Many tactics used to find missing people, but still more people disappear
FARGO—Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind joined a large and tragic group when she left her apartment and seemed to disappear—the legion of missing persons.
Eight months pregnant and 22 years old, LaFontaine-Greywind was asked by a neighbor in her apartment building for help in fitting a wedding dress. The Fargo woman never returned to her apartment that day, Saturday, Aug. 19.
By the next day, Fargo Police launched an investigation and search.
There are as many as 85,000 active missing persons cases at any given time, and last year 647,435 people were reported missing, according to the National Crime Information Center.
The first step in finding a missing person, according to experts, is to spread word of the disappearance quickly and widely. Leaflets and posters bearing photographs and descriptions of the missing person have long been used, a method now augmented and amplified by alerts distributed electronically via social media.
Fargo Police posted a report of LaFontaine-Greywind's disappearance on Facebook on Aug. 19, the day her family reported her missing. The family soon spread the word on social media. By Monday, Aug. 21, her missing poster was widely disseminated, including by a group on Facebook, "Locate the Missing," with more than 750,000 members nationwide, many of whom shared the missing poster.
In cases where police are stymied, and a missing person isn't found, hopes often rest in making a connection through a database maintained by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice.
NamUs maintains a database available to the public, www.namus.gov, which contains more than 30,000 missing person cases, including 31 from North Dakota and one case of unidentified remains. The database includes 175 missing persons from Minnesota and 55 unidentified remains.
"Most missing person cases are resolved locally before they come to us," said Todd Matthews, NamUs' director of case management and communication. "We're not a repository of 'hot' missing person cases, in general."
River searches common
In Fargo-Moorhead, missing persons investigations often involve a search of the Red River.
"It seems like the first thing people do is, well, we can't find 'em, they must be in the river," said Pete Fendt, a leader of Valley Water Rescue, which helps law enforcement in water searches.
In cases where there are no witnesses, Valley Water Rescue often calls in dog search teams to try to pinpoint where the person entered the water.
"We're trying to make our search area as small as possible, using search dogs, witnesses," Fendt said.
Fargo Police have made multiple river searches by boat, using sonar, as well as air and ground searches.
Earle "Bud" Myers has been using bloodhounds to help find missing persons in the Fargo-Moorhead area for 14 years. One of his dogs helped recover a woman who had disappeared in the Red River six days before LaFontaine-Greywind was last seen.
In fact, water searches, dog searches and air searches were used to try to find the pregnant Fargo woman as well.
Matt Kinneberg and his German shepherd, Mila, picked up a scent trail leading from LaFontaine's north Fargo apartment to a Loaf 'N Jug store about a mile away. But there is no way to know when that scent trail was left—the day the woman disappeared, or days earlier, Kinneberg said.
"My dog is just a tool," he said. "It's not an absolute. We just try, if anything, to give a sense of direction of travel."
Kinneberg and his dog were also involved in the search for Tommy Bearson, a North Dakota State University student who went missing from Fargo in 2014. His body was found at a recreational vehicle dealership in south Moorhead.
Three dogs all traced Bearson's scent trail to a street or road, where the dogs all stopped. "There was no more trail, so we have to assume he got in a vehicle," Kinneberg said. "If dogs could talk ... ."
Social media clues
In the search for LaFontaine-Greywind, Fargo police also used cadaver dogs, which they sent out after they recovered a newborn infant believed to be the missing woman's child.
Private detectives sometimes are hired to find missing persons, too. Richard Berg, a Fargo private investigator, said his missing person cases are rare, often coming from insurance companies, bail bond companies, parties wanting to serve court papers or people trying to track down a former spouse or romantic partner.
Police can get access to a missing person's credit card data and bank records, which usually are unavailable to private investigators, Berg said.
He begins his searches by examining the missing person's social media postings, emails and checkbook activity. He looks to see whether the person had recently made a large purchase, booked any trips or made hotel reservations or car rentals.
"My best hope of getting somebody is if they have a social network and check in from time to time," he said. "It's pretty hard to stay off the grid very long."
The case of LaFontaine-Greywind's disappearance is challenging because there apparently were no witnesses, Berg said.
"What makes this case unique," he said, "is nobody knows what happened."