Monday, 29 June 2015

Connecticut: When a loved one goes missing, there are no easy answers

When someone goes missing in Connecticut, how hard police work to find the person can depend on which agency gets the case, officials say.

“Some will go all out; some will just take a report. It’s the luck of the draw,” said New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski, who heads up a task force investigating the disappearance and murders of seven people whose remains were found in New Britain in 2007 and a few months ago. “The extent of the investigation depends on who you get.”

In a second interview, Preleski clarified those comments, saying, “To some extent, that’s true of anything in life.” He admitted there was no easy answer, but agreed that creating a less fragmented approach to investigating missing persons is “something we should think about.”

How missing persons cases are handled has come into sharper focus in recent weeks after New Britain police unearthed the remains of four more victims of a presumed serial killer. Those bodies, buried behind a strip mall on Hartford Road, joined three other sets of remains discovered in the same patch of woods in 2007.

All seven people disappeared in 2003, which has raised questions about why it took nearly 12 years to find and identify them all.

During those years, the families of some of the victims sought help from police in finding their loved ones, but say they got few answers.

Sources have named William Devin Howell as the suspected killer. He’s currently in jail, serving a 15-year sentence on a manslaughter conviction handed down in 2005 for what at that time was the presumed death of one of the missing victims, Nilsa Arizmendi.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane concedes there’s often no easy way to form a unified unit to investigate missing persons cases, but said police should at least review state policy changes from 2011 that include clearly defined steps departments should take when they get a missing persons case.

“Room for improvement”

“Clearly, there is room for improvement,” Kane said. “But we don’t want to set up a process where we are spending so much time screening cases that we have no time to investigate them. We took a good look at this in 2011 and we made some good progress, but we really haven’t taken a second look at it.”

Howell, a drifter from the South, was in this area in 2003, when the seven people disappeared.

The remains of three of the victims, Mary Jane Menard, Joyvaline Martinez and Diane Cusack, were discovered in 2007. The remains of Arizmendi, Melanie Ruth Camilini, Danny Lee Whistnant and Marilyn Gonzales were found at the same location.

All disappeared in 2003 and it took until just this spring to finally find all of their remains and to identify them because of errors made several years ago at the state crime lab, officials have said.

The lab sought and obtained a federal grant to start a cold case unit in part because of the New Britain serial killer case, said Dr. Guy Vallaro. It also has a missing persons unit which works with police departments and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to identify remains and gather DNA samples from families of missing persons.

The investigation took a new turn last week as members of the serial killer task force went to Hampton, Va., to search a house where Howell once lived. That search included digging up the yard to search for human remains, but nothing was found, officials said.

Until the victims were recently identified, they were among more than 1,000 cold cases in the state, including missing persons, cases that haven’t had a good lead in years.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) lists 168 missing persons in Connecticut. The number may not be accurate since police are not required to use NamUs, which can be viewed by the public, and often instead list missing persons on state and national data banks only available to law enforcement.

The techniques used to investigate vary from agency to agency. New Britain police will use “cold case cards” distributed to prison inmates in the hope they may have gleaned some information during their prison stints. They are the only playing cards inmates are allowed to use and each features a different cold case.

“Good police work must be applied to every missing persons case,” New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell said. “Any good detective will not just look within the confines of their municipality.”

There are several specialized units within the state that deal with missing persons and cold cases, but their participation in a case often depends entirely on whether the local police department in charge of the case asks for help.

Ultimately, Wardwell said, good training and good information from families are some of the best investigative tools officers need when investigating a missing person. “Law enforcement must review every missing persons case as if the missing person is in danger,” he said. “The vast majority are not. Some are runaway juveniles who are endangered because they are on the streets. In most cases, they turn up.”

“The best thing a family can do is be honest with police,” Wardwell said. “We need to know their habits, where they might get drugs, who they hang out with, where they hang out. It’s not a time to worry about snitching, folks need to be focused on the person’s safety.”

Local police can also call on the state’s Missing Persons Unit for assistance.

“We are more than willing to help any agency,” said Sgt. Matthew Gunsalus, who supervises the unit. “We will help facilitate anything that they need.” Formed in 2012, the unit has three detectives working on 12 missing persons cases and 18 unidentified human remains cases. It works with local agencies and have staff assigned to the New Britain Serial Killer Task Force, Gunsalus said.

As part of its statutory responsibilities created in a 2011 change in state law, the unit sends out Amber Alerts for missing children and Silver Alerts for missing adults over 18 who are considered disabled or have mental health issues or are over the age of 65.

It routinely contacts national clearinghouses, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Both have databases that can be seen by the public as well as law enforcement.

State database

It also enters information on missing persons into the state database, which connects with the National Crime Information Center, which can be accessed only by law enforcement personnel.

Gunsalus said his unit does not handle cases outside the jurisdiction of the state police unless asked. He said he could not say how many missing persons there were in Connecticut without consulting his agency’s legal affairs department.

Kristin Sasinouski, technical leader at the state forensic lab DNA unit, said there’s a “discordance” between the number of DNA samples submitted to CODIS and NamUs. Many times, a person is listed as missing on NamUs but family members have not been asked to submit a DNA sample. Sasinouski’s goal is to urge family members who are missing a loved one to submit known samples to the laboratory for DNA testing.

Although Sasinouski heads the state lab’s missing persons unit, she does not have access to the NCIC database and does not know how many Connecticut missing persons are listed in that database.

The collection of DNA from family members is vital to the process, Sasinouski said. “As samples from missing persons and their relatives and/or unidentified remains are processed at the laboratory, they are uploaded into CODIS, where they search at both the State and National level against other missing persons-type cases,” she said. “This allows identifications to be made all across the country as well as within our own state.”

To search NamUs or find out more info on how to supply missing persons info to NamUs, use these links: or

Monday 29 June 2015


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