​​Virginia seeks to curb rising number of missing persons

RICHMOND – Morgan Harrington went to a concert in Charlottesville in 2009 and did not make it home. Keeshae Jacobs was headed to a friend’s house in Richmond in 2016 but never arrived. Ashanti Billie disappeared after leaving for work in Virginia Beach in 2017, according to Capital News Services Tianna Mosby.

Those three young women were among the hundreds of “missing person” cases investigated in Virginia over the past decade. Two of them – Harrington and Billie – were murdered; Jacobs has yet to be found.

Across the United States, as many as 90,000 people could be missing at any given moment, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The number increases substantially every year, according to the AWARE Foundation.

More than 240 adults are missing in Virginia, according to the Virginia State Police. In 2016, a fairly typical year, 14 names were added to the list. But last year, the list grew by 39 names – and so far this year, 17 more people in Virginia have gone missing. State officials and organizations are looking to reduce the number of missing persons by creating a new alert system and raising awareness about the problem.

Legislation Regarding Missing Persons

Currently, Virginia authorities issue alerts and mobilize search resources only when people of certain ages go missing:

·         If the person is 17 or younger, the state can issue an Amber Alert or an Endangered Missing Child Media Alert.

·         If the person is 60 or older, the state can issue a Senior Alert, sometimes called a Silver Alert.

But Virginia hasn’t had an alert system to warn people to look for a missing adult between the ages of 18 and 59 – until now.

During the 2018 legislative session, Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, successfully sponsored HB 260, which will create an alert system for missing persons who are neither children nor senior citizens. The new notification will be called an Ashanti Alert in honor of Billie Ashanti, who was abducted last year from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jones’ bill received unanimous support in the House and Senate and from community groups and citizens.

“What was striking,” Jones said, “was the number of people who reached out to me saying this happened” – that they had a friend or family member who had gone missing.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law in March. It will take effect July 1.

Under the new Virginia Critically Missing Adult Alert Program, law enforcement officials will be able to send a local, regional or statewide alert if they believe a missing person has been abducted and the “disappearance poses a credible threat” to the individual’s health and safety.

The Ashanti Alerts will go to the media, who then could inform the public to be on the lookout for the missing adult.

Jones’ measure wasn’t the only bill about missing persons proposed this legislative session.

Current law states that people who have been missing are presumed dead after seven years. Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, proposed HB 1565 to shorten the time span to two years; however, the proposal failed.

Brewer’s bill would have significantly reduced the number of active missing person cases in Virginia by classifying about 75 of them as legally dead.

For people such as Keeshae Jacobs’ mom, Toni Jacobs, reducing the number of years before being presumed dead would be crushing. Her daughter has been missing since September 2016, and she has not given up hope. Toni Jacobs continuously posts on social media, attends events to spread the word and advocates for other missing persons.

“I want people to know this is happening. It could be happening to not just my daughter but someone else’s daughter,” Jacobs said.

She said she will not give up until her daughter is found.

Raising Awareness about the Problem

Last year, in an effort to support missing persons and their families, Virginia designated a day in April as Missing Persons Day. The second annual event was held April 28.

There are at least 240 people aged 18 and up who have gone missing in the state. They include 22 people from Richmond, 14 each from Norfolk and Chesapeake, and 13 from Virginia Beach.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services created a resource guide for families on the first steps they should take when a member goes missing. According to the department, Virginia does not have a waiting period in order to file a missing person case. As a result, law enforcement agencies can send out an alert right away if they deem it necessary.

Across the nation, organizations have been formed to support efforts to find missing persons and to offer help to families.

Although putting faces on milk cartons was phased out by the Amber Alert system in the late 1990s, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides missing person listings by direct mail and online.

In Virginia, the AWARE Foundation and Help Save The Next Girl seek to educate people about predatory violence and advocate for families of missing persons.

AWARE stands for “Always Watch and Recognize your Environment.” The foundation works to connect people to search and rescue teams, events and law enforcement agencies.

Help Save The Next Girl, a nonprofit based in Roanoke, was founded by Gil and Dan Harrington after their 20-year-old daughter, Morgan Harrington, was abducted and murdered in Charlottesville. Although Morgan went missing mid-October 2009, her remains were not found until the following January when a farmer was driving his tractor through an Albemarle County pasture.

The organization works to educate school- and college-aged women on the dangers of predatory crimes and how to protect themselves.

“There have not been a lot of families who speak about abduction, rape and murder of their daughters,” Gil Harrington said. “At the end, you are devastated. How do you be an advocate at that point?”

The Harrington family also provides emotional and other support to people who have a relative who has gone missing.

“I’ve helped a lot of families pay for funerals and electric bills because when they’re in court, they’re not making money,” Harrington said.