Search continues for missing persons

Search continues for missing persons

April 7, 2008
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
By Heather J. Carlson

When a masked man kidnapped 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989, Anita Moyers was among those hanging up missing-person posters.

She remembers her ninth-grade teacher asking for volunteers, and Moyers didn't hesitate. Nineteen years later, she still helps spread the word about adults and children who have disappeared.

Moyers is the Minnesota and North Dakota area director for The Doe Network, a volunteer organization that uses a Web site to help spread news about unexplained disappearances and unidentified victims. The group also works with law enforcement to help solve cold cases that are at least nine years old. Some of the cases are decades old and have long since been forgotten.

"There could be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of missing persons cases in Minnesota that are not being investigated by anyone," Moyers said.

Since the organization was founded in 1999, a total of 42 cases have been solved. But hundreds of other cases -- including Wetterling's -- remain unsolved.

Area missing-person cases

These unsolved mysteries include a half-dozen cases in this region.

There is the case of Helen Vorhees Brach, a Chicago candy company heiress who disappeared on Feb. 17, 1977, after leaving the Kahler Hotel following a Mayo Clinic appointment.

Then there is Sophia Tareq. The 26-year-old and her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Tahseen Taef, had been living in Rochester with her sister Mary Zaman. In 1999, the decapitated bodies of Zaman and Mohammed were discovered in a ditch along 60th Avenue Northwest in Rochester. Tareq has been missing since the bodies were found. Zaman's husband, Iqbal Ahmed, fled to Bangladesh soon after the bodies were discovered and was charged with the two murders. He is serving a life sentence in Bangladesh for two unrelated murders.

For investigators, missing-person cases can be extremely frustrating -- especially when all possible trails such as credit card transactions and driver's license activity have ceased, said Detective Lee Rossman, with the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office.

"When that happens, we have to go where they were last known to be, and sometimes that's it," he said. "We don't know where to go from there."

Adding to the challenge can be cases in which authorities are not notified of a missing person until days or years after they've disappeared.

"There are some cases where missing persons are reported immediately, and there are some cases where they are not reported for years," Moyer said. "There are many cases, unfortunately, where they are not reported at all."

New help in solving cases

But DNA is helping to find answers to some of these cases. The most recent case is that of Heather Ann Schmoll. The teenager disappeared from her Stewartville home in 1993 with an unknown boyfriend. But authorities did not learn about the case until last year, when Schmoll's sister reported her missing.

This week, authorities announced that a woman's body found 14 years ago in a Florida field was Schmoll's. Authorities finally were able to solve the case thanks to the National Crime Information Center and DNA samples taken from Schmoll's family. A profile of Schmoll's case and information about her tattoos also helped solve the disappearance. The case marked the first success for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Missing Persons DNA Project.

Rossman said that when Schmoll's body was found in 1994, authorities kept a tissue sample, but it wasn't tested to get the DNA profile until this year.

"With this new BCA program, that tissue sample would be tested right away and be put in the computer," he said.

Families' perspective

Still, DNA is not available in all cases. For friends and family of those who have disappeared, the hardest thing often is coping with the unknown, said Lois Hackbarth, an Olmsted County victim advocate and facilitator of Southeast Minnesota Parents of Murdered Children.

"It's all the what ifs. It's very difficult to deal with that," Hackbarth said. "There's always those questions. You don't know if they are alive somewhere, and if they are being tortured. That is the worry a lot of people have -- they are being tortured, they are being abused in some way."

Although families always hope to find their loved ones alive, even bad news is often preferable to never knowing, Hackbarth said.

"When they do find a body, there is a sense of relief in one way, but then there's the realization they definitely are gone, and then the grieving starts," she said.

Web links

The Doe Network