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Beyond Gabby Petito: Are law enforcement and the media looking past 1,500 Floridians still missing?

Runaways, sex trafficking, vulnerable populations all feed into growing number of those who have disappeared
'Missing in Florida' graphic faces of missing people
Posted at 4:21 PM, Nov 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-19 13:44:45-05

The disappearance and tragic death of Gabby Petito, a young social media influencer, captivated the nation. TikTok and online sleuths played a significant role in finding her body and the Florida search for her boyfriend populated newscasts for weeks.

Petito was just one of the thousands of missing people nationwide. In Florida alone, there are more than 1,500 people currently missing. They come from all walks of life.

Some were on the edges of society, some were just teens going to get ice cream, all vanishing without a trace.

Tens of thousands of people of color go missing every year in the U.S., often without any coverage of their disappearance in newspapers, magazines or on TV. While other missing people — Petito, Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, for example — become household names.

Has the state of Florida done all it can to bring those who have gone missing home? Do law enforcement and the media have a blind eye when it comes to the missing who don't look like a Gabby Petito?

And what is fueling the epidemic of missing people? Scripps looks at sex trafficking and how certain groups, such as members of LGBTQ, are vulnerable.

In-depth investigative reporters from Scripps stations across Florida have joined together to look at the missing in the Sunshine State.

The Petito case came to the forefront when the 22-year-old New York woman was reported missing by her family on Sept. 11. Her fiancé had returned to Florida without her.

The couple had gone on a cross-country road trip, documenting their adventures about living in a van along the way.

Olywatoyin Salau

Olywatoyin Salau, 19, Tallahassee: Reported missing June 6, 2020

Long before Petito went missing, there was Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Nigerian-American activist in Tallahassee.

Salau disappeared on June 6, 2020, when she tweeted she had been sexually assaulted. She contacted a homeless center but was never seen again.

It wasn't until an elderly white woman also disappeared that Salau's body was discovered.

Tallahassee police found both women after Vicki Sims' family reported the 75-year-old missing. Their bodies were found on the property of a rented home of a man who has confessed to both killings.

Fellow activist Trish Brown said she knew something was wrong when Salau didn't answer her phone.

"It was frustrating," Brown said. "It felt like TPD (Tallahassee Police Department) wasn't taking us seriously. We had to take matters into our own hands."

Salau's disappearance sparked questions on social media, including a trending hashtag on Twitter that caught the eye of celebrities Kerry Washington and Gabrielle Union.

Activist Taylor Biro told WTXL's Jada Williams that citizens think policing can be counted on when they are in a crisis, but the Salau case shows the safety net is frayed.

"Oluwaytin was in crisis in our community," she said. "She accessed that safety net, she accessed the police, as well as other social services, and each one did not protect her."

Yesenia Del Rosario, 19, Hollywood Beach: Reported missing on Oct. 14, 2010

There is a gaping hole in how police report and track missing people. The result is a hodgepodge of databases that can be problematic and out of data.

In Florida, a database praised for helping solve cold cases remains underutilized.

Oct. 14 marked 11 years since Janie Duval Del Rosario has heard from her daughter. She told Scripps statewide investigator reporter Katie LaGrone, "I'm living day by day."

Her daughter, Yesenia, was 19 when she disappeared from the boardwalk in Hollywood Beach near Tampa. According to her mom, Yesenia told her cousins she was going for ice cream but never came back.

"It's like the earth opened up and swallowed her alive," her mom said.

Yesenia's case has been cold ever since.

Her name can be found in the various databases for missing people nationwide including the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NamUs.

NamUs is a federally funded online database for missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons in the U.S. It's often described by cold-case experts as law enforcement's most effective and accurate missing person database.

The problem is many law enforcement agencies don't use it.

Dr. Erin Kimmerle is a leading expert on cold cases and runs the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at the University of South Florida. Kimmerle has been pushing to get states to pass laws mandating law enforcement use NamUs to report the nearly 100,000 people who remain missing in the U.S.

Other national and state databases, she said, are often out of date and inaccurate.

In addition, unlike national and state databases law enforcement is currently required to report to, NamUs lets users post pictures, submit and track DNA, and it can be accessed by anyone at any time, including the public who often hold the keys to unlocking cold case mysteries.

"It's huge and a lot of cases get solved that way," she said.

Currently, 10 states, including New York and California, have passed laws requiring law enforcement use NamUs. Legislation is swiftly moving through Texas and Pennsylvania.

Florida remains among the U.S. states that still make reporting to NamUs voluntary for law enforcement.

Kathy Rothwell

Kelly Rothwell, 35, Indian Rocks: Reported missing March 12, 2011

Petito’s tragic legacy may be that she left behind a previously untapped resource in finding missing people: social media.

Search Gabby Petito on any social media platform you’ll find thousands of posts. These posts galvanized people across the country to help solve her disappearance turned homicide, helping authorities discover her body.

“People have been discussing ‘missing white woman syndrome’ and how it contributes to Gabby's story and her appeal to the public -- I think it's too simplistic of an explanation,” Sarah Stein, a cold-case consultant told Stassy Olmos of Scripps Tampa affiliate, WFTS.

Experts say that while social media can certainly be a good tool to create awareness about a missing person, it can also be a breeding ground for false information.

 “People on social media are brilliant and they're coming at it from outside the box perspective with creativity but they're also not coming at it with an investigation background, said Ráchael Powers, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida.

Still, some new tactic is badly needed on the front of finding those who are missing.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System found 40% of their reported cases are more than 20 years old, 22% are more than 10 years old.

One missing person on the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office page is a young woman, a police cadet, who went missing from Indian Rocks Beach in 2011.

The description from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Missing People reads:

“Kelly Rothwell has been missing since March 12, 2011. Rothwell was last known to be alive as she was seen by a friend driving away from the Chili’s Restaurant in Clearwater, Florida at approximately 3:38 pm. Rothwell had lunch with a female friend and advised she was driving home to end a relationship with David Robert Perry, W/M, 04/08/64. Rothwell had plans to meet up with friends later that evening but never showed. Rothwell’s vehicle was found parked at 2nd St and 4th Ave in Indian Rocks Beach. Rothwell has not had contact with anyone since that date. David Perry left for New York that same night and has refused to cooperate with law enforcement.”

We asked Powers if she thought Rothwell may have been found if we had the same social media presence we have now, then.

“That’s a good question. Potentially,” she answered. “The younger generation certainly has a big digital footprint where their lives are online, they're documented they're leaving a paper trail for anyone basically to see and I think that, in some respects, can work to law enforcement benefit.”

Peiarre Lee Canty

Peiarre Lee Canty, 33, New Port Richey: Reported missing Oct. 28, 2016

Tens of thousands of people of color go missing every year in the United States, often without any coverage of their disappearance in newspapers, magazines or on TV. While other missing people — Gabby Petito, Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, for example — become household names.

ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill is uncovering the reasons behind this disparity and how we in the media can do better.

“I just noticed that the media gets quiet when you speak on an African American, brown-complected person. They get quiet, but when it comes to the White color, they speak up,” said Vivina Barnwell who has been looking for her adult son, Peiarre Lee Canty, for five years.

Barnwell spoke to in-depth reporter Anthony Hill for WFTS-TV in Tampa.

Peiarre is among the hundreds of thousands of people that go missing every year, but by December of 2020, the FBI had about 90,000 active missing persons cases. About 40% of those cases are of people of color. However, that number is likely much higher because when you take a closer look, the FBI doesn’t differentiate between White Americans and Latinos.

“I wanted to look at the second stage, which was not just who received news coverage, but also how much news coverage people receive,” said criminologist Zach Sommers.

He published a study where for one year, he looked at every article reporting a missing person on CNN, Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He then looked at the demographics of who appeared in those stories and compared them to the FBI’s list of missing persons.

He found that white girls and white women were dramatically over-represented, accounting for about half of the articles written about missing persons.

“The motivation to keep going are these families that are desperate. They don’t know what to do. They’re not getting the assistance from law enforcement or the media,” said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. It was founded in 2008 to bring attention to missing persons of color by getting the word out to local and national media partners across the country.

Her group believe the two main reasons for the disparity in coverage of missing persons of color is because law enforcement tends to classify missing children of color as runaways, and adults of color are sometimes thought to have been involved in some type of criminal activity, resulting in their disappearance. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s something that we are equipped to do,” said Wilson.

“To be entirely honest, all of us can probably continue to do better,” said Dr. Jeff Neely, professor of journalism at the University of Tampa.

He’s teaching the next generation of journalists to be more intentional in how they cover the news.

“We talk quite a bit in my classes about the idea that diversity of coverage and diversity of content should not be mere tokenism.” He says he teaches his students the importance of getting out and reporting on stories in different communities.

The Lost and the Saved

The concern remains that many of the young people who go missing end up victims of sex trafficking.

More than 27,000 children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020 were labeled runaways. Oftentimes, these cases don’t get the media attention or priority from law enforcement that stranger abductions do.

"We’re working on about 30,000 missing children's cases at any one time, and 92% of those are children who have run away," advocate Callahan Walsh told West Palm Beach’s WPTV reporter Michelle Quesada.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was co-founded by Walsh’s parents after his brother, Adam Walsh, was abducted in 1981. "We work every day to find missing children, to fight exploitation and prevent future victimization."

But over the years, Walsh has also realized that missing children's cases fit in different categories, and runaway cases are often perceived as rebellious.

"It really is about law enforcement and the media and the public coming together to get rid of these biases that they have against runaway children," Walsh said. "To understand that they are in a very vulnerable situation. They are endangered and we should be doing everything in our power to bring them home."

But in reality, Walsh explains that one in six runaways is likely a victim of sex trafficking.

"We had over 17-and-a-half thousand reports of child sex trafficking last year alone," Walsh said.

"We know this is a huge issue in this country and a lot of it goes under the radar because it’s children who have run away. There isn’t the media support. Law enforcement isn’t, you know, really looking for them like a stranger-abducted child, and they fly under the radar. Then they are even more susceptible to becoming homeless or a victim of violence or, unfortunately, being trafficked.”

One community is particularly vulnerable to trafficking.

Dylan Brooks said he almost became a statistic when he came out as gay in his rural northeast Georgia town.

“I was outed my senior year of high school and because it was such a small knit community, I had to go and tell my parents before it got around and mama found out through the grocery story line.

Brooks said he feared that he would be kicked out of his home like so many other LGBTQ young people. Now, he leans on his experience to help others at the Compass LBGTQ Community Center in Lake Worth.

“As soon as they start identifying as the LGBTQ community, that is when their family automatically kicks them out,” he said.

Julie Seaver
Julie Seaver, Executive Director of the Compass Community Center in Lake Worth Beach

Julie Seaver, the executive director of Compass, said LGBTQ young adults. LGBTQ youth are 120 time more susceptible to homelessness and most cases it is due to family conflict, getting kicked out because they are LGBTQ.

“We do know that 40 percent of LGBTQ youth will experience either homelessness or couch hopping at one point in their lives or another,” she said.

Brooks said it is tough to watch. One young person came in the night before he spoke to West Palm Beach’s WPTV’s Tory Dunnan.

“I was having total flashbacks to the night that for my own personal and it just rocked me all night. It’s still hard to believe that in 2021 we still have youth getting kicked out for being themselves and trying to be their truth,” he said.