Holland, a Big Rapids-based missing person advocate.

Inspired by a high school classmate's missing aunt, the social worker decided to direct a nonprofit, TrackMissing, aimed at finding people.

Since then, Holland has worked on more than 20 cold missing person cases. To help families find answers, she tracks clues: searching court files and websites, checking dead-end roads with dog teams and seeking autopsies and police reports.

In 2011, after about 11 months of searches, Holland helped uncover the remains of Kristin Spires, a 20-year-old who had been reported missing from Barryton, near Big Rapids, for nearly a year.

"It just takes one little tip to crack a case," she said.

Although the likelihood of finding a person reported missing lowers with time, the prognosis is not grim every time.

This winter, Holland fielded a frantic call from the daughter of an Ecorse woman who had not been heard from since 2010.

Relatives were "fairly convinced" the woman, who had struggled with drugs, was harmed by an ex-husband serving time for trying to kill another lover, Holland said.

Coincidentally, days later, police found the woman in Florida.

While that's a "wonderful outcome," Holland said, it's not typical. "I would tend to say that most of the time it doesn't necessarily end up as well."

Some leads to identifying some of the missing might be in the morgue, officials said.

Det. Trooper Sarah Krebs of the Michigan State Police's biometrics and identification division handles cases entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Krebs said that in the hundreds of unidentified remains cases she has tackled in more than 13 years, only one was not a missing person. The number of bodies sitting unnamed in a morgue and missing person reports seem to "just go hand in hand," she said. That prompted Krebs to propose "Identify the Missing Detroit." The initiative allows residents from across the state who have reported a missing loved one to visit the Wayne County morgue in Detroit and submit DNA samples in hopes of matching them with the unidentified remains there, she said.

"The Wayne County morgue has a lot of unidentified remains cases that we're not going to solve any other way," she said, adding the morgue has more than 40 such cases.

To help solve longstanding cases faster, others are calling for a system that will streamline information.

That's the aim of Ardis Renkoski, who has been on a mission since her daughter, Paige, disappeared in 1990.

Renkoski is proposing state legislation that would promote and encourage the use of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

She wants a uniform procedure for police agencies to follow when a person disappears as well as more collaborative efforts and information sharing between law enforcement agencies. Additionally, she wants relatives of the missing to submit DNA and coroners to collect DNA samples before cremating or burying unidentified remains.

"When there are so many branches … information gets lost and communication gets lost between the different branches," said Renkoski, a longtime president of her local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children Inc. and a victim advocate adviser to a National Institute of Justice initiative involving forensic DNA in missing person cases.

To highlight cases, families still can opt for notices posted online as well as through advocacy groups and national efforts such as Project Jason. The nonprofit, which focuses on case assessment, resources and support for families of the missing, is named after a Nebraska teen who vanished in 2001.

Having places for families to post alerts keeps their cases in the public eye — which can yield results, said Kelly Murphy, the group's founder and president. She estimated one out of every six missing people was found after the use of a visual aid.

"Every bit of awareness helps," she said. "No matter what the circumstance … we need the public's help to share the word."

mhicks@detroitnews.com

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