YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Law enforcement agencies and advocates search for missing persons in hopes of bringing answers to families and loved ones, but they can’t do it all alone. The police officers in Youngstown say they treat every missing person’s report with caution, care and attention, no matter the circumstance.
Across Youngstown, investigators, scientists and community members team up to take on seemingly impossible tasks to find the unfindable. Many of them volunteer additional time to help at crime scenes or take just one more look at the files for a lead, like Detective Sergeant Dave Sweeney with the Youngstown Police Department.
Once his regular casework concludes for the day, his “cold case” work begins.
One such case was that of Mahoning County resident Lina Reyes-Geddes, who went missing in 1998 at the age of 37. Detectives who originally worked the case weren’t able to get many leads before her case went cold. Then years later, through photo identification and communication with police officers across all corners of the country, Sweeney and other officers were able to locate Reyes-Geddes and finally bring her family some closure
“[Reyes-Geddes was] from Mexico and she married someone from Austintown, but then she went missing,” Sweeney said. “She was also trying to get her citizenship and also going through immigration … We found a picture of her with [immigration’s] help and put it on NaMus.gov.”
Anyone can access and browse NaMus, including those Sweeney described as “web sleuths,” or amateur detectives connecting dots online. One of these sleuths noticed her photo and advised Sweeney to look for Reyes-Geddes in Utah. After connecting with Utah law enforcement agencies, Sweeney focused on getting Reyes-Gedes’ picture and description out to the public.
“We put out a press release in Loreta Nueva in Mexico, and within a week, I had a lady call and say, ‘That’s my sister,’” Sweeney said.
Reyes-Geddes had an identifiable, small mole on her ear that was photographed in her immigration application. Sweeney said this was especially helpful in finding her in Utah. Investigators used forensics to match an unidentified body found in Garfield County, Utah with the genetic makeup of Reyes-Geddes. The coroner’s office took a DNA sample from a family member to confirm it was her.
Her cause of death is undetermined, and although her missing person’s case has been closed, the investigation into her death continues to this day.
YSU anthropology professor voluntarily assists understaffed coroners office
Law enforcement officials depend on experts in science to determine the facts surrounding a criminal case involving human remains. These experts are called to criminal investigation scenes to assist with classifying remains, and some even volunteer to help, like Youngstown State University professor Loren Lease.
She’s an anthropology professor who works closely with Sweeney on cold cases, as well as the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office and its chief investigator, Theresa Gaetano. They will often consult with Lease on remains that have been found, and she uses her expertise to help get them started on the investigation.
Lease explained that she is an anthropologist, not a forensic pathologist. The county currently does not have a full-time forensic pathologist, who is the person who does the autopsies.
“Sometimes those remains have been animals, but most recently, they’ve been human remains,” she said. “I cannot do what is referred to as determination of cause and manner of death, and that is necessary for [the] death certificate and proceedings in criminal cases.”
As an anthropologist, Lease’s expertise is the study of bones.
“We are not experts in bones so we’ll take them to Dr. Lease to get a better understanding of how long they’ve been there, the gender and possible age range, and identification of the bones themselves,” said Gaetano.
Lease also estimates how old that person was around the time they died, the person’s ancestry and relative height. This helps police find a match in missing person reports.
“You’d think stature would be the easiest thing, really, but we all lie on our driver’s licenses so that usually is, again, a range,” Lease said. “And any type of trauma I noticed pre-death, during death, and then any damage to the skeleton after death, like [animals] gnawing on it.”
Because there is no forensic pathologist employed by Mahoning County to conduct autopsies, remains now have to be sent to Cuyahoga County for proper, legal identification.
“It’s easier to do things here in house because we’re able to follow it a little better instead of just waiting for them to send their reports,” Gaetano said.
When asked why she gives up her time to dissect crime scenes and analyze skeletal remains, Lease described her feeling of obligation to help and a longing to give back in the way she knows how.
“These are families who have lost a member, friends who have lost a friend. If I can help, that’s important, and not just ‘taking a bad guy off the street.’ Some of these people have been missing for two years or 20 years, and having some idea of what happened to your family member is important,” she said.
The statistics: How many people go missing every year, and how many of them return?
In the United States, 600,000 people go missing every year, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NaMUS). Julie Orto is a crime analyst at the Youngstown Police Department. She provided the total number of missing person reports filed yearly from 2005 to 2020 in Youngstown, as well as the number of reports filed for people who return after being declared missing.
From 2011 to 2016, the city saw a decrease in population but slowly have started seeing people move back into the area from 2017 to 2020.
Recently, data shows one category significantly increased, while the other decreased.
“In 2018, you will see a jump in the number of returned cases. Looking into a brief number of those, I see one of our clerks was going through old missing persons’ reports and following up,” she said. “If the person was deemed missing and never reported as returned, a report was written at the time of the follow up to clear out the case.”
In the past five years, there have been fewer people reported missing in Youngstown, according to the data. She clarified that this data doesn’t include the number of missing or runaway persons under the age of 18 in the city, only adults.
People who are declared missing aren’t obligated to file a report that they’ve returned; likewise, neither do the families call police back every time to inform them their family member isn’t actually missing anymore. Orto said this can skew the data for the returned missing reports.
“The numbers provided are the number of missing persons’ reports filed for that calendar year,” Orto continued. “It gets trickier when you talk about the returned missing reports. Sometimes, those are added to the original missing report, but not always. Therefore, a returned person could be missing from any year. The way the data is pulled, it will spit out any report of a returned missing person from that year.”
As an example, Orto said they might get a returned missing report on October 25, 2021, but the person was reported missing in October of 2015. That person would be listed in the 2021 data under returned missing, but each report is case-by-case and has its own timeline.
According to the World Population Review, in 2010, 66,876 people lived in Youngstown. Of that population, 142 people, or .21% of the total population, were reported missing.
In 2015, the population was 64,687, and there were 265 people reported missing, about .40% of the total population. Fewer reports were filed consistently from 2016 to 2017 compared to any other year.
There were only 80 people reported missing in 2016, out of 64,335 people living in Youngstown. The number of reports stayed consistent the next year, but the population increased to 64,540. In other words, an identical .12% of the population both years went missing.
Most recently, in 2020, there were 113 people reported missing out of a total population of 66,078, which is .17%.