Missing-persons cases rise in Camden

Camden County Police Sgt. Janelle Simpson, right, shows a photo and information for Alberto Feliciano, Jr, who is missing to the parents of one of his friends to see if they have seen him in the last few days. Simpson heads the missing persons unit. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Camden County Police Sgt. Janelle Simpson, right, shows a photo and information for Alberto Feliciano, Jr, who is missing to the parents of one of his friends to see if they have seen him in the last few days. Simpson heads the missing persons unit. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2014

The reports come in - more than a dozen a week - in frantic phone calls or teary-eyed trips to the police station: My son is missing. My granddaughter never came home. He ran away again.

Sgt. Janell Simpson spends every day at work investigating missing persons cases in Camden as head of the department's unit. She knocks on doors, passes out fliers, chases juveniles who don't want to be found, and, in extreme circumstances, crosses state lines to bring home abducted children.

In Camden, where the streets already tally high crime numbers, missing persons cases have increased by 20 percent from the same time last year, and investigators point to the social and economic factors of the city. On average, the department is investigating nearly two missing person cases every day, most of them juvenile cases.

As of Aug. 4, Camden investigated 377 cases, 275 juvenile cases and 102 adults. Last year, the city had 296 cases to date. In Philadelphia, the 25th and 26th Districts (about the size of Camden's population) had 217 cases as of July 31.

The circumstances in Camden range from runaways to disabled or elderly persons who wander off, to suburbanites who hide among addicts on the Broadway corridor. There are also the rare and tragic cases when a missing person becomes a homicide victim.

"It's extremely taxing on our resources," said Capt. Greg Carlin, who oversees the Special Victims Unit, which includes missing persons. "But we can ill afford to not treat each case as if it's a serious scenario."

On Wednesday, Simpson and Detective Michael Sullivan, who works on the missing persons cases, ride around in an umarked police car with four folders of missing persons and a police vest just in case.

They start by searching for Alberto Feliciano Jr., a 16-year-old reported missing the night before by his father after the teen took off with the dad's PlayStation 3, iPads, and a computer.

The boy was wearing an ankle bracelet pending trial for a recent robbery but cut it off before leaving his East Camden house.

Simpson pulls up to the address of a rowhouse Feliciano is known to frequent. The door is wide open and two small kids play in the entryway. She steps outside, dressed in a suit, a police badge on her hip, and the front door quickly swings shut.

"People rarely want to talk, especially juveniles," Simpson says. "They don't want to rat out their friends, but they're the ones who know where they hang out."

Simpson, a mother of two, who was born and raised in East Camden, started on patrol in 2000 and then moved to detective work on the homicide unit before being named one of two heads of the Special Victims Unit. She says she considers herself a protector. She often wears a bracelet with a charm of St. Anthony - the patron saint of finding lost things.

Simpson doesn't know what's to blame for the slight uptick this year, but she does have some guesses at why the numbers are high in general.

Camden has the most single-parent families and single-parent households of any city in the nation - 32.9 percent of families, according to census data.

"When [juveniles] don't have a lot of guidance, they look to the street," Simpson said.

Other factors contribute: the high school graduation rate is less than 50 percent and conservative estimates say about 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

For the last two years the department has used social media and e-mail blasts for every missing person reported. There's no longer a 24-hour wait time to report someone missing, so as soon as the police get the call, the information goes out.

There is the fear that the media - who sometimes get as many as four e-mails about missing persons a day - become numb to all the notices, Carlin said, but for the most part the reports have meant more leads and tips.

Most cases are solved within a few days. If a person isn't found within 30 days, the case is considered a long-term missing persons case. The department has 14 long-term cases right now, down from about 25 last year. The oldest case dates back to 1979.

The police get a lot of repeat calls from group homes where juveniles are placed by the state Division of Child and Protection Permanency. "If they're supposed to be home from school at 3:30 and it's 3:45, they have to report it," said Sullivan, a retired sergeant with the state police, who works on the cases.

One 16-year-old has been reported missing 15 times from a group home this year - each time it's a new case. He's a known name in the department and is missing on the day Simpson and Sullivan search for Feliciano.

The 16-year-old's mother was charged with aggravated assault after stabbing a boyfriend earlier this year. When she was released from jail in March, sentenced to two years' probation, her son started leaving the group home to find her.

Jen Hammil, of the Center for Family Services, which operates five group homes in South Jersey, would not discuss specific cases but said fleeing for home is a common reason youth leave. "Despite the caring and supportive environment that's provided, most young people just really want to be at home," she said.

Other reasons include domestic arguments or the lure of forbidden boyfriends and girlfriends.

Some parents, sadly, encourage it, Sullivan says. "They kick the kids out. Some just can't handle it anymore or don't want to handle it," Sullivan said.

Feliciano's father has been trying to handle it.

He answers the door at his home on 36th Street and tells the investigators there's still no sign of his son.

He recounts, eyes cast downward, how the young man who is awaiting trial on a robbery charge cut his court-issued ankle bracelet and made off with thousands of dollars in electronics from the home.

"It hurts because it's my son, but he's out of control. I'd rather see him in there [jail] than me visit him in a box," Feliciano, 34, said.

A missing person becoming a murder victim is, of course, the worst-case scenario.

In May, 41-year-old Fatima Perez was reported missing by her family. Her body was found two days later in a grave in Monroe Township. Two men have been arrested and charged with the killing.

Jessy Pena, Perez's sister, said she felt helpless reporting her sister missing and she had to fight skepticism coming from police.

"It seemed like they didn't start looking until later on that night," she said. "We did a whole investigation on our own without the police. I think the outcome could have been different."

Simpson said she knew from the start of the case that something was wrong. "We all hoped we could find her, could save her, but we were too late."

She says she approaches the job the same way - "like you never know. Because you don't."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876

@juliaterruso

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