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Missing Adults Leave Few Traces

Crime: Searches are often daunting because of a lack of evidence and limited resources. The disappearance of Michael Negrete continues to frustrate investigators.

April 16, 2001|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They quickly decided they couldn't trust the bloodhound's trail, figuring the dog was probably confused. They thought a strange man might have been in the dorm that night, but the lead took them nowhere. They searched the dorm's garbage chute and through every construction site on campus but found nothing. They tracked down dozens of UCLA students who had lived in the dorm. The students told the same story, again and again: No one knew, or saw, anything.

For Howell and Purcell, there was none of the usual evidence: no blood, guns, bullets or bodies.

"Usually, those kinds of cases lead us in a certain direction. There's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Howell, wiping his large hand over his face. "In this case, there's absolutely no certainty anywhere. It's maddening."

Howell said the lack of evidence and leads has caused him sleepless nights. He has even dreamed about finding Negrete. He and Purcell consulted a Sheriff's Department homicide profiler, an expert who tries to solve crimes by looking at statistical data and probing into criminal psychology. The profiler advised them they had, more than likely, already interviewed somebody who knew what happened. This eats at Howell.

"I just don't see it," said Howell. "If we've already interviewed somebody who knows what happened, we don't know it, I don't know it, I've been fooled. And if that's the case, man, I should just retire right now."

When Negrete's parents reported him missing to UCLA--their son, a teen who never missed appointments and hadn't been seen in days--the first response was lukewarm. We've seen this a million times before, they were told. He'll be back.

The Negretes had to convince authorities that he was missing against his will.

That lack of initial concern--and experts say the first days of a search are key in finding a missing person alive--is common and springs partly from the fact many adults reported missing end up having skipped out on their own volition, usually because of financial or relationship woes.

Overcoming early skepticism is just part of the problem faced by those looking for missing adults, experts say.

Police, and the public, usually don't treat a missing adult's report with the same fervor they would have for a missing child, said Kym Pasqualini, president of the Phoenix-based Nation's Missing Children's Organization and Center for Missing Adults.

Pasqualini also said police and other investigators have few places to turn for accurate information about missing adults. Federal law mandates that all missing children's cases be reported to an FBI database. There's no mandate for adults. While there is a federally bankrolled clearinghouse for missing children, a resource providing expert advice, as well as clues, statistics and trends from all 50 states, nothing similar exists for adults.

Many of the people working on the issue of finding missing adults are hopeful that a bill passed by Congress last year--the so-called Kristen's Law, named for a North Carolina woman who vanished in San Francisco--will bring changes.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) will provide federal funding to nonprofits involved in finding adults. It will also establish the nation's first comprehensive missing adults clearinghouse.

"There have been minimal resources; there's frequently minimal attention," Pasqualini said. "For families like the Negretes, since their son [was] just 18, he's really just a kid. But authorities treat him like he's an adult, which is unfair to his family. They know he wasn't a grown man."

Parents' Hopes Are Fading

At the Negrete home in suburban San Diego, a yellow ribbon is wrapped around a willow tree in the front yard, put there soon after the disappearance. The ribbon is faded now, as are the hopes of Mary and Miguel Negrete.

The couple's days are no easier now than in the early days of the search for their son, when they would walk the UCLA campus before dawn, putting up fliers, trying to figure out where he could have gone.

They still look for clues, speaking frequently with Howell and Purcell, monitoring the Web site they've set up at http://www.findmikenow.com.

They work to keep pain at bay by keeping busy, but it's to no avail.

"Mostly we're totally down," said Mary Negrete, looking to the floor, speaking slowly and flatly, the emotion drained from her voice. "I'm still asking myself, 'How am I supposed to deal with this?' I must admit I really don't have any hope I will ever see him again. I do tell myself we will find [what happened] out someday."

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