Cover Story: Charlotte's missing persons unit

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Two North Carolina families dealing with fear and worry - they want their loved ones to come home, a 5-year old girl missing from Fayetteville and a 61-year old grandmother who disappeared in west Charlotte.  PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson takes you inside a search why those first 24 hours that are so crucial.

We talked late this afternoon with the lead detective on the missing persons case involving the 61-year old grandmother here in Charlotte, and went behind the scenes to find out what goes into an investigation.. where police go.. and what is their success rate.

When it comes to a missing person's case.. this is the work we see.. cops.. firefighters and others.. in on the search.. but that's only a part of what goes on.

Detective Donna Ring joined the Missing Persons Special Victims Unit for CMPD last May.. after being a police officer with the department for 19 years.

When that 911 call comes into the station about a disappearance, she says an officer will be dispatched to the family's home.. and Missing Persons Unit begins working immediately.

"We don't sit on anything."  It's a misconception Ring says that there has to be a 24-hour waiting period.  "The more time you wait the farther away they could get. You start expanding your area of search.. so no we don't wait 24 hours."

Officers seek to find out everything they can about the missing person.. and from there turn over every rock.

Retracing the victim's steps, talking to employers, in some cases-- looking through phone records and other documents like ATM records.

Sometimes a reverse 911 call will be executed.  Using a robo call.. the 911 system will call neighbor's homes in the immediate area where the missing person disappeared.. and leave a tape-recorded message seeking help.

In the case of children who've disappeared an Amber Alert will be sent out.  A similar notification.. A Silver Alert.. for an older person who may be on the move.

There are 5 detectives assigned to CMPD's Missing Persons Unit.  They handle on average 6-to-7 calls person day.. that comes to about 3-thousand cases a year.  99-percent of their cases get resolved.

"Kids not being where they're supposed to be.. not communicating with adults. Adults not communicating with their family. Very rarely does somebody does it turn out bad."

While searches like the one this week here in Charlotte for 61-year-old Barbara Springs can involve long hours and rigorous detective work.. the job they say is satisfying.

Says Detective Ring, "You're really doing a service to the family. It's a very stressful time when someone they know, love and care about is not where they're supposed to be."

In addition to the reverse 911.. what they call GEO notify.. Missing Persons can trace people through GPS through their cell phone.  Most of the missing persons cases they get involve teenagers.