We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Going “missing” in D.C. is more common than you think.

When you go to the Youth and Preventive Services Division of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) at 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE to ask about missing persons, you’ll find dozens of fliers posted on the bulletin board. Most have pictures of children and babies on them. The now-familiar photo of 24-year-old Chandra Levy—dressed in a white sleeveless top and surrounded by a tangle of dark curly hair—is also there, tacked in the middle of the bulletin board. The Federal Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto, Calif., was last seen April 30, and the search for her has become the focus of a nationwide media frenzy.

At the bottom corner of the bulletin board, there is another, obviously homemade, plea for information about another missing loved one. Its photo shows 19-year-old Nyesa Shaw—a slender young woman dressed for her senior prom or some other occasion that requires fancy dress. Her eyes are turned down, and she flashes a shy half-smile. The flier asks those with any information regarding her whereabouts to contact Shaw’s family directly—not the MPD.

“Please help the Shaw family contact Nyesa—Thank You very much and may GOD bless you,” the flier concludes.

Nyesa Shaw disappeared in November 2000, just before Thanksgiving. One afternoon, she simply did not come home from school. Her father, Clarence Shaw, waited until the following evening to report her to the police as missing.

Because Nyesa Shaw was 18 when she disappeared, Clarence Shaw was required to file his missing-persons report through his local police district, rather than with Youth and Preventive Services. He says that if the MPD was hard at work trying to find his daughter, he wasn’t aware of it. The most help that he received, he says, came from a police officer assigned to patrol Eastern High School, where Nyesa Shaw was a student at the time. This officer, says her father, tried looking for her in the area surrounding the school’s Northeast campus.

“We just didn’t get any feedback,” Clarence Shaw recalls. “After I filed the report, that was it. No one contacted me. No one came to the house.”

Shaw posted fliers at various city locations, hoping that someone in the community would spot his daughter. “We received a call from a woman who said that her daughter had spotted our daughter a few times in the same part of town,” Shaw says. “So that ruled out the foul-play aspect. We knew she was safe.”

Nyesa Shaw returned home safely in February. Clarence Shaw says that he and his family were so happy to have her return—and fearful that she might leave again—that they have yet to question her on her whereabouts during the time she was gone or what drove her to leave. Shaw says that the family has never received a follow-up phone call from the MPD to verify that his daughter is back home.

Clarence Shaw’s dilemma is not unusual. Though Levy’s disappearance has generated vast amounts of media attention, that focus has remained narrowly on Levy’s case alone.

For instance, there are no readily available statistics for the number of adult missing persons over 18 years of age in the District. Cases—like that of Nyesa Shaw—fall through the cracks.

The statistical glitch results in part from changes made by MPD Chief Charles Ramsey at the beginning of his tenure, in 1998. In a reorganization targeted to change the culture of a department that the MPD’s 1999 report A Year of Challenges, A Year of Change labeled “overly bureaucratic and organizationally out of sync with the principles of community policing,” the MPD’s Criminal Investigation Division was decentralized in 1999, and more than 150 detectives were transferred from police headquarters into the city’s seven police districts.

Before 1999, all missing-persons cases were handled by Youth and Preventive Services. Since the decentralization, adult missing-persons cases are investigated by the individual districts in which they occur. Youth and Preventive Services continues to look into missing-persons cases involving those 17 and under.

“The decision was made because it was felt that the community would be better served by having officers who know the districts to work on these cases,” says Sgt. Joe Gentile of the MPD’s Public Information Office. “Our officers are trained to handle every type of case.”

Calls made by the Washington City Paper to each of the city’s police districts for even the most basic missing-persons information yielded many different answers—some of them distinctly unhelpful. Each district has a crime-analysis department, which is responsible for keeping statistics on crime within its geographic area, and then passing this information on to Central Crime Analysis, where citywide statistics are compiled.

Information on missing persons, however, is hard to come by at the police districts or at the citywide level. The officer who answered the phone at the 5th District’s crime-analysis division said that because being a missing person is not technically considered a crime, the MPD is not required to keep such statistics. Officers at the 7th District insisted that they are indeed sending missing-persons case information to a central processing center, although Central Crime Analysis doesn’t track the figures. The other police districts bounced telephone requests from person to person, without any results.

Those searching for missing loved ones who are 17 years of age or younger are spared some of the runaround because of the centralized Missing Persons Section in Youth and Preventive Services.

Sgt. Robert Garaffo, of the Missing Persons Section, holds up a 2-inch stack of forms to illustrate the number of reports filed with his department. “This is just who’s taken off this month,” he says. Statistics are easier to come by here, however. The Youth and Preventive Services handled 4,186 missing-persons cases in 2000, and it has taken on another 1,777 so far in 2001.

Garaffo says that there are two primary types of cases that are filed with his department: very young missing children, who are often the victims of family abductions, and teenage runaways.

“In D.C., you don’t have many real missing-persons cases. You have runaways,” Garaffo observes. “And they don’t run to New York, Boston, or California; they run from Southeast to Southwest or Northwest to Northeast. That’s not exclusive, of course. A few do actually leave the area, but 85 percent are within the city.”

Other unique difficulties attach to the search for missing adults. Aside from the statistical glitches and lack of attention, there are issues with adult cases that do not apply to those of missing children.

The Arizona-based Nation’s Missing Children Organization and Center for Missing Adults (NMCO) is one of only a handful of organizations in the country that take on cases of missing adults. NMCO President Kym Pasqualini says that her organization started out focusing on children but that it soon identified a huge gap in victims’ services for families of adult missing persons.

Pasqualini observes that many organizations are leery of tackling adult missing-persons cases because of the privacy issues that they raise.

“Privacy law gives adults the right to disappear,” says Pasqualini, who adds that the NMCO becomes involved in adult cases only when a missing individual is listed with law enforcement and classified as “endangered”—a category that includes missing persons with a history of medical or mental illness and those who have disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

Pasqualini harbors hopes that the void in services and accurate statistics will shrink with the passage of “Kristen’s Law”—a bill named for Kristen Modafferi, a North Carolina State University student who disappeared in the summer of 1997 in San Francisco, just three weeks after her 18th birthday. (Modafferi is still missing.)

Signed into law in November 2000, the bill authorizes the U.S. attorney general to make grants of up to $1 million a year over the next four years to public agencies and nonprofit private organizations that help find missing adults. There is also a provision to establish a national clearinghouse for adult missing persons.

One of the more unusual aspects of Levy’s disappearance is that her family has been able to garner a degree of attention that many adult missing-persons cases never receive. The Levys have also benefited from the involvement of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, an organization established to help families gain media attention and offer substantial rewards for information that leads to the location of missing loved ones. The Sund Foundation has helped the Levys launch a Web site with a downloadable copy of the missing-persons flier, police contact information, and the promise of a $30,000 reward.

Gentile believes that cases like Levy’s are attractive to the media because the subjects don’t fit the troubled profile of many missing young women. “Usually, most adult missing-persons cases we see deal with someone who has some sort of mental or physical infirmity,” says Gentile. “In the case of Ms. Levy, you have the disappearance of a seemingly responsible adult, which is very rare.”

Gentile mentions two other high-profile cases involving missing young women that have grabbed D.C.’s attention in recent years. Like Levy, both Shaquita Bell and Joyce Chiang could not be classified in the traditional missing-persons categories. Bell was last seen in June 1996 at Fort Dupont Park in Southeast Washington. The case remains unsolved. Chiang, a lawyer with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, disappeared from Dupont Circle in January 1999. Her body was found in the Potomac River a few months after her disappearance (“The Murder Victim Next Door,” 7/30/99).

“[Levy’s] case is a true mystery, like those of Chiang and Bell,” Gentile observes. “You have a woman who has vanished without taking any identification, credit cards, clothes, etc. Not someone with a long history of problems.”

The similarities between the Chiang and Levy cases are striking. Like Levy, Chiang was on a prestigious career track, and both women disappeared from the same neighborhood. The two cases also feature high-powered connections between the missing women and congressional or other government figures who have lobbied for police and media attention.

Gentile maintains that it is the media, not the MPD, that focus attention on a case like Levy’s or Chiang’s. “Individual officers assess cases, and we commit the resources needed,” Gentile says. “We don’t place importance on one case over another.”

Clarence Shaw believes that categorizing some missing persons as “unique” and most as troubled, or runaways, hurts his own efforts to find his daughter. Families of missing persons often must tackle the wrenching, confusing task of locating their loved ones as best they can on their own. Like Shaw, they must craft homemade fliers and tack them up near notices for more high-profile cases and hope that someone will take notice and offer help.

“I had to focus on where my daughter was and how I was going to find her,” Shaw concludes. “I never gave the police a second thought.” CP