TAMPA BAY, Fla — Nearly 20 days after Gabby Petito was first reported missing by her parents, the massive manhunt for her fiancé remains a top priority for hundreds of local, state, and federal investigators.
For weeks, crews of officers have searched by air, land, and water hoping to find the man, they believe, may hold the secrets to why the 22-year-old blogger was killed.
It’s the kind of 24-hour detective work that has left many families, especially minorities, wondering why their own missing loved ones aren't getting the same priority treatment.
“The whole situation is sad and I feel sorry for her family, but it’s like when we need help why can’t we get the same help” asked Siamone Hicks. Her cousin, Keyonna Cole, went missing in 2019 in Hernando County. Her disappearance was suspicious since the next morning, Cole was scheduled to give a deposition in an attempted murder case.
While the case received lots of attention early on, Hicks is concerned her cousin’s case is now falling through the cracks.
A spokesperson from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t comment about the case because it remains opened but stated in an email the office “does not prioritize missing person cases…as every missing person case is a high priority.” Spokesperson Denise Moloney went on to state, “each one of our missing person cases is investigated diligently and thoroughly by one of our highly trained Major Case detectives. As new leads and/or information become available on the case that too is promptly investigated.”
Sheriff Walt McNeil leads the Leon County Sheriff’s office where, since 2016, the agency has received 905 missing person reports. Of those, more than 97% of cases were cleared quickly.
Quick resolve is typical in missing person cases and forces law enforcement to juggle how much time and commitment they will give to a case against resources many agencies don’t always have.
“You only have so many resources in the city you’re in, so it becomes a resource issue,” said McNeil who also serves on a state advisory board for missing and endangered people.
McNeil said cases involving children and the elderly often get high priority and quick response by the agency which includes a media blitz. How other cases are investigated often depends on how much information is provided, how much danger the person missing may be facing and how much time has gone by since they were last seen.
“The first 24 hours to 72 hours is critical. In some missing person cases, we don’t even find out the person was a victim of a crime until 24 hours or 48 hours has passed and so you’re starting from scratch,” he explained.
Dr. Erin Kimmerle is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida where she also leads a Forensic Institute that helps law enforcement agencies around the country solve cold and missing person cases. She said most long-term missing person cases aren’t investigated properly.
“There’s a huge variation that we see in how law enforcement agencies respond to their long-term missing person cases, their cold cases. They’re not always, or rarely, investigated the way we would hope,” Dr. Kimmerle explained.
In Florida, there are more than 1500 people currently missing according to the National and Florida Crime Information Center. Some of those people have been missing since the 1960s.
Kimmerle said jurisdiction issues and high turnover rate in law enforcement often leave families in the position to keep missing person cases a top priority for law enforcement agencies.
“The majority prioritize by if a new lead comes in or the family that calls the most. where ever the pressure is,” she explained.
While law enforcement agencies can ask the state for help, Kimmerle said most don’t. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the state agency will only get involved when a local agency requests assistance. An FDLE spokesperson could not provide how often the agency has helped local agencies with missing person cases.
We don’t know if the state or any other agencies were asked to assist in the search for Keyonna Cole.
At the time she went missing, her son was three years old, today he’s five and missing his mom.
“I miss her and love her,” Keyonna’s son said.