The Search For Hope

BY Skip Maloney

Throughout all stages of a missing persons investigation up to the point of its positive or negative resolution there is only one verifiable victim: the family of that missing person. The missing person might have been abducted or worse but from the moment that someone considers the absence of a loved one to necessitate a 911 call the family that makes that call is going to be caught in a whirlpool of fear panic and helplessness that most people dont understand and law enforcement officials rarely have the resources to address in any sustained way.

In Wilmington however these families have an advocate a fierce hands-on assistant in the search for missing loved ones. Her name is Monica Caison and shes the founder and director of the Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons a nonprofit organization based in Wilmington which since 1994 has been aggressive in its attempts to keep missing person cases from going “cold” or “inactive.” By marshalling nationwide resources that include law enforcement personnel and an army of volunteers the CUE Center has been instrumental in returning loved ones to their families creating a sort of template for families confronted by such a loss a blueprint for action that combines elements of the actual search process with a powerful family support tool hope.

“Shes tops as far as Im concerned ” says Marc Benson a private investigator former detective in the New Hanover County Sheriffs Department recent candidate for the sheriffs job and the host of Blue Line Radio on The Big Talker (106.3 FM). “I first ran into her 16 or 17 years ago when I was a detective sergeant in the Sheriffs Department.”

Bensons first impression of Caison left him thinking she was just a “soccer mom ” doing what she could to find people whod gone missing thinking too “Good for her but were the professionals here so dont call us well call you.”

In the spring of 1998 Benson found himself re-assessing his original impressions of Caison and her organization. In April of that year 32-year-old bride-to-be Peggy Carr was abducted from a mall parking lot in Wilmington. One day she was here; the next day she was not. Shed disappeared quickly and completely and lacking evidence to the contrary law enforcement officials considered the possibility that her disappearance in spite of her impending marriage was voluntary. Without a clue to work on the investigation languished. Displeased with this sort of response from law enforcement officials Peggys mother called Monica Caison whose private phone remains the direct line to what was then the fledgling and relatively unknown CUE Center for Missing Persons. Seven months after Peggys disappearance Caison and her volunteer army were instrumental in discovering the whereabouts of Carrs remains in Bladen County.

“It became a multi-state investigation a national media case ” says Caison “and it taught us everything. We worked side by side with law enforcement set up a 24-hour tip line. The FBI would pick up our logs. We were learning too. It was the first time really that the full weight of the resources (we had) came to bear. We kept (the case) in the public eye just kept plugging and plugging constantly searching. It was our landmark case.”

More important than Caisons literal presence beating the bushes actually searching was the support she gave to the family.

“Monica would just sit for hours and comfort me ” said Peggy Carrs mother in an interview for People magazine in March 2009 months after her daughters body had been discovered.

“My respect for her increased because of the presence she had with that family ” says Benson who at the time was looking on from the Sheriff Departments sidelines because it was a Wilmington PD case. “She went up there (to Bladen County) with volunteers and canvassed the area with pictures. She made sure that everybody up there looked at every little detail (coming out of the investigation). I was quite impressed with the resources she was able to pull together.”

What is so striking about Monica Caisons work with the CUE Center is the individual up-close-and-personal effort she invests in countless physical searches for these people and the tireless campaign she wages to keep families in the loop of any ongoing investigation. Law enforcement agencies from the local to the national may falter during an investigation due to a lack of either resources or will but from the moment the CUE Center and specifically Monica Caison steps aboard families are assured that their missing loved one will not in Monicas lifetime be forgotten until theyre found. In most cases (though not all) the outcome is not good. Caison is more often than not searching for a body and she is known for a stubborn relentless and often un-appreciated approach to any obstacles in her way.

Roots of a tireless advocate
Caisons interest in the field of missing persons has historic roots. Originally from St. Petersburg Florida where she was one of 11 children Caison was herself abducted twice in fact.

Her parents marriage came to an end when she was eight and with her three youngest siblings she went to live with her mother. Conditions in her mothers home were less than ideal. When her father kidnapped her from school she didnt resist. Her mother kidnapped her back beginning a string of bounce-backs from parent to parent until eventually the court awarded custody to her father.

Moving into her teens she ran away regularly and lived for the most part on the streets. Street life and its inherent menu of bad choices led to an arrest when she was 19 years old. Shed been asked to cash a few payroll checks for street friends and hadnt known until she was arrested that the checks had been stolen. She spent six months in jail awaiting trial and then following a conviction on the charge was released when the sentence was restricted to “time served.”

She was ready for a change. Prior to her arrest during a visit to her mother whod remarried and relocated to North Carolina she met Sam Caison (who would go on to become a successful fencing contractor). Once out of jail she entered counseling married Sam and launched herself into the process of turning her life around. Motherhood and community work characterized the next five years as she had four children and volunteered for everything from the PTA to local charities. In her spare time she played drums in an all-girl rock band.

A series of health issues sidelined her in the early 1990s but by 1994 she was ready and anxious to continue her work. While scouting for a cause for which she might sponsor a fundraiser she came across the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons and an ex-cop named John Goad. Goad put her in touch with Karen Brown here in Wilmington who was running a group that worked to publicize missing persons cases. Caison helped Brown organize a carnival for the group at a local shopping mall erected a memorial wall to the missing and got the cast of Matlock filming in the area to pose for the press in front of the shrine.

Caison had found her cause. When Brown moved out of the state and suggested that she take over as director of the local organization Caison took the idea a step further. Instead of just publicizing missing people she wanted to create an organization that would actually set about finding them. Brown handed The CUE Center for Missing Persons its first donation check for $76.

Later this month March 24-27 the CUE Center will hold its annual Round Table Conference at the Holiday Inn Conference Center on Market Street. It will as it has done for the past seven years bring together a variety of law enforcement and civilian professionals in the field of missing persons and related issues like domestic violence. Each year this conference increases the number of educational and practical resources available to the families of missing persons and as its informational flyer indicates lets these families know that “Hope Lights the Way.”

The event will conclude on Saturday night March 27 with a public-invited candlelight ceremony at Riverfront Park emceed by WECTs Frances Weller. Guest speaker Susan Murphy Milano with the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education will speak to the assembled on the subject of “Moving Forward.” Members of victims families will be on hand for the unveiling of the memorial wall of victims begun in the early days of the CUE Center and still a centerpiece of the organizations annual educational nationwide Road Tours spotlighting these missing persons keeping their names and the plight of their families alive.

At one of the CUE Centers conferences Caison calculated that the number of people who go missing in this country every day is the equivalent of four airplanes full of passengers: about 1 000 per day or more than 300 000 every year. Statistics from the FBI-operated National Crime Information Center (2007) place that figure in the range of 600 000 or more though many of the reported cases in those files include people who are subsequently found quickly. Either way four or eight airplanes per day its a huge number.

“Our world is becoming an open graveyard for missing people ” Caison says “because nobodys paying attention. You can bet that if people heard on the news that four airplanes were crashing every day in this country somebody would be doing something.”

“Were like invisible organizations ” says Joan Petruski founder and director of the Kristen Foundation a Charlotte North Carolina-based missing persons advocacy organization that was named for Kristen Modafferi a resident of Charlotte who disappeared in 1997.

The Kristen Foundation in addition to doing similar work in the family advocacy arena financially supports the CUE Center and its annual conference. Petruski believes the organizations that do this kind of work are invisible because no one imagines a person as missing until that person actually goes missing.

“People dont want to envision their loved one disappearing ” Petruski says. “You hear it all the time from victims families; I never thought. . . Its just not dinner conversation. Its a disease for which there is no cure. But it can happen. It happens every day.”

And every day families have to deal with the consequences isolated in that whirlpool of fear panic and helplessness that Monica Caisons CUE Center for Missing Persons was founded to address. Thanks to Caison who draws no salary for her work these legions of the missing and their families will not be forgotten.

Not in her lifetime.

Take Action

According to Monica Caison and a variety of law enforcement and private organizations in the field there are a number of steps that need to be taken when you believe that a member of your family is missing first and foremost being to understand the term itself. “Late for dinner” does not always mean a person is missing nor does the fact that someone failed to show up for work or an appointment. More often than not these sorts of circumstances will resolve on their own. When for whatever reason they do not it is important both in the short and long-term scheme of things to take action.

Step 1: Pencil and paper

Under most circumstances people will generally run through a list of common activities to determine the whereabouts of someone they believe is missing. Theyll call other family members friends acquaintances and colleagues at work. Once these steps have been exhausted and a variable length of time has passed (dependent on a variety of circumstances) people will generally turn to law enforcement officials (see Step 2). Before that happens though it is a good idea to begin immediately documenting what you know. Grab a pencil and a pad of paper and start writing things down. When was the person last seen? Who saw him/her at that time? Where was the person going when last seen? What was the person wearing? Answers to these and other questions will add to the arsenal of tools you can bring to bear when you reach out to law enforcement for assistance.

“Keep accurate notes on what you learn ” says Caison adding that its a good idea to have someone with you to aid in your recall of information “and be as detailed as possible.”

Step 2: Call 911

Protocol for assistance by an organization like the CUE Center for Missing Persons (and others) begins with a police report. “Part of the (CUE Centers) registration process is having a copy of that report ” says Caison. Prepare for the subsequent investigation by offering investigators recent photographs (“at least three ” says Caison “and be prepared not to get them back”). Also provide any available information on existing medical issues medications handicaps allergies or any known health limitations.

Step 3: Call everybody else

The search for a missing loved one does not begin or end with a 911 call nor does it necessarily stop when you inform an organization like the CUE Center (910-343-1131 or 910-232-1687). Call for example the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons at 1-800-522-KIDS (522-5437) which is staffed 24 hours a day. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a phone number as well: 1-800-THE-LOST. While the primary purpose of such calls is to provide as many organizations as possible with as much information about your missing person as you can it is important too that you as a victim yourself. . .

Step 4: Stay active

“They need to be pro-active ” says Caison of the families of missing persons. “They need to reach out.” Caison tries at every available opportunity to leave something behind when she visits the family of a missing person. She gives them “homework. . . a goal which empowers them ” and keeps them focused on the task at hand. “I always leave (families) with a new goal.”