To seek out extra lacking individuals, ship extra alerts, says the Hillsborough Sheriff

TAMPA – Cieha Taylor should have celebrated her 30th birthday last week.

Instead, her mother caught up with friends and family for the second year in a row that day where the train tracks cross Trapnell Road in Plant City – the place where the black Toyota Solaris found her daughter abandoned and running with her purse and cell phone became February 6, 2020.

As cars whizzed by, they lit candles, cried, and prayed while listening to Hillside Young & Free’s haunted hymn, Gracious Tempest. They couldn’t help but look around the wooded curb one more time, looking for anything that might have been overlooked during the two-year search.

“We went through every scenario and possibility we could think of and still haven’t found anything,” said the missing woman’s mother, Canitha Taylor. “The detectives followed the lead and said they saw someone who looked like Cieha or they thought it was them who got nowhere.”

Related: A look at 25 Tampa Bay names in the national database of missing persons

With weeks turning into months of no news, the family added $ 10,000 to CrimeStoppers’ Rewards for tips on Cieha’s whereabouts. Add to the pain the national attention generated by the September disappearance of Gabby Petito, who was found murdered in Utah. When her friend from North Port died later, suicide was suspected.

“We didn’t understand,” said Canitha Taylor. “We didn’t get all the attention, all the coverage that helped find her daughter in just eight days while mine isn’t there yet. We asked the FBI to come in and they didn’t. “

The Petito case, involving a young white victim who shared the couple’s overland trip online, sparked a debate over priorities in missing persons cases. It has also changed the way at least one local law enforcement agency asks for help locating them.

Florida law dictates how to deal with established categories of missing persons – for example, “at risk”, “silver alert”, or “outlier”. But Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office is increasing the attention it brings to people of all categories, especially those whose cases are getting cold.

“This is about justice for the families of these victims,” ​​said Chronister. “Too many of them grew up without a parent, brother, sister, or friend. They deserve answers, and we won’t stop until we can give them them. “

Since Chronister took office in 2017, his office has been working on revising its online portal for missing persons. The page now includes headshots, a rough timeline, and additional details on every missing person report the office receives. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has now set up a similar portal.

As of last week, the Hillsborough portal listed 92 people who had been missing since the 1970s.

In addition, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office has dramatically increased the number of missing person alerts it sends to local news organizations, no longer limiting them to those classified as at risk, spokeswoman Crystal Clark said.

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“We noticed that the news outlets were asking more about these cases and the information wasn’t pointing to the HCSO website,” said Clark. “To make it easier for those who inquire about these cases, in addition to the posts on our public website, we sent out press releases this week to test whether the flow of information works better this way.”

It is a massive undertaking that requires additional hours of work and at the same time risks “information overload”. Every major local law enforcement agency receives hundreds of missing person reports each year, and Clark admits that “it is currently unclear whether this new process will continue”.

In the last week of October, prior to the agency’s move in November, the Sheriff’s Office recorded 51 missing person reports and issued press releases on three of them. In the following week, the agency sent out 29 press releases.

No other local agency has taken this step to date and has largely limited its press releases to the Amber Alerts for Missing Children and the Silver Alerts for Missing Elderly. Cases are added at the discretion of the public information officers and regulators in accordance with the agencies’ standard operating procedures.

Missing persons also play a role in Chronister’s establishment of the agency’s first cold case unit in August, which is dedicated to the closure of around 240 unresolved cases from decades. The unit will review cases, re-submit evidence for consideration, re-interview witnesses, and seek new details that could lead to a resolution.

At the same time, the Sheriff’s Office is producing a podcast series, which started in 2020 and is called Unfinished Business, in which every 10 to 20 minute episode shows a missing person or an unsolved murder.

The 16 episodes released to date have been downloaded more than 13,300 times by listeners in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.

The first episode featured Cieha Taylor. Head Detective Joseph Florio describes his frustration and notes that every homicide detective in the office has helped locate it, saying, “Of all the cases I’ve worked on before, we had some sort of solution for them. Unfortunately we still haven’t found Cieha Taylor in this case. “

Many experts say that real progress in finding more missing people will only be achieved if law enforcement agencies modernize their online case databases. Florida agencies are required to report missing persons to the more comprehensive National Crime Information Center and Florida Crime Information Center – both have been criticized by forensic experts and others as largely unavailable to the public and fragmented in their reporting requirements.

One possible step forward is a proposal tabled in the state legislature last week that obliges the Florida authorities to join the federally funded National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Ten states have already imposed the requirement. The sponsor is State Representative Omari Hardy, a Palm Beach Democrat.

The free online portal is open to both law enforcement agencies and the public. Anyone can post photos of missing or unidentified people, as well as DNA information. As of last week, the NamUs website was tracking more than 21,000 missing people and nearly 14,000 unidentified people nationwide. Florida accounted for 906 of the unidentified people and 1,574 of the missing people on the site.

National forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle from the University of South Florida; Hernando County Sheriff’s Office cold case investigators who have long used the NamUs database; and Gabby Petito’s father Joseph.

Tips for missing people

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of a missing person can call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-8200 or Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay at 800-873-TIPS.

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