'We don't look any less hard for anybody': LE on publicity for missing persons

While the search for Gabby Petito has received massive news coverage, police say all missing person reports get the same initial response


By Kaitlin Durbin
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

TOLEDO, Ohio — When Kim Sortor heard that a 3-year-old autistic boy living down the street from her went missing last September, she immediately ran out to start looking for him.

At first she called in friends to help. Then she enlisted the news media, putting a local spotlight on Braylen Noble's case that compelled hundreds of volunteers to join in the search, independent of police, and earned his case some statewide notice. His body was found five days later in a partially drained swimming pool that had previously been searched.

This Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, photo, shows a Suffolk County Police Department missing person poster for Gabby Petito posted in Jakson, Wyo. Petito, 22, vanished while on a cross-country trip in a converted camper van with her boyfriend.
This Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, photo, shows a Suffolk County Police Department missing person poster for Gabby Petito posted in Jakson, Wyo. Petito, 22, vanished while on a cross-country trip in a converted camper van with her boyfriend. (AP Photo/Amber Baesler)

Ms. Sortor believes it's one of the few times a missing-person case involving a minority has received the kind of attention that white victims, especially young women, seem to get.

"I agree that there isn't a whole lot of publicity when a Black person comes up missing," Ms. Sortor said. "I don't think [Braylen's case] would have been so covered if I hadn't gone down there and started that search."

The criticism is central to a debate that resurfaced in the wake of the manhunt for 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who disappeared while on a cross-country trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, 23. He is now missing and is considered a person of interest in her death in Wyoming.

As the nation follows the investigation, some have questioned whether Ms. Petito's status as a young, attractive, white woman was the reason her case became a national sensation, while other missing-person cases rarely even rise to the attention of local news.

Critics have referenced other previous cases of national interest: Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey — all young, attractive white females.

In Ms. Petito's case, her activity on social media had already placed her in the public eye. Followers were watching her travels unfold, so they noticed when her posts stopped.

That could have a lot to do with why her case was so widely shared, Ms. Sortor said, but she still believes there is discrimination in which victims are highlighted and which remain in the dark.

The 2019 disappearance of 14-year-old Harley Dilly, whose body was found stuck in a vacant house's chimney in Port Clinton, also received more national media attention than Braylen. Dilly is white.

"You don't have many Black and Hispanic victims getting that big attention," she said, though she noted Braylen's case was discussed on the nightly news show Nancy Grace after his death.

The Black and Missing Foundation, an organization bringing awareness to missing persons of color, has been highlighting the disparity in coverage since its founding in 2008.

Of 145,467 persons of color, including Black, Asian, and Indian, under the age of 18 who went missing in 2020, it reports, about 39 percent received media attention, compared with 57 percent of white and Hispanic individuals.

"It's important for us to exist because we are the only nonprofit organization that is a voice for an often ignored group," the foundation's website states. "They're ignored by law enforcement. They're ignored by the media, and they're ignored by the community."

In January, the state of Wyoming released a report highlighting the disparities in media coverage related to Indigenous victims who go missing or are killed, compared with white victims.

It found 710 Indigenous people were reported missing between 2011 and 2020, and while most have since been found, their recovery rate is lower than their white counterparts'.

It also reported that Indigenous homicide victims tend to receive less media attention, and the coverage they do get seems to skew negatively.

From a law-enforcement standpoint, Capt. Matthew Luettke of the Lucas County Sheriff's Office says it handles every case the same, though at-risk individuals or indications of foul play may prompt a more immediate response.

"When I assign cases and when detectives do their initial work, other than the description, I don't think anyone pays attention [to race]," Captain Luettke said. "Our initial response is the same no matter what. We have protocols. We don't look any less hard for anybody."

The office receives an average of two to three missing-juvenile reports a week, he said, but "the overwhelming majority" are cleared as quickly as they come in.

The same is true for the Toledo Police Department, which has received 804 missing-person reports so far this year, most of them juveniles who "return or are found safe soon after," spokesman Lt. Paul Davis said.

It's one of the reasons true missing-person cases are hard to quantify and track.

Most recently, the cases of six Black teens who went missing May 23 and 24 from Ohio have been gaining traction online, largely stemming from a TikTok video posted Aug. 30 by user @craveCrystal that questioned, "Why are there so many black children between the ages of 19 and 14, going missing within the same month and nobody is talking about this?"

Two of the teens were from the Toledo area: 17-year-old Alayjah Walker, of Holland, and 16-year-old Lakiyah Armour, of Toledo.

But neither case remains open.

"Alayjah Walker is not a missing person," Lieutenant Davis said, while Miss Armour's father told The Blade she, too, is back home. There is no indication the disappearances were connected.

Missing-person cases also declined slightly last year, from over 1,300 reports in 2018 and 2019 to 1,255 in 2020, Lieutenant Davis said.

One of the approaches TPD took in 2020 to bring more attention to the city's long-term missing persons was to start a social media campaign, "Still Missing," which rehashes details of cases older than one year.

He did not say how successful the campaign has been, but his predecessor, Lt. Kellie Lenhardt, told WTOL-TV, Channel 11 in December that two people it profiled in 2020, who'd been missing since 2015 and 2017, were found safe and a third person's remains were identified.

But even some of those posts have garnered public criticism.

[RELATED: Fla. city kicks off new search-and-rescue program for missing people]

Generating 151 comments and 291 shares, the community seems eager to help find the latest subject of TPD's campaign: 16-year-old Pierre Hawkins, a Black teen missing since Sept. 13, 2020.

But several commenters expressed frustration that the post doesn't include the teen's photo. The only description provided is that young Hawkins is a Black male with black hair and brown eyes and, at the time of his disappearance, was 5 feet, 8 inches and weighed 110 pounds.

"How is anyone supposed to look for this poor baby with no pictures?" one commenter responded. "Lots of 16-year-old boys fit this description."

Police work with what they have, Lieutenant Davis said, explaining that some cases are decades old and don't have pictures in the case files, and other times the victim's family or guardians don't have pictures to provide.

The best way the community can help find the missing, he said, is "by providing us with as much information as possible about the missing person, the circumstances surrounding their disappearance, and where they think the missing person could be."

He encouraged anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers at 419-255-1111.

Meanwhile, Ms. Sortor said she'll continue sharing any missing-person reports she sees and putting her own boots to the ground to find them, whenever possible. She's traveled to Michigan and Indiana to assist in searches.

"It's just my calling," she said. "But I'm just Kim."

NamUs, a national database of missing and unidentified persons, reports over 600,000 people go missing each year, and while most are quickly found, its website says "tens of thousands of individuals remain missing for more than one year."

Ms. Sortor said she can't find them all alone.

"It takes a village," she said, advocating for all cases to receive equal attention. "We need to get the community out there to help when somebody is missing."

(c)2021 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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