There are certain things we've grown to expect from missing persons cases. There are the tireless pleas for information from family members. There's a massive manhunt with volunteers and police officers doing shoulder-to-shoulder marches through vast woodlands (and there are always vast woodlands). And, more often than not, there's a motive that we find familiar, be it an angry, unhinged spouse or some unstable molester.
It's through this lens of Nancy Grace headlines that we view every missing persons case. But the reality is that they're all unique, requiring different approaches and usually resolving themselves in short order.
Charleston Police responds to about one missing persons case a day, says Cpl. Mike Lyczany. Most are found within the first 12 hours. The city currently only has two open missing person cases.
The stories often involve children. Some may have wandered off while playing outside. Others didn't come straight home from school. The city also weighs whether this is common or uncommon for the particular child, Lyczany says.
"We have a lot of repeats," he says of habitual runaways.
Adult reports are often cases where relatives contact police when they can't get a family member to return phone calls. In some of these instances, the "missing person" isn't missing at all. They've chosen not to return the calls.
In other cases, the people making the claims are actually trying to track down someone, and they want the police to do the legwork.
"Their intentions are not genuine," Lyczany says. "They're trying to use the police department as a locater."
When necessary, the department will do a cursory background check on the person who contacted the police to determine if there is a restraining order involved.
The seven member Special Victims Unit, which also investigates rape and elder abuse claims, is usually well-staffed for the daily case load, but they can use other detectives or patrol officers when necessary, Lyczany says.
When It's Not Usual
Investigations escalate quickly when there are clues suggesting an actual kidnapping or violence (things like evidence of a struggle or if friends or neighbors remember something suspicious).
Depending on the circumstances, the entire department could be activated, along with support from other agencies. "Those are no holds barred," Lyczany says.
The challenge is determining what's usual and what's unusual.
"You can't just superficially say, 'Oh, they'll just come back,' " he says. "The first few hours will determine the fate of the case."
The biggest task is always gathering information. That includes conducting exhaustive interviews, combing call logs, and reviewing medical records. Photos are distributed of the missing person regionally or nationally with notices to be on the lookout.
"Each case needs to be addressed quickly," Lyczany says. "Time is the enemy."
He compares it to throwing a pebble into a pond, with the ring of water widening with every second.
"As the trail grows, more factors are involved," he says.
The person may have traveled farther, interacting with more people.
"It's too much to investigate entirely," Lyczany says. "That's what could make or break it. You don't want to go off in the wrong direction."
Particularly perplexing is the case of Katherine Waring. The 28-year-old Charleston woman was last seen late on June 12 at her home. Police have questioned a friend who says he has cooperated fully with authorities. They also searched an Anderson County river this summer, following up a lead that turned out to be a dead end. A poster issued by police suggests Waring may have been traveling to Greenville.
"The hardest thing is that the further we get from June 12, the more factors are involved and there are more possibilities we have to look at," Lyczany says. "It takes a lot of time and resources."
Sometimes the cases remain unsolved for years. North Charleston resident Brandy Hanna disappeared from her home in 2005. Lt. Scott Decker with North Charleston police says that leads aren't coming in, but the department continues to work the case, interviewing neighbors and friends and revisiting people they spoke with in the past to see if they remember anything else that could help in the case. Hanna's family continues to hold events calling attention to her case and fundraisers to increase the reward.
There are also very active citizens trying to help in the search for Waring. A $25,000 reward has been offered by The Friends of Kate Waring, and the group has distributed posters across the peninsula and developed a website and Facebook page to draw attention to the case.
Last week, the group held a candlelight vigil for Waring and other missing women.
Lyczany appreciates the attention and the aid.
"I can't tell you how many times we've got help from people who see stories in the media or missing person posters," he says. "If we were doing this on our own, we'd be much less efficient."
Anyone with information about Waring or Hanna can contact CrimeStoppers at (843) 554-1111 or 5541111.com.
SOME Facts about missing persons
The National Center for Missing Adults reports that:
• Adult males in their late 20s are more likely to disappear than women in the same age category.
• Young women who disappear are more likely to be victims of sexual assault or murder than young men. Most of these women know their attackers.
• Seniors mostly disappear due to an illness or a mental illness that seems to affect their thinking.
• Many adults disappear to escape financial or personal problems.