Giving hope at a time of fear, loss
When little Caleigh Harrison went missing from a Rockport beach last month, local police, state troopers, and the Coast Guard — with divers, helicopters, and teams of dogs — joined the search. Several days later, the family called in another resource: Mission for the Missing.
Mission for the Missing is a nonprofit, volunteer group of private investigators, crime analysts, and forensic specialists who search for missing people, at no cost to their frantic families. Alan Tate, who has his own investigative firm, Metro Investigation in Quincy, started the organization in 2009 with psychic Maureen Hancock of Bridgewater.
The idea came to them after a training day held by the Molly Bish Foundation, named for the teenage lifeguard who in 2000 was abducted and killed in the town of Warren. The foundation is devoted to child safety.
At that meeting, investigators began discussing cold cases involving children, and they realized that too many lie dormant. Tate, who had been working missing children’s cases with a “hodgepodge of volunteer investigators” since Bish disappeared, agreed with colleagues that they could do more.
“It was time to organize,” says Tate, who lives in West Bridgewater. His daughter and her husband both volunteer with his organization.
Families or their friends generally contact Mission for the Missing when they want a second set of eyes, in addition to the law enforcement officers assigned to the case, which may be active or closed.
The volunteers don’t come in unless they are called upon. “We don’t self-deploy,” Tate says.
Sometimes, they are welcomed by law enforcement, sometimes resented.
“I think law enforcement is opening up to help because so many budgets are so low, they don’t have as much man- and womanpower,” Hancock said. “We are able to work with law enforcement and assist the families.”
Mission for the Missing can quickly activate people and equipment. Tate ticked them off: “Boats, dive teams, mountain bikes, ATVs, horses, foot searchers, rescue folks, air scent dogs, and cadaver dogs.”
The team consists of both active and retired professionals and varies from case to case, depending on who is available. When the call came about 2-year-old Caleigh, Tate put together eight people, including a retired FBI agent, a crime information analyst, a child welfare specialist, and a retired State Police lieutenant.
“In my opinion, one of the worst traumas a parent can go through in their life is having a child go missing and not knowing if they’re dead or alive,” Tate said. “We hope to alleviate some of the families’ pain, because they know somebody is still out there trying to find their loved one.” Because the Caleigh Harrison case is still active, he did not go into specifics.
Maureen Flatley, a child advocate, works with Mission for the Missing and has spent much time with Caleigh’s family since her disappearance, as well as with other families of the missing.
“When the organized official law enforcement process dissipates, these families are left with a sense of hopelessness, and they’re looking for direction and support,” she says. “First and foremost, Alan’s group is a resource for families to say, have we missed anything? To have highly trained experts at their disposal is so powerful.”
Flatley, who is on the board of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, has been advising Caleigh’s family and helping them deal with the news media so the public does not forget her.
“Mo’s part of the family now,” says Anthony Harrison, Caleigh’s father. “She’s given us more hope than anybody. We don’t feel so alone.”
Mission for the Missing is working on several cold cases, including Melanie Melanson, a 14-year-old who went missing in 1989 after attending a party in the woods in Woburn. “We did our third ground search for her in November with our volunteer dogs,” Tate said.
But the major event will be this summer: His group is bringing in Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist who runs The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. The research facility studies the decomposition of human remains. Bass and another specialist will conduct a forensic search for the body.
Mission for the Missing has met with the Middlesex district attorney’s office, State and Woburn police, and Melanie’s family, and Tate says it will be the first public-private partnership on a forensic dig.
Mission for the Missing provides its services pro bono. But for the Melanson case, Tate says it will cost about $15,000 to bring in specialists for several days and to rent equipment. The organization is holding its first fund-raiser today in Woburn, featuring Maureen Hancock.
The same year Melanie disappeared, 16-year-old Jennifer Lynn Fay vanished while out with friends in Brockton. Tate and other volunteers started working that case eight years ago, before they formed Mission for the Missing. Since Labor Day, the organization has done 20 days of searching in Brockton, Avon, and West Bridgewater.
It has been successful at locating runaway girls at risk from pimps and drug dealers. “Social media is a great asset for us,” Tate said. “We can identify friends and addresses and get contacts.”
He has seen happy reunions, and the group stays in touch with every family they have been involved with.
The missing are not always young. Two years ago, Mission for the Missing found an elderly man who disappeared in Holbrook. He had Alzheimer’s disease, but always went for the same walk and would wave and say hello to townspeople. One day, he did not return.
“We did posters, media coverage, search and rescue teams,” says Tate. “On day six, we found him dead in the woods.”
Recently, Mission for the Missing took on a similar case, a 60-year-old man from New Hampshire. The man had Alzheimer’s, depression, and other medical issues and was going through home foreclosure when he disappeared. Law enforcement authorities searched to no avail.
That would have been the end of it, Tate said. “There’s no website for him, no Facebook, no news. He’s a forgotten soul.”
But the family called Tate in January, six months after the man vanished.
So it is not the end, not yet. Mission for the Missing is on it.
Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at email@example.com.