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‘Silent epidemic’ of missing Missourians leaves families searching for answers and closure

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

Hundreds of people are reported missing every year in Missouri, leaving families devastated and with many unanswered questions. While some missing persons cases are solved quickly giving families answers and closure, some cases turn cold.

As what one advocate calls the "silent epidemic" of missing persons cases can often be tricky to solve, some families hold out hope for closure for dozens of years.

It's been more than 10 years since Doris Boyce last saw her son Charles Bell on Sept. 15, 2011. Bell was seen for the last time riding his motorcycle to Columbia.

After Bell went missing his family put up billboards and posters all over the city, hoping for a break in the case.

"There's no place for me to go to mourn. I don't have closure, there wasn't a funeral, there hasn't been anything," Boyce said.

Bell's family has reason to believe he was murdered, three years after Bell went missing, two of his acquaintances, Jennifer Freeman and Patrick Curl, were arrested after admitting to witnessing Bell's murder in his own garage. To this day, Bell's body has never been found.

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Death without closure

Several missing persons cases throughout the state have been officially named homicides, but families still struggle for closure without a body.

"You learn to live with it because you have to, but I think about him all the time, all the time," Boyce said.

The Boone County Sheriff's Office is the leading agency on the Bell case.

The case hasn't been easy for Bell's family or law enforcement. No one has been convicted of committing Bell's murder. People who knew Bell told investigators he went of his own accord, and Boyce said authorities believed the story, despite the family's insistence that Bell was missing.

"There was things they missed you know," Boyce said.

Family members have expressed frustration over law enforcement being hesitant to share any details about the case with them over the years.

Capt. Brian Leer with the Boone County Sheriff's Office said law enforcement has a duty to protect the investigation at all costs, even when that means withholding information from families.

"I can totally appreciate that that would be one of the most frustrating things, as a family member of a missing person, knowing law enforcement knows some things and they will not tell you." Leer said. "That's the whole balance, protecting the investigation and being open and honest with the family. Sometimes those don't align where we can do both."

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Law enforcement has to be cautious that too much information about the case does not get out into the community.

"We also have to keep in mind if we give them that information we have to be totally confident they will be able to keep that in confidence and all too often we can't be completely confident in that," Leer said.

Leer said most missing persons cases in Boone County are solved quickly, and there are few that go unsolved for many years. But when cases like Bell's go cold, law enforcement relies on tips and leads to keep the case active.

Boyce said with the lack of communication with law enforcement, she has often felt left in the dark.

Although it is believed Bell was murdered, without his body, he is still one of hundreds on the Missouri State Highway Patrol Missing Persons Database.

At last check, there were 618 total missing adults and 637 missing children.

The overwhelming majority of missing person cases are investigated by the sheriff's office or police department with primary jurisdiction where the person went missing, the patrol says.  Once the missing person is entered into the appropriate law enforcement system, their information is automatically added to the patrol's missing persons website.

The patrol says the website is updated every 45 minutes.

While the registry is a great tool for spreading the word on the missing, some people on the database shouldn't be there because they've already been found.

Law enforcement said it is important for people to notify them when they are no longer missing, to help keep the registry up to date.

Helping those left behind

Waiting for justice can be a long and unsupported journey for many families with loved ones missing. It's why Marianne Asher-Chapman started Missouri Missing, an advocacy group helping people grieve a missing person.

"The not knowing is horrible, the not knowing has left me with PTSD for life I am pretty sure," Asher-Chapman said. "I had no clue what to do when my daughter went missing in '03. No one knew what to tell me in fact."

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She is still hoping to find the body of her daughter, who has been missing for 19 years.

"We know that Angie has been killed, her husband killed her in an act of domestic violence. But, we've never been able to find her remains and he won't tell us where he put her," Asher-Chapman said.

Asher-Chapman co-founded Missouri Missing in 2007, in her daughter's honor, to help families across the state navigate searching for a missing loved one.

She continues to search for her daughter's body in Morgan County.

Missouri Missing helps families with purchasing and passing out flyers, organizing search parties, educating families on the steps they need to take and more.

"We can advise the family through the steps they need to take in the beginning. It's crucial they file a missing persons report, that way they are entered into the (database) and they are known through the state of Missouri and not in just one little town," Asher-Chapman said.

Missouri Missing created a Hunter Awareness Program in 2009. The program encourages hunters to keep an eye out for anything suspicious, such as human remains.

"We put around four, five examples of people that have been found from mushroom hunters, deer hunters, dog walkers, outdoor people... A lot of people have been found like that, we encourage people if you see something suspicious in the woods just go kick it over, a lot of people are found that way," Asher-Chapman said.

A hiker found the remains of a missing Columbia woman, Mengqi Ji, in March 2021 at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

Asher-Chapman and Boyce have experienced a parent's worst nightmare, and are reminded every day by the silent epidemic of missing people. Both, however, hold out hope to one day bring their children home.

There is no waiting period to report a missing person. Per the Adam Walsh Act, missing juveniles must be entered into the missing persons database within two hours of the report being taken.

To initiate an Endangered Person Advisory, the patrol asks people to follow the instructions on the following form.

Missing children in the state of Missouri.

Missing adults in the state of Missouri.

Highway Patrol missing persons division.

MSHP toll-free telephone line for parents, law enforcement agencies or others to provide information about or request assistance for missing and unidentified persons: 866-362-6422.

MSHP Missing Persons Unit: 573-526-6178, email missingpersons@mshp.dps.mo.gov.

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Leila Mitchell

Leila is a Penn State graduate who started with KMIZ in March 2021. She studied journalism and criminal justice in college.

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