14 October 2014

From The Case Files Of Chief David Dean:
The Affair Of The Dissappeared Man

When you police a resort town a lot of things can happen; especially during the summer months.  Mostly these things are what you would expect of the Jersey Shore: bar fights, noise complaints, drunk drivers, block parties, thefts, burglaries, the occasional domestic violence case, boating accidents, and sometimes a drowning.  People who vanish are rare.  Of course, lots of children wander away from the parents, but most are found within minutes by life guards or police.  So when an adult goes for a walk on a crowded, guarded beach, and simply disappears, it's what we  in the police business call unusual.
Shortly after I was promoted to the rank of chief, I arrived at the department one very hot July morning and, as was my habit, spoke to my second-in-command on my way to my office.  Being a good captain, he always arrived before me, scanned the incident reports from the previous evening, and briefed me on anything of note.  This morning seemed a part of that routine until he cleared his throat a little nervously, and said, "An older fellow was reported missing late yesterday afternoon.  Night shift said he still hasn't turned up."

I'm the grey guy with the grey beard in the grey suit
My captain, having known me for many years (hell, we had gone through the academy together), no doubt suspected what my reaction might be.  "Since yesterday?" I repeated, my blood pressure rising perceptibly.  "And nobody thought to call me, cap?"  "No sir.  Um...they didn't call me, either.  I just found out myself when I came in."  Every promotion brings it challenges, this was one it seemed.

The captain hastened to fill in the details: Sometime around four o'clock the previous day an elderly man had taken leave of his family to go for his daily walk on the beach.  They had seen him walking north from the 72nd street entrance.  When he had not returned within an hour they went looking for him.  By six o'clock they were in full panic mode, his wife and adult sons reporting the incident to the police.  This was during shift change, and the night shift (patrol worked 12 hour shifts from six to six) received the report.  The shift sergeant, newly promoted by yours truly, promptly contacted the beach patrol for their help in locating the victim.  All of the guards were polled and not a one remembered the gentleman in question, nor had there been any rescues involving someone matching that description.  Inquiries at the hospital proved similarly fruitless.  His car was still parked in the driveway, the keys hanging in the house.  He had no cell phone (these were still somewhat unusual at the time).  Worse still, the wife reported that her husband of more than half a century was in the beginnings of both Parkinson's disease and dementia. 
Beach Path Through High Dunes

As I mentioned in the beginning, it was a particularly hot July and, unusually for the shore, brutally humid, so dehydration had to be considered a factor here.  In other words, these were a bad set of circumstances.  A single witness had been found who thought, but wasn't certain, that she had witnessed an elderly gentleman who matched the description of the missing man, staring up at the dunes around forty-fourth street.  She thought he appeared confused.  Enlisting the aid of the volunteer fire department, the newly-promoted sergeant began a search of the dunes in the vicinity, but darkness overtook them.  And in spite of a brilliant bank of search lights provided by one of their ladder trucks, the firemen and police officers found the steep, heavily forested, dunes nearly impenetrable; the angled illumination only deepening the inky shadows.  The search had been halted around mid-night without a trace of its object, and I had been left in a similar darkness.

I set about to remedy this situation.  Declaring this an emergency operation, I requested the presence of the fire chief, rescue squad chief, beach patrol captain, the emergency management director, and the director of public works.  I also notified the mayor formally, though he was a member of the fire department so I knew that he would be on hand in any case.  Utilizing a bay of the fire department as a command post, we began to gather our forces as my senior detective, acting as my operations officer, set up tables and maps, and began to orient and coordinate the upcoming effort.  My captain was to function as my administrative officer responsible for the smooth functioning of the police department's routine operations, as well as supplying any additional police personnel I might request.  The sergeant on duty was placed in charge of logistics (vehicles, equipment, communications, etc…).  The rescue chief saw to it an adequate amount of water was distributed throughout the day, while keeping a rig dedicated to treating any searchers who were injured or overcome by the heat.  The borough finance officer was even on hand to approve expenditures for food and drink for the small army that was being assembled.

Within the span of a few hours, searchers provided by the fire department, public works, and beach patrol, as well as many other volunteers, were literally combing the town, block by block, house by house.  Considering the missing man's possible mental status, it was conceivable he could be anywhere, so I instructed the searchers to ignore nothing, including crawl spaces and to look beneath any object that he could fit under, such as a child's overturned wading pool, shrubbery, or in the back seat of an unlocked car.  It had been my experience with such cases that sometime persons being looked for hid in terror of their searchers.

As each block was combed, the various teams called in their lack of success, and the detective drew an X through another grid on the map.  Meanwhile, a state police helicopter performed aerial reconnaissance, K-9 units were sent out, and marine officers quietly patrolled the back bays in search of the worst possible result.

The day dragged on growing ever hotter and more humid.  Volunteers and officers alike were becoming fatigued and dehydrated.  Those in the dunes (which are some of the largest on the Eastern Seaboard) were exhausted from breaking brush in the  relentless heat.  By five o'clock, the mayor was growing worried about the hundreds of volunteers who had been at it all day.  So was I.  Both he and the fire chief suggested we call the search off and consider resuming tomorrow.  I was both reluctant to give up the remaining daylight, and flummoxed as to where this man could be.  By this time, we had covered nearly every possible area he could have reasonably reached.  I was looking at miles of x'd-out grids.  It was as if he had stepped through the looking glass...and this bothered me.  I didn't believe in a looking-glass.  He was still out there somewhere.  But where the hell could he be?  And I was deeply concerned about his physical condition under the circumstances.  Based on what I had knew of his advanced age and shaky health from his wife and family, I wasn't at all sure he could make it through another night.  My mind raced… then screeched to a halt. 

Going over to the map table, I asked the detective sergeant to show me exactly where the search of the previous evening had ended.  He pointed to the spot in the dunes where we had begun the daylight effort.  "They covered everything north of this point," he assured me.  I was looking at a fairly small area of extremely steep and rugged maritime forest; all that the night shift had been able to search before losing the natural light and giving up on the artificial.  Turning to the mayor and fire chief, I said, "We can start bringing the searchers back in, but I want a team to go back to the area of the dunes night shift covered and search them again while we still have the light."  The fire chief reluctantly nodded, then got on the radio to dispatch them. 

As the dozens and dozens of exhausted, dirty, and thirsty men and women began to filter back into the fire dept. bays, their despondency was palpable.  We all hated the thought of leaving another human being, especially one who couldn't fend for himself, to endure another night alone and afraid, possibly injured.  After having spoken with the missing man's wife and children earlier that day, I had gotten a sense of their anguish.  I dreaded having to tell them we had failed again and was considering what I should say, when suddenly my portable crackled into life with an excited voice crying, "We've found him!  I think we've found him!"  Leaping to my feet, I keyed my mike and asked, "Is he alive?"  The answer was immediate, "Yeah, I think he's okay."

The headquarters erupted into cheers, and I knew in that moment that this would always be one of the highlights of my police career– I had had one of those brief, shining moments that don't happen often enough.  In truth, I had only thought of the obvious when I sent the team back to the starting point, but at that moment, I felt like Sherlock Holmes.  As it turned out, he had been hiding under a bayberry shrub very near the start of the original search.  Fearful of the Chinese Communist troops he believed were pursuing him, he had remained hidden for over twenty-four hours.  His rescuer had spotted the toe of one his shoes jutting out from beneath the heavy brush.  They had passed right by him the night before.

Chinese Communist Troop–Korea circa 1950
When I drove to his home to break the good news to his family, the whole neighborhood was out on their decks and lawns waiting for the news. Being in uniform, and unable to keep from smiling, they easily guessed the outcome, and the entire block began to cheer. It was a good day to be chief.

Postscript: The following day I penned a general order that any time an agency outside of the police department was requested to assist in an urgent matter, myself and the captain were to be notified immediately as to the circumstances. No exceptions.


  1. David, thanks for sharing this procedural story with a happy ending. The fact that it's true makes it even better. Let me share a true missing person story from the South.

    Several years ago, a retired elementary school principal "disappeared." The school he'd led had changed its name to his the preceding year, and there was much to do about him and his car coming up missing.

    The police followed procedures, but they couldn't find any clues about his whereabouts. A whole year passed, and the media and his family constantly harassed law enforcement. The family was adamant that foul play was involved. They thought someone had kidnapped him, but there was no ransom demand.

    Some of the teachers thought perhaps he'd gotten drunk and run away. It was well-known among those in his school that for the last couple of years, he'd had a major drinking problem. That was never mentioned in the articles and interviews about the police not locating the man.

    As the second year ended, we had an especially severe drought. The creek across the road from the principal's house went lower and lower. What emerged? The principal's scanty remains still behind the wheel of his Cadillac. He'd apparently backed out of his driveway, across the street, and into the creek.

  2. Yes, that is a far less happier ending, Fran. We feared something similar had happened to our victim, as we are surrounded by water. Of course, most missing adults vanish because they want to, and absent suspicious circumstances, or other factors that might indicate that the person is, or will be, endangered (such as needing daily medication, for instance), the police have no inherent right to search for them. In fact, to actively search for, and find, a person who has gone missing in order to change his circumstances and start anew, can get a department sued. In the case I've written about here, these circumstances were amply met.

  3. Quite some stories from both you, David, and Fran. Makes me shudder to think about either situation. Hadn't realized though about the 'no inherent right to search' for the missing who don't want to be found and potential lawsuits.

    Lesson for me here is that procedures are quite important, but it also can take getting into the mind of the person - potential victim or criminal - to figure out a possible location or direction they may take.

  4. David, too bad life doesn't always have a happy ending like this one. Thanks for sharing the story. Nice hunch on your part to go back to the previous search area.

  5. David, I'm back again. I had no idea that the police have no inherent right to search for a missing adult unless there's evidence of foul play or an obvious medical need such as dementia or life-supporting medicines. That gives me a short-story idea.

    I had a cousin who went to the store for a loaf of bread and didn't come back for five years. He claimed amnesia, but I've always believed the grass wasn't as green on the other side of the fence as he thought it would be.

  6. David and Fran, back in April of this year South Dakota finally got the solution to what happened to 2 girls who went missing in 1971: their bodies were found in their car in a stream that had only this year dried up enough so that it could be found. Along the line, a man had been (incorrectly) accused of and indicted for murdering them, his family farm had been dug up, and even after the bodies were found (they drowned, just drowned), the AG's office said they had excellent reasons to accuse the guy, and they had no reason to apologize for their treatment of him and his family. Thank God your story, David, had a happy ending.

  7. Hurrah for you, David! Smart police work.

    Occasionally we've had citizens go missing here in Florida and turn up sometime later in retention ponds. Disney has had at least one visitor go missing that way. They actually sell devices here in Florida (Life Hammer, ResQme) to use if you're trapped in your car under water to break out a window. Naturally, the burglars discovered they could be used to break through the glass of patio doors.

  8. Though it's not possible to truly know the thinking of someone you've never met, Brad, experience with how people behave in stressful situations is helpful. I had dealt with other cases where those searched for hid themselves. It's especially common with small children, but sometimes happens also with adults suffering from dementia, as in this case.

    R.T., I'm not sure it was so much a hunch as just having eliminated all the other possibilities. Even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn (pun intended).

    Yes, Fran, you have the right to go missing and not be bothered by pesky police officers. In New Jersey, we actually have forms for those reporting missing persons (adults) to sign. These contain a number of categories of circumstance that would place the victim in danger and thereby compel the police to search. They must select at least one and sign it so that if it turns out to be untrue and we find the person, they cannot so easily sue us. And I'm with you on your cousin.

    Eve, I've heard of this case your referenced. Water seems to play a role in a lot of disappearances, as both you and Fran have pointed out. Didn't they also find another car with a body in that same lake? If memory serves, it was from someone else who went missing even before the girls. Strange coincidence; like something out of a King story.

  9. Thanks, Leigh. More water! You should read my story "The Assumption Of Seamus Tyrrell"; it begins with someone trapped in a car at the bottom of a murky Florida canal. Things get worse from there.

  10. Eve, disregard my previous response to your comment. I re-read yours and caught that it was a stream; not a lake. Sorry. The case I was thinking of also took place in a Great Plains state, but I'm fairly certain it was a lake in this instance.

  11. ...sometime persons being looked for hid in terror of their searchers.

    That's such an obvious idea, but one I'd never thought of before. Thanks for pointing it out! And KUDOS on some great real-life deductive reasoning. Holmes would have approved, I'm sure.

    Re: all these cases of folks driving into water -- thank god I live in the desert! lol


  12. Really enjoyed reading this, David - you have a wonderful way of story-telling. I was particularly touched by the poor fellow hiding from the Chinese. I've worked in health care, and it is heart-breaking how people with dementia will be haunted by earlier traumatic times.
    Thanks for this post.

  13. Thanks, Dix, and Melodie. I'm so glad that you got something from this piece.

    By the way, just to clear the air, the myth of the 48 hour wait to declare someone missing (you see it on television all the time)is just that, a myth...at least, in NJ.

  14. I enjoyed this, too. Great, too, that it had a happy ending!


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