THE MERE THOUGHT that a loved one could go missing would strike unease into most people’s hearts. Yet, unlike other emergencies that could affect a household, no one offers a “do this if they’re missing” course, equivalent to the readily available community first aid and CPR training classes. Further compounding the issue is the abundance of out-of-date or complete misinformation about what to do if a family member goes missing. These circulate thanks to old TV cop shows and social media.
Following this bad advice about missing persons is the equivalent of using the old method of pumping a drowning victim’s arms over their head rather than applying modern mouth-to-mouth resuscitation breathing and CPR compressions. Yet people continue to believe myths such as the supposed existence of a mandatory 48- to 72-hour waiting period before they may file a missing person report with police, even for missing children. This week, Florida Weekly attempts to dispel some of the missing-person myths by providing accurate information from police, nonprofits and a private investigator, as well as examining one case — of a Cape Coral woman missing since June 2020 — that illustrates how some of the myths may have affected that investigation.
Mandatory waiting period and other myths
“The way law enforcement handled missing person cases 30 years ago is not at all like we do today, so I can understand why these myths exist because things were different years ago,” said Det. Sgt. Wade Williams of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office during a telephone interview. “Many states have gotten on board with a more contemporary way of understanding and handling missing persons, usually from hard lessons learned from prior missing person cases. Our missing person law changed in 2012, I believe it was, and went from a paragraph to multiple pages about what we must do and when we have to accept reports. Prior to that, law enforcement didn’t even have to accept a missing person report, but now it’s required that we do. We are required by law to accept any missing person report and required to accept it immediately, so waiting 24 or 48 hours is a myth. In fact, I would recommend that you don’t do that because valuable time would be lost.”
In some instances, it’s legally required to promptly file a missing person report. Det. Sgt. Williams pointed out that failure on the part of an adult responsible for a child to immediately report if the child goes missing could result in neglect charges.
One misunderstanding that upset parents have is that not every missing child report qualifies for an AMBER Alert. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the only police agency in the state that can issue the alerts, and all criteria must be met. Not only must the missing person be under 18, but law enforcement must believe that a kidnapping has occurred; that the child is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury; a detailed description of the child and/or the abductor/vehicle must be available to broadcast to the public; and the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the case has recommended AMBER Alert activation. By comparison, SILVER Alerts have different criteria, which generally involves being over age 60 and law enforcement verification that the person has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
In an in-person interview, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno called the immediate report of a missing person the “golden hour,” particularly in the case of an extremely vulnerable person such as a child or an adult with dementia. He said, “They need to call us in that golden hour, which is that first hour, because critical details of the investigation could be lost.”
Another myth Det. Sgt. Williams cited was one that claims a missing person report must be filed at the police station in person, like how it’s shown for dramatic effect on TV shows. In fact, he said that the person filing the report doesn’t even have to live in the same state. As an example, he said a woman called from Nevada to file a missing person report about her ex-husband in Florida. He normally emailed her about once every two weeks, but she was concerned because she hadn’t received an email from him for about a month. This points to another myth, which is that a strong relationship is required to file a missing person report. To debunk this one, Det. Sgt. Williams cited a case from Immokalee where a mailman filed a report that, as he made his daily rounds, he was no longer seeing a woman who normally walked around using a shopping cart to collect cans. Farmworkers found her in a field, dead from natural causes.
“There was no foul play, but if you looked at the strength of relationship, she could have saved up her cans to go on a cruise,” Det. Sgt. Williams said. “But we’re required to accept that report because he didn’t know where she was and we didn’t know where she was, so that’s a missing person.”
For those worried that they might get a person in trouble by reporting him or her missing, Det. Sgt. Williams explained that missing is a status, not a crime (although harboring a missing child or lying to police about a missing person are crimes). While an independent, competent adult is legally permitted to not communicate with friends and family, those concerned people are still permitted to file a missing person report to request police check into that non-communicative person’s wellbeing.
“Obviously, in most cases, the missing person knows where they are, so they don’t think they’re missing,” Det. Sgt. Williams said. “But that’s not the definition of a missing person under state law. A missing person is somebody that the person who is reporting them doesn’t know their location and we also don’t know their location, so then they’re missing. It’s set up to be very broad so that we don’t miss if they’re the victim of a crime or crashed into a canal of gators and need help.”
Missing person case: Lauren Dumolo
Florida Weekly chose to examine one sample missing person case for this story, that of Lauren Dumolo, a 29-year-old Cape Coral woman. To spare Ms. Dumolo’s family further undue stress, Florida Weekly chose to contact Walter Zalisko of Global Investigative Group, the private investigator Ms. Dumolo’s father hired, to speak on behalf of the family. Additional details in this highly publicized case were already available from police reports and press releases as well as reports in other media. In examining details of the case in this article meant to dispel myths about missing persons, Florida Weekly does not mean to imply that Ms. Dumolo’s family mishandled reporting the case. Instead, we simply wish to illustrate how the public’s lack of knowledge about current missing person laws could cause unnecessary delays in reporting and investigating cases.
Lauren Dumolo was reported missing on Sunday evening, June 21, 2020, more than 48 hours after she was last seen. Her last contact with her family was a phone conversation with her sister Cassie Carey of Largo on Thursday evening, June 18, 2020. The women made plans to speak again the next day, but Ms. Carey never reached her sister after placing several calls on Friday.
The missing person report from the Cape Coral Police Department indicates Ms. Dumolo was last seen Friday morning, June 19, 2020. Although Cape Coral Police redacted the name of the reporting person before emailing it to Florida Weekly, the narrative indicates the report was made by a person Ms. Dumolo lived with. In other media reports, Paul Dumolo of California, her father, recounted that Ms. Dumolo’s boyfriend, Gabriel Pena, called the evening of June 19 to say he was concerned because he hadn’t seen her since he had left for work that morning. Although initially believing she must have been running an errand or visiting her mother, who lived nearby, Mr. Dumolo later asked Mr. Pena to file the missing person report.
In the days before her disappearance, Ms. Dumolo exhibited erratic behavior that led to her being held two separate times for involuntary mental health examinations under the Baker Act. According to a June 29, 2020, press release from Cape Coral Police, her purse was found on Friday, June 19, the same day she disappeared, at Four Freedoms Park, a place she frequently visited. Her phone was found in her apartment. After investigating the case, Cape Coral Police changed her status to missing person — endangered on June 24. Her shirt and shoes were found at Four Freedoms Park several weeks later, after police had already searched the park.
“It’s frustrating that the police haven’t been able to identify even a person of interest — never mind suspects,” said Mr. Zalisko, who opened his private investigation business in Fort Myers after retiring as a police chief in New Jersey. “I think they’ve made some missteps from the initial stages of the investigation. Whenever you have a missing person case, you look at the immediate events that transpire. Is there a red flag or something that can make it look like a crime and not just a missing person?”
Mr. Zalisko said, based on the red flags, he has his suspicions about a couple of Ms. Dumolo’s close associates in Cape Coral. He said his own confidential informants — his “rats on the street” as he called them — told him they believed that Ms. Dumolo was involved with people who solve problems by dumping them 50 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I mean, these were all red flags,” Mr. Zalisko said during a telephone interview. “It should have been treated more as a criminal investigation rather than a missing person.”
This reporter sent the Cape Coral Police Department a request for an interview, stating a telephone interview as the first preference. The interview request included asking to speak about missing person cases that Cape Coral Police had successfully concluded, in addition to asking about the Lauren Dumolo case. Public affairs officer Brandon Sancho replied via email, writing that he would “be reaching out to you further regarding your request for interview.” He continued communicating via email, later following up by emailing statistics about the number and types of missing person cases filed with Cape Coral Police from June 2020 through April 2022, but he did not include closure statistics. In his email, he wrote, “We appreciate your willingness to highlight Lauren’s case, we do not want to detract from the importance of this particular case in an opinion based article, we also do not want to compare Lauren’s case to other cases we do not want to make it seem it is more important than others or less important.”
Like first aid, prepare for filing a report
If you ever find yourself filing a missing person report, you’re likely to be emotional and flustered. That’s understandable, especially if it’s about a family member. So, just like preparing a first-aid kit, it’s advisable to compile the necessary information before a missing person emergency arises. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office website offers a link for a downloadable form to print and fill out ahead of time. While intended for children with autism who wander off, it’s a decent starting point for compiling information for any family member as it includes blanks for physical description, medical needs and a recent photograph.
If you make a missing person report, Sheriff Marceno said police would ask about friends, as well as any boyfriend or girlfriend, that the missing person might have gone to visit. He also said to be ready to answer questions about when and where the person was last seen, what clothing she wore and whether anyone saw the person leave and travel in a certain direction. Mr. Zalisko recommended having ready a list of all the missing person’s social media accounts as the person may well still post to her accounts. He also said providing investigators with any “find my lost phone” accounts the person has might reveal her location even if she is deliberately ducking phone calls. Det. Sgt. Williams said to have a missing adult’s financial information available, as police can track credit card transactions. He also emphasized that part of the importance of contacting police quickly to file a missing person report is to put the investigation into the hands of the professionals.
“We ask the family, if they become aware of any information, that they need to communicate that directly with law enforcement and not go interrogate people themselves,” Det. Sgt. Williams said. “We only get one shot at it, and if they’ve already interviewed them, then that person can think of ways to change their story. That would be difficult for us to overcome, so we ask that they not be their own investigator.”
Law enforcement’s actions
In an email, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Teri Barbera described some of the actions police may take upon receiving a missing person report. Depending upon the circumstances, deputies may mount a door-to-door search if in a residential area; they may deploy search-and-rescue canines; they may use drones or helicopters to search from the air. Leveraging the power of communications, they may dispatch a reverse-911 missing person call to alert all residents of the area; post to the sheriff’s social media accounts; and they may notify news media. If special circumstances exist, such as if the missing person is a child or adult with cognitive disabilities or if a stranger abduction is suspected, additional protocols come into play. These might include the use of specialized tracking equipment or the issuance of an AMBER Alert.
Claudette Smith, a public information officer for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, also shared some of her department’s missing person procedures. By email, she wrote, “Each case will be handled differently based on the unique situation at hand. For example, if someone leaves on foot, we would have a K9 handler respond to start a track as soon as possible, compared to someone who has been missing for days and left in a vehicle. There are different ways our members would go about their search. However, in order to use some of these tools, the individual must be entered into a database as missing, which will also alert other agencies.”
Among the specialized tools used in various counties in the Florida Weekly publishing area are Project Lifesaver and ReUnite. These tools are available to help keep people with cognitive disabilities safe, such as children with autism or adults with Alzheimer’s, as these individuals tend to wander. Charlotte, Collier and Palm Beach counties use Project Lifesaver. Lee County uses ReUnite. Both tools require pre-registration, which includes filling out a profile with information such as physical description and a current photo.
With Project Lifesaver, the person with disabilities wears a water-resistant radio frequency bracelet on either the wrist or ankle. Each bracelet transmits a unique radio frequency. Police patrol cars, helicopters and drones carry special antennae to track the transmitter bracelet if the wearer is reported missing.
Gene Saunders, a retired police chief and founder/CEO of the nonprofit Project Lifesaver International located in Port St. Lucie, said a deputy on the ground could track a bracelet at 1 mile in an urban area and 3 to 5 miles in open country. When used in the air, the range of the antennae expands up to 7 miles.
“We made it into a study some years ago where the average search for an Alzheimer’s patient, at that time, was nine hours, but we were able to do it within an average time of 30 minutes — and only using a couple of people,” Mr. Saunders said in a telephone interview. “If you’re familiar with any kind of search methods, you’re putting a lot of people into the field because you have a lot of area to cover. This unit not only will tell you where they are, but it’ll tell you where they aren’t. I participated in many searches where we had no idea what direction we were really needing to go, so we had to go 360 degrees. It became a herculean task, so if you at least know what direction they headed, that helps a lot.”
ReUnite takes a little different technological approach, employing a GPS tracker that sends the caretaker a text alert if the wearer wanders and breaks the GPS geofencing zone. The caretaker calls 9-1-1, and the sheriff’s department sends a bloodhound and airborne equipment such as a drone with an infrared camera. Upon registering for ReUnite, the caretaker receives a scent kit to take and seal away an uncontaminated scent sample for the bloodhound to sniff, if the need to track arises. Lee County Sheriff’s Office partners with the United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades counties for the enrollment phase of the program.
“Working with United Way has been a great partnership,” Sheriff Marceno said. “ReUnite is a multifaceted program. We have to have many layers in place to make certain that we’re doing everything we can to protect our vulnerable and elderly residents. When you’re looking for someone, they can cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes or an hour. Every second and minute counts. So, what we want to do is make sure that we’re in front of it. You can’t just have one thing in place. You have to be proactive, or you fail.”
While gut-wrenching for a family to go through, most missing person cases are resolved quickly and successfully. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office closed 98.1% of its 641 missing person cases from 2021, with only seven cases still open from last year.
Det. Sgt. Williams said that, of the roughly 600 missing person reports the Collier Sheriff’s Department took last year, most were resolved within two or three days. And those are 600 reports — not people — as a single repeat runaway could account for 10 reports by himself. Only two people reported missing in 2021 are still listed on the Collier Sheriff’s long-term missing cases webpage.
“Most cases are a misunderstanding and miscommunication that caused the missing report to be made because it’s the lack of knowledge of whereabouts by the person making the report, “ Det. Sgt. Williams said. “Obviously, the missing person knew where they were.” ¦