How Hamilton police handle missing-persons cases

How Hamilton police handle missing-persons cases

Every year, Hamilton police receive more than 1,500 reports of missing people.

Sometimes they are found right away and sometimes they don’t want to be found. But each must be taken seriously. When someone is seriously in trouble, every minute counts.

Const. Kim Walker is Hamilton’s only missing person co-ordinator, a position created in 2011 and that she’s held since late 2015.

“I see every single one that comes through every day,” Walker says. It’s her job to make sure no detail is missed.

Most reports come in the same way — at a police station front desk — and most are investigated by front-line officers — representing a huge part of the workload for uniform patrol.

In Hamilton, there have been near miraculous cases where people have been found days after going missing. In 2015, for instance, Franco Mamone, then 75, was found in a field in Dundas three days after going missing without his medication. Mamone was lying on his back, shirtless and shoeless, suffering from hypothermia but no other injuries. More than three years later, he’s alive and well, living in an assisted-living retirement home.

There have also been cases that ended tragically, such as the death of 16-year-old Devon Freeman ,who was in the care of the Children’s Aid Society, living at the Lynwood Charlton Centre’s Flamborough site.

Freeman was a frequent runaway, and it wasn’t until months after he went missing that detectives took over the case. Six months after going missing, kids throwing a ball at the residential facility found him in the woods. His death was ruled a suicide and sparked several internal investigations.

“I go back and review it constantly,” Walker says of the Freeman case. “I sit down with the guys and say, what could we have done differently?”

But, she says, there was nothing in that case that led them to a ground search. The last time Freeman had been spotted was downtown Hamilton; nobody saw him go back to Lynwood.

His case highlights a particular challenge for officers: the “habitual missing person.”

Of almost 1,200 missing persons reported in the first 10 months of 2018, 342 were “habitual”: those who go missing often and live in group homes or in children’s aid custody and have mental health, addiction or cognitive issues.

When someone is reported missing, time is everything, so there are steps that must be followed.

First, the officer does a risk-factors check list. There are 16 points on the check list and if the missing person checks even one, the case is considered “level one” — higher priority and must be reviewed by a sergeant. Typically, police also send out a press release alerting the public to look for that person.

Risk factors on the list include suspicion of foul play, history of domestic violence, being Indigenous, being under 12, being over 60 or a vulnerable adult, mental health or mental capacity issues, and high-risk lifestyles.

Any level one case must also go through a search urgency chart to determine whether a ground search is needed. The chart notes age, medical condition, number of people missing, weather, clothing and terrain. This assessment is redone every 12 hours for the first 48 hours of an investigation.

Hamilton police do about a dozen ground searches each year, says search manager Sgt. Fab Guiliani.

There are 12 managers who direct ground searches using all available resources from patrol, ACTION, mounted units, ATVs and canine.

There are about 45 specialty-search officers who work in various units across the service who may also be called in. They’re experts in navigation and GPS, and looking for clues like tracks.

Guiliani takes all the information and maps out searches. This allows him to see if a pocket has been missed or if there is an area that needs more resources.

He said this year all but two of the searches ended happily. Two people were found dead — one by suicide and the other of exposure.

“For us, everything is time sensitive — the longer a person is missing, the wider the area becomes.”

The most useful piece of information for a ground search is the last place a person was seen. Without that, police don’t have a place to start. It’s not true that one must wait for someone to be missing 24 hours.

“That person may have been missing 12 times in last 12 days, but you never know when one is going to be the legitimate time and they’re going to be a missing person,” Guiliani said.

Since November 2015, police have partnered with MedicAlert, giving officers access to the company’s databank and GPS program. Since then, police have accessed the MedicAlert databank 202 times to help find missing people faster, often in cases involving people with dementia or Alzheimer’s who wander.

At any given time, there are usually fewer than 20 missing person cases on the go. During an interview with The Spectator late last month, , Walker said that number was quite low: just six.

Most cases, even when they’re level one, stay with patrol. But the most serious, ones in which there is evidence something is wrong, go to detectives.

Usually, that means the criminal investigations branch, where detectives have the resources, experience and connections to dig deeper, including having bank and cellphone accounts flagged.

Walker said social media has increasingly become a tool used to measure whether a case rises to the level of a criminal investigation. That is what happened in the case of Monica Chisar, last seen in July and reported missing by family in September.

Walker described Chisar as “transient in nature,” with mental health and addiction issues. She moved around a lot and it was somewhat normal behaviour for her to not be in touch with family.

But what was consistent was her social media posts; she liked to share pictures of her travels. Once police started looking into her case, they found her social media activity had completely stopped.

So, on Oct. 23, her case was transferred to detectives.

In rare cases, such as the January 2018 domestic homicide of Holly Hamilton — missing for days before he body was found in the trunk of her car — there is enough evidence for homicide detectives from the major crime unit to take over the case.

There are also 17 “cold cases” listed on a special missing persons section of the Hamilton police website, stretching back to 1981.

The most recent is that of William (Bill) Bokstein, who was 50 when he disappeared in February after dropping his teenaged daughter off at school. Police and family know he went to Niagara Falls where he was captured on surveillance taking out money near the Fallsview Casino Feb. 25.

For Christine, his wife of 26 years, the not knowing is agonizing.

She believes he has likely passed away. Before his disappearance, Bill faced several losses of loved ones and wasn’t taking it well. He would never just walk out on his family, she said.

The morning he left, Friday, Feb. 23, Bill was still sleeping as she got ready for work. He woke and said he’d take their then 15-year-old daughter to school. All seemed normal.

He took his daughter to school and then, without a word, appears to have gone to Niagara Falls.

That night, when Christine and her daughter returned home, she questioned whether she’d heard from her dad that day. Bill used to call and text his family a lot — sometimes 30 times a day — but he also was prone to misplacing his phone and sometimes picked up extra shifts working overnight as a personal support worker.

Christine took her daughter to dance and, when Bill still hadn’t called by the time they were home, she became more worried. His silence was glaring. Christine said she fell asleep waiting for Bill and then called police the next morning.

She had searched their bank account and saw the hotel charges in Niagara Falls. At first, she was bounced around between Hamilton and Niagara police, but Hamilton eventually took charge.

Christine believes nobody took the case seriously enough at first because he was an adult man without any known health or mental health issues. She’s not sure how extensively police searched for him in Niagara Falls and believes any police investigation was likely too late.

Bill was family man who loved to make people smile and loved his daughter, she said. He would talk to anyone and people would remember meeting the friendly, tattooed man.

Police later found his cellphone in his car but not his wallet.

“I know Bill. If he was not at the gym or working, he was at home watching ‘Judge Judy,'” she said. One of his many tattoos is “Judge Judy.”

The family is also working with a private investigator, John Cowen of J.M.C. Security & Investigations.

Walker says police are stuck in this case. They’ve “exhausted all leads” and are “trying to think outside the box.

Source: Nicole O’Reilly The Hamilton Spectator

January 4, 2019 / by / in