LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – Today is National Missing Persons Day. Across the country, about 600,000 individuals go missing every year. Right now, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which is funded by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, there are 22,700 names listed as missing people in their database and 591 of them are from Michigan. The state currently ranks #7 in the number of missing person cases with California, Florida and Texas being the top three.
Of those missing in Michigan, 272 are women and 91 of all those missing in Michigan were under 18-years-old when they went missing. 361 of them are White, 197 are Black/African American, 29 are Hispanic and eight are American Indian.
There is, however, conflicting information about how many missing people there actually are. According to Michigan State Police (MSP) Public Affairs Representative, Lori Dougovito, there are “more than 93,700 active missing persons cases and in Michigan, almost 4,000 people currently reported missing to law enforcement, including nearly 900 children. We are committed to doing all we can to bring them home.”
When pressed on where the MSP numbers come from she said the national numbers were from the latest FBI report and that the Michigan numbers came from an internal source that was current as of January 30, 2023. When talking with another source, they said a lot of law enforcement has not taken the time to load their backlog and enter their information into the NamUs system.
One of those missing persons is a name you might recognize – Paige Renkoski, a substitute teacher from Okemos who went missing in May of 1990 at the age of 30. Her case is one of Michigan’s longest running cold cases. Not much is known about Renkoski’s disappearance other than she was seen speaking to an unknown black male on the side of I-96, near the Fowlerville exit. Her vehicle was later located abandoned on I-96 with the key still in ignition and the engine still running. The front door was unlocked and her purse and shoes were found inside. Unfortunately, even under those circumstances, time was lost in the investigation because the police didn’t process the scene as suspicious – they just had the vehicle towed because it was an abandoned vehicle.
A more recent missing persons case from Michigan in the NamUs database is Danielle Stislicki, a 28-year-old woman who went missing in December of 2016. Stislicki was last seen leaving her job at MetLife in Southfield at around 5 p.m. on December 2nd. Her vehicle was located at her apartment outside the Independence Green apartments in Farmington Hills.
The trial for Floyd Galloway, the man accused of killing Stislicki, has been delayed but is now scheduled to start March 23rd. It’s being prosecuted as a no-body homicide. Galloway was a security guard at the same MetLife where Stislicki worked and has been considered a person of interest early on in the investigation. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel took over the case from the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office when they declined to prosecute and the AG’s office has charged Galloway with first-degree premeditated murder.
With so many missing persons cases happening all across the country and with some of those people leaving voluntarily, NamUs says “the sheer volume of missing and unidentified person cases poses one of the greatest challenges to agencies tasked with resolving these important cases.”
Luckily, many of the 600,000 people who go missing, both the adults and children, are found quickly, alive and well. However, NamUs says “tens of thousands of individuals remain missing for more than one year – what many agencies consider a ‘cold case.’”
One very important resource in Michigan to help find missing people is the “Missing in Michigan Association.” Their website and their Facebook group of almost 100K members shows that they assist law enforcement and the families of the missing with resources and also to get the word out on missing persons case through social media and other media outlets. They even have their own Missing Persons Day, an annual event on May 25th, to recognize the missing and the families of the missing as crime victims themselves.
In fact, it was that first Missing Persons Day event that led to the organization being formed and the group is still in existence almost 13 years later using collaborative efforts to help get people home including offering funding to assist in law enforcement operations and to help the families of the missing.
Sarah Krebs is the founder and president of the nonprofit. She is currently the Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer with the Michigan State Police (MSP) and in the past was the Amber Alert Coordinator and Missing Children’s Clearinghouse Manager. She was also a forensic artist and still does that part-time when time allows. Krebs also established a DNA collection program called “ID the Missing” that helps identify previously unidentified human remains.
Krebs also founded the MSP’s Missing Persons Coordination Unit (MPCU). The MPCU website says their intention is to provide exceptional missing persons and unidentified human remains investigative coordination support to law enforcement and the citizens of the State of Michigan. They support the Missing Children’s Clearinghouse and the Amber Alert Program and use responsive forensic anthropological support to investigators searching for and recovering unidentified remains, as well as biometric data collection and identity assistance for those remains.
In an article from the legalnews.com, Krebs talked about the first Missing Person’s Day event that is now a yearly Missing in Michigan event. She said, “I knew that a lot of our cases did not have the DNA we needed to help solve them. I wanted to create a way to bring together all the families of the missing with law enforcement, not only to get the DNA but also to recognize those families. I realized that they weren’t being treated as crime victims because they were in this holding pattern for so many years without answers. I wanted a way to publicly recognize them, so we created this event.”
As a forensic artist, Krebs has been helpful in assisting many missing persons cases although the exact number cannot be known as it is not an easily-tracked statistic. She started out as a comic artist with the “State News” but she’s a a third-generation cop so it wasn’t surprising for her to transition over into law enforcement. Krebs’ father was an MSP trooper and forensic artist and that helped lead her into her 20-year career with the MSP.
As a forensic artist, Krebs told Michigan News Source that it involves more than just drawing photos of potential suspects and doing forensic facial reconstruction of victims. She said that over her career, she has worked on hundreds of cases that included drawing sketches of crime scenes, witnesses, vehicles, stolen objects, age progression drawings, and more. Because forensic artists are hard to come by, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to get a skull in the mail from a law enforcement agency that needed her assistance. With a degree in anthropology, Krebs was able to add that additional knowledge to her artwork as well.
While working with human remains of unidentified people, Krebs knew that they connected back to a missing person and that was what led her to start the Missing Persons Coordination Unit and her own nonprofit. She wanted to bridge both sides of the equation and “hook them back together” to find resolution to the families of the missing. She said there was a huge disconnect between the medical examiner system and law enforcement in Michigan, as well as nationwide, and she wanted to work on connecting the dots and solving cases.
Fortunately, recent advances in DNA, and more specifically in forensic genetic genealogy where DNA is cross-referenced with family trees to identify victims and suspects, more and more cases, many of them cold cases from long ago, are being solved. Forensic genetic genealogy has been a real game changer in making identifications and solving crimes.
One of those cases is Stacey Lyn Chahorski of Norton Shores Michigan who had been missing for 33 years before she was identified with genetic genealogy through the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Both Chahorski and her killer, Henry Fredrick Wise, were identified through genealogy technology.
Chahorski, unbeknownst to investigators in Michigan, had been found murdered in Dade County, Georgia in December of 1988. In 2015, Chahorski’s case was reassigned and her DNA went to the Othram lab for identification which was able to be made.
Then, the GBI turned to identifying her killer, using DNA from the crime scene. The killer identified turned out to be Wise, who was a truck driver who drove through Dade County on his regular route. Wise, who is now deceased after burning to death in a stunt car accident, had a criminal history in North Carolina, Florida and Georgia but his arrests predated mandatory DNA testing. DNA swabs were taken from family members and sent to Othram to identify him.
The MSP was able to solve a case in January through genetic genealogy as well with the help of the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit initiative that used investigative genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Doe unidentified remains. The remains of Dorothy Lynn (Thyng) Ricker, who was found in Lake Michigan in 1997, were identified recently. The missing Chicago woman had been declared an accidental drowning victim but they didn’t know who she was until 25 years later.
Krebs told Michigan News Source that the MSP has recently been given a grant to assist with about 20 DNA cases involving genetic genealogy. Dougovito responded about it by saying, “Our Forensic Science Division is piloting a program utilizing forensic genetic genealogy to assist investigators with a number of their cold cases. We hope to share additional information as we get further into the process.”
In addition to the help from genetic genealogy, the MSP is also working with students from Michigan State University to solve cold cases. In April of 2020, Detective Sergeant Larry Rothman contacted the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University to form a collaborative cold case unit.
The independent study opportunity allows students to engage directly with detectives in the Michigan State Police First District Cold Case Unit to assist in their investigation of cold case homicides and other cases across the state. They look at photos, maps, fingerprints, listen to interviews and try to piece together puzzle pieces in order to solve a cold case mystery from years or even decades in the past.
The energetic and curious students are able to help short-staffed struggling police agencies who don’t have the time to dive into cold cases with the effort that is needed. The students come on board with a new look at everything and a fresh perspective. The students also learn about how to engage with victim’s families who might have not been contacted by law enforcement for a long time.
Whether dealing with families of homicide victims or missing persons, law enforcement officers and volunteers have to walk a delicate balance of offering assistance with emotionally fragile loved ones who are dealing with tragic and usually unknown circumstances.
One thing that Krebs wants to make known about missing persons is the plight of the families of missing juveniles who might have started out being “voluntarily” missing. She said that it’s good to remember that “their families feel the same either way whether they went missing voluntarily or they went missing by foul play.” She said it’s a scary situation for the family and their loved ones can’t be dismissed as just runaways these days with the amount of human trafficking and drug overdoses currently going on in the country. It’s still a “missing child” and it’s a situation that is terrifying to their family.
We’ve definitely come a long way from the days of only seeing missing people on milk cartons. We’re now living in a world with more of an opportunity to solve crimes and find missing people with Amber Alerts, social media posts, GPS, cell phone data, cell phone alerts, texting, doorbell cameras, true crime TV shows and podcasts, and genetic genealogy to assist in finding missing persons, identifying human remains and solving murder cases.
But it also takes humans. It takes a dedication and a creativity to take a mountain of information and about 10,000 puzzle pieces that need to be put together. It takes a great mind. Or two. Or more.
Helen Nielsen, author of mysteries and TV scripts for shows like “Perry Mason” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” said, “Imagination (is) to building a police case what mortar is to a bricklayer.”