When a loved one disappears, family & friends want police to act

The family (left) of Jeanette DuPriest (top) in front of their home on Pentridge Street at 58th in Southwest Philadelphia.
The family (left) of Jeanette DuPriest (top) in front of their home on Pentridge Street at 58th in Southwest Philadelphia.
Posted: August 03, 2010

JENNA LORD never knew Lisa Michelle Hatchell or Jeanette DuPriest.

Hatchell, a retired Army veteran and 37-year-old divorced mother of two, lived with her boyfriend in Southwest Philadelphia.

DuPriest, 41, raised eight kids in hardscrabble Kingsessing, occasionally reconnecting with a longtime love even though they fought often and he had secured a protection order against her.

But Lord, a 23-year-old Delaware County woman whose body was found in an empty Camden lot last month, had one thing in common with the two Philly women.

All three were drug addicts who'd had trouble shaking their chemical cravings. And each disappeared, leaving frantic families with endless questions - and deep-seated resentments against authorities that they claim dismissed the missing women as junkies on a binge.

"I had a cop tell me, 'If we spend time looking for every crackhead that ever went missing, that's all we would do,' " said Alonie Walton, 69, who still devotes time daily to searching for her daughter, Hatchell, who has been missing since July 19, 2003.

'Resources are dwindling'

With nearly 2,000 people reported missing nationally every day, authorities say that they have to prioritize cases and simply can't chase every missing person with equal urgency.

The problem is acute in big cities, where overburdened police departments get swamped with missing-person reports and people can more easily disappear into the hubbub of busy streets.

Missing-adult cases cause some unique problems for law enforcement.

"An adult has the legal right to be missing - you have some people who just don't want to be bothered, whether they have a chemical-dependency issue or some other reason for disappearing," said Robert Lowry, executive director of the missing-children's division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"And in this economy, police departments' resources are dwindling," Lowry added. "When police are also responsible for [solving and preventing] violent crimes, it isn't necessarily that they want to minimize a missing-person case. At some point, police have to prioritize."

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood agreed: "We don't have the resources, we don't have the time, and in a majority of the cases, especially with adults, they [the missing people] just run away, whether from domestic violence, criminal trouble, suicide or something else.

"That's not a cop-out [on the part of police], that's the reality of what it is."

Still, Lowry, Chitwood and others acknowledge that even if it seems that someone disappeared to indulge an addiction, investigators shouldn't rule out foul play.

Drug use can make someone more vulnerable to an unsavory fate. After all, crackhouses aren't exactly safe havens, and dealers and users can resort to desperate measures in their illicit activity.

Two weeks ago, Lord proved that. After she disappeared July 5, her family complained that police on both sides of the river weren't doing enough to find her.

"Dogs and cats get better treatment when they go missing," Lord's mother, Desiree Caruso, said about a week after her daughter disappeared.

Four days after Caruso voiced her complaint, relatives - who'd mounted a search because they were frustrated with cops - found Lord's body in a trash-strewn, weed-choked lot in Camden on July 18.

Investigators say that they don't suspect foul play; a man told police he did drugs with Lord in that lot the day she disappeared and left her there after she passed out.

Still, Lord's family remains unconvinced. And so far, science hasn't helped clarify things. The cause of her death remains undetermined because her corpse was so badly decomposed.

"I absolutely think foul play was involved," Kimmy McCardle, Lord's aunt, said. "We need to know how she died."

If investigators took such cases more seriously, relatives of missing addicts might not be left wondering, supporters say.

"[Police] just don't care," Walton said. "They hear 'addict' and they don't put up no effort or nothing. They don't waste no gas trying to find you. They just put the file on the desk to collect dust."

Denise DuPriest, whose sister Jeanette vanished April 2, agreed: "Cops don't count drug addicts as people."

Unreliable witnesses

Outside a shabby brick rowhouse on Belmar Terrace near 55th Street, the drinking starts early.

Men gather, in twos and threes, to guffaw at each other's jokes and guzzle beer from bottles in brown bags, dodging the sun's scorching rays under a faded green tent. Some disappear periodically inside the house only to return later, glassy-eyed and wobbly.

"That's a coke house," said a frowning neighbor who declined to give her name.

Outside this house is the last place anyone saw Jeanette DuPriest.

She'd gone out with friends April 2 for some drinks at Wanda's Lounge, at 55th Street and Springfield Avenue. When the bar closed, she wandered with some newfound friends around the corner to Belmar Terrace, where she visited two houses.

There, one sunny day last week, everyone talked about her in the past tense. And each had a theory as to what happened to her.

"I think somebody kidnapped her and she's overseas," said one man, so deep into his drink that his eyes kept sinking shut. "They sell them [women] overseas. Seriously, I think somebody got her on the trade market because she was a pretty girl."

His friend was less specific. "She got her ass in trouble," he slurred emphatically.

Across the street, a woman who identified herself only as "Tammy" blamed "the Mexican cartel."

"She cut up. They ain't find her 'cause she in pieces," said the woman, who was among the last to see DuPriest.

This kind of insight - or lack thereof - is what Detective Tyrone Davis has to work with.

"Everyone involved in this has [drug, mental-health or criminal] issues," said Davis, who has been hunting for DuPriest for three months.

That means that they don't exactly make great witnesses. And that's one of the biggest challenges in finding people with drug problems.

Relatives become detectives

Addicts often hide their relapses. That makes their last known activities harder to track, and their loved ones more sure that foul play occurred, even when there's no evidence of foul play, Chitwood said.

"There's a denial, on the part of the family, that the missing person might have run away for various reasons," including drug use, added Chitwood, who once worked one of Philly's most famous missing-persons cases: that of Holly Maddux, who was missing for more than a year before Chitwood, then a Philly homicide detective, found her corpse stuffed in a trunk in boyfriend Ira Einhorn's closet in 1979.

While DuPriest's disappearance might have started with a drug relapse, Davis now suspects that DuPriest fell victim to some violent fate. She hasn't touched her bank account since she vanished. And she missed Easter and the births of two grandchildren.

"Everyone I interviewed said she takes care of her kids," Davis said. "The fact that she hasn't even called is a concern and a sign that something is wrong."

Davis doesn't mind the criticism that he's not doing enough to find DuPriest.

"Anytime a person is missing, families feel [investigators] can never do enough until the missing person is found safe and gets home," Davis said. "If I had someone in my family missing, I'd probably feel the same way."

Such empathy is little comfort to DuPriest's family, who have held marches and vigils, handed out hundreds of flyers and grimly searched for her body in nearby Cobbs Creek.

"We're a close-knit family," said her sister Denise DuPriest, who has been taking care of Jeanette's youngest children. "When one of us hurt, all of us hurt."

Her mother Geraldine agreed: "I just keep on praying that she's going to come back."

Alonie Walton, Hatchell's mother, is a retired social worker and primary guardian to her granddaughter, a lean, leggy 14-year-old who inherited her mother's outgoing nature.

But most days, she feels like a detective.

When Walton first tried to report her daughter missing, she got incredulous looks as soon as she told police of her daughter's longtime crack addiction.

"They wouldn't take the report," Walton said. "They said, 'Why worry about another addict?' "

She said police took an official report only after she complained to Internal Affairs in 2005. A detective confirmed that in a 2008 Philadelphia Weekly article, saying that the case's first entry date appears to be Aug. 23, 2005.

So Walton has devoted time daily to the hunt for her daughter.

Every morning, she checks four or five Web sites featuring Hatchell's case. And although she now lives in Abbeville, S.C., 700 miles south of Philadelphia, she keeps Hatchell's missing-person poster pasted in her car window. She periodically has a Philadelphia-area friend post more flyers, and she keeps in touch with missing-persons advocates in other parts of the country.

"I feel like I'm doing someone else's job," she said.

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