Greeley case shows how missing-child investigations evolved

Technology has transformed how enforcement agencies respond to a missing child report

By Joe Moylin
Greeley Tribune

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — In March 1985 during a speech to members of the National Newspaper Association, President Ronald Reagan urged the media to take up what he called a “mission of mercy” by printing the names and faces of missing children in their respective newspapers.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, more than 1 million children per year went missing from their homes and neighborhoods, Reagan said. Although it wasn’t a new phenomenon, the 1980s marked the first time the problem of child abductions was thrust into the national spotlight, and as a result, the phrase “stranger danger” entered the national vocabulary.

One of those millions of children reported missing during the 1980s was 12-year-old Greeley resident Jonelle Matthews, who disappeared Dec. 20, 1984, after performing in a Christmas concert with the Franklin Middle School Honor Choir. She was last seen about 8 p.m. that night when she was dropped off at her home by a friend and her friend’s father.

Reagan briefly mentioned Jonelle during that March 1985 speech to highlight the founding of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A private, nonprofit funded primarily by the U.S. Justice Department, the center was established in June 1984 following the passage of the Missing Children’s Assistance Act in Congress.

Today, the center serves as “the national clearinghouse of information to provide a coordinated, national response to problems relating to missing and exploited children.”

In the wake of last month’s discovery of Jonelle’s remains at an oil and gas site in rural Weld County, Robert Lowery, vice president of the Missing Children Division at the center, spoke with the Greeley Tribune about how missing children investigations have changed over the last 34 years, including some history about the well-known practice of printing the faces of missing children on milk cartons.

Anderson Erickson Dairy in Des Moines, Iowa, is credited as the first dairy business to print photographs of missing children on its milk cartons when in September 1984 it featured 12-year-old Johnny Gosch and 13-year-old Eugene Martin. Both boys delivered newspapers for the Des Moines Register and each went missing while working their paper routes. Martin disappeared in August 1984, while Gosch went missing two years before the milk carton program started.

Less than seven months later, by March 1985, some 700 of the nation’s 1,600 independent dairies had adopted the practice.

Many of those dairies approached the newly formed National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to establish a partnership and to help spread the word about missing children, Lowery said. Jonelle Matthews was among the first children to be featured on the side of a milk carton.

Although the practice continued into the mid-1990s, few people remember that the milk carton program was a short-lived one for the center, Lowery said.

“Oddly enough, it’s a program we seem to be best remembered for, but it only lasted about six months,” Lowery said.

The logistics that went into the printing process in the 1980s played a big role in the center abandoning the milk carton program, Lowery said. It was a painfully slow way to push out information to the public, as it wasn’t uncommon for children to be missing for months before their photo appeared on a milk carton.

Officials also quickly learned they weren’t reaching their intended audience.

“Think about where you most often see a milk carton, especially back in the ’80s,” Lowery said. “A milk carton gets opened up in the morning and sits on the table while children are eating their breakfast. We were scaring kids.”

Center officials decided instead to dedicate their energy to information gathering and sharing, as well as working with law enforcement to establish better investigative protocols. Some of those techniques and tactics were adopted by law enforcement relatively quickly. Other ideas would evolve with technological improvements.

Thankfully, law enforcement agencies are much better equipped today to respond to a report of a missing child than in 1984, Lowery said.


Early child abduction investigations

A child abduction investigation is the most difficult and dreaded in law enforcement, Lowery said. And that’s coming from a 27-year veteran detective and former commander of the Greater St. Louis Major Case Squad, one of the oldest and largest multi-jurisdictional homicide task forces in the United States.

“It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack kind of a case because you’re working in absence of factual circumstances,” Lowery said. “Police generally have little information to go on other than the child’s physical description and maybe a description of what they were last seen wearing.”

That was the case when Jonelle Matthews disappeared more than three decades ago with one unusual caveat, Lowery said. It’s rare for 12-year-olds to go missing from inside their own homes.

After the Dec. 20, 1984, Christmas concert at IntraWest Bank, Jonelle returned home to an empty house. Her father Jim and older sister Jennifer were at Jennifer’s varsity basketball game in Greeley, and her mother Gloria was out of town caring for a sick relative. When Jim Matthews returned to their house about 8:30 p.m. — 30 minutes after Jonelle was dropped off at home — the TV was on, and Jonelle’s favorite pillow and her shoes were on the floor. The young girl was nowhere to be found.

Retired Greeley Police Capt. Mike Savage declined to talk about his knowledge of the case given it remains an ongoing investigation; however, he did agree to discuss in general terms how police conducted investigations in the 1980s and how things changed during his 43-year career with the department.

“When you’re working a missing persons case, time is not your friend,” Savage said. “When I look back at all of the types of investigations we conducted back then, any delays we experienced were directly attributable to technology.”

Back in the 1980s, when someone reported a missing person, the local police department would investigate the case with assistance from the FBI. Information would be released to the public, typically through the local newspaper, Savage said. But the public wouldn’t receive that information until the day after at best.

The early phases of the investigation involved a lot of old school policing, such as interviewing friends, family and potential suspects, canvassing the neighborhood and searching the missing person’s usual hangouts.
“The hallmark of police work is it’s always changing and always improving, even today,” Savage said. “When I look back at investigations back then, it was a lot of trial and error and learning from your mistakes so you don’t repeat them the next time and trying to be better.

“That trial and error continues, but when I look at the technology and the tools officers have at their disposal today, it’s a lot better than anything we could have imagined back then,” Savage added.

How tech changed child investigations

One of the most notable technological advancements in regards to child abduction investigations was the creation of the Amber Alert system. Started in 1996 when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed up with local law enforcement, AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created in memory of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Arlington, Texas.
Today, there are Amber Alert systems in place in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The system allows law enforcement to push out information about missing children, suspects and suspect vehicles in an instant.

Amber Alerts interrupt regular programming, being broadcast on radio and television, and are also posted on highway signs. Amber Alerts can also be re-disseminated through lottery and digital billboards, internet ad exchanges, internet service providers, internet search engines and mobile phones.

Between 1996 and April of this year, 957 children have been successfully recovered through the Amber Alert system, according to the Justice Department. The system is credited with making the milk carton program, which all but disappeared by the mid-1990s, obsolete.

Smart phones and social media only improved on the qualities of the AMBER Alert system by allowing law enforcement to also include multiple images in its alerts about missing children, Lowery said.

“There are cameras on almost every street corner and in almost every public building,” Lowery said. “Not to be discounted is the fact that nearly everyone these days has a portable video camera in their pocket.

“Technology is so advanced, the likelihood of being seen stealing a child is extremely high today and the world is a safer place because of it, but I do want to caution parents not to let their guards down,” Lowery said.


Technology as a double-edged sword

President Reagan might have been accurate when in 1985 he told a group of newspapermen more than a million children went missing every year in America. But because the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children only tracks cases that are officially entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, Lowery said the number of missing children cases it was tracking was a little more than 800,000 in 1984.
Last year, that number was cut nearly in half with 424,066 reports of missing children. Lowery noted the majority of those reports, then and now, are considered runaways.

The number of reported true child abductions in 1984, when Matthews went missing, was in the neighborhood of 110, Lowery said. Today it’s down to 30-40 each year.

Although Lowery credits technology for the significant drop in missing children reports, he cautioned that technology has paved the way for a new type of threat — online predators.

“The street corner child abductor is being replaced by the online predator, who is engaging with your children through social media while they are in your homes and sitting in your living rooms,” Lowery said. “Once a predator has engaged with a child on social media, the next step is to lure them out of your home and into their car.”

Parents, Lowery said, are the first line of defense in the social media era and abstinence is not the answer. Instead, parents should teach children how to use social media responsibly, which includes making sure they know they can talk to their parents if someone engages them inappropriately online. Parents should then immediately call 911.

“We have a tendency in our society to be judgmental, to blame the child,” Lowery said. “There’s only one villain in these situations, and it’s not the child.”


Seeking closure

Lowery and Savage are hopeful Greeley police can solve the last piece of the puzzle and close the Jonelle Matthews case for good.

”The Matthews family still doesn’t have all of the answers, and they deserve to know the rest of the story,” Lowery said. “I know the Greeley Police Department has been involved in an intense investigation for more than 30 years, and they won’t quit until they find out who did this and why they put her where she was found.

“It’s not closure. That’s something we (at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) deal with every day,” Lowery said. “You never truly get closure, but it’s the not knowing that’s the worst.”

Although Savage would agree with that sentiment, the significance of finally finding Jonelle after more than three decades can’t be understated.

“All of the people involved in this case hoped she would be found alive someday, but we knew the reality of finding her alive was less and less as time went by,” Savage said. “I was at least pleased to hear her body was recovered and can finally be returned to her family.”