May 29, 2010

When Students Go Missing: Responses Differed In These Iowa Cases

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Around 1 p.m. on a cold, gray Oct. 10, volunteer searcher Merry Thies snapped her cell phone shut and relayed the news to Dessalines Similhomme: “They found a body in the river.”

Similhomme, 58, nearly collapsed, and his friends half-carried him to his car, witnesses recall. Sitting in the passenger seat, he sobbed deeply.

One hour later, Similhomme paced down the bank of the Cedar River and peered through mangled tree limbs. He let out a piercing scream as he spotted a bloated, faceless dead man floating in a shallow section of the river. The man was his son, Jacques, a University of Iowa student. He was sure of it, he said.

By then, Cedar Rapids police and firefighters had swarmed in to retrieve the body. Similhomme wondered where they had been during the two weeks he lobbied for help.

Now he wonders why other missing person cases get so much more attention than Jacques’ — like the one involving Jon Lacina, Iowa State University student from Grinnell. Lacina’s body was found in an abandoned dairy building on April 14 after a three-month search, and the case is still under investigation in Ames.

Lacina and Similhomme were each in their twenties. Both were described by friends and family as kind, funny, sometimes sociable, sometimes quiet. One was the son of a Grinnell lawyer and art instructor, the other the son of a refugee preacher from Haiti.

And 116 days and 108 miles apart, both vanished.

While one community and its university were galvanized by news of the disappearance, the other received no news. While hundreds searched for one missing son, a father was left, at times alone, to find the other.

The lackluster response in the Similhomme case raises questions about the policies and practices of the University of Iowa and about the slow and minimal response by Cedar Rapids police and news organizations.

University officials acknowledged that — in contrast to other universities that recently dealt with missing student reports — it has no uniform policy for notifying the public or using its emergency communication system, called HawkAlert. They handle them on a case-by-case basis.

Public Safety Director Chuck Green said excessive use of HawkAlert could cause “stress and anxiety” for students or it could direct attention away from other important announcements. He suggested the university might be held liable if a volunteer searcher got hurt.

45,000 ON CAMPUS LEFT UNAWARE

Months after Lacina’s Jan. 22 disappearance from campus, pictures of the 21-year-old senior graphic-design major still appeared in the news and covered bulletin boards and doors. Hundreds of trained rescuers trudged through snowy fields, drilled holes into iced-over lakes and soared in aircraft above Iowa’s flatlands.

EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS STORY, PUBLISHED MAY 29, 2010, IN THE GAZETTE (CEDAR RAPIDS, IA) WAS THE FIRST IOWAWATCH STORY. JIM MALEWITZ IS A REPORTER WITH THE TEXAS TRIBUNE NOW AND A MEMBER OF THE IOWA CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS JOURNALISM’S BOARD OF DIRECTORS. READ MALEWITZ’S THOUGHTS FIVE YEARS LATER ON THIS STORY.

On Sept. 30, when Similhomme drove four hours from Rochester, Minn., to search for Jacques, who vanished two days earlier, he was largely on his own. For two weeks, with few resources and broken English, he sought volunteer help.

He asked the university to spread the word and to distribute Jacques’ picture. He called the Governor’s Office and his congressman. A volunteer went to the Cedar Rapids City Council to plead for help. All to no avail.

On Iowa’s campus of 30,000 students and 15,000 employees, few knew Similhomme was missing. University officials stayed silent, and no students searched for him.

“I don’t see how I can forgive them,” he said. “If they would have given me a little love, it would have been healing for me.”

News of the case didn’t reach students until the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper, reported his body found.

Daily Iowan Editor Kelsey Beltramea said university officials never contacted the newsroom and the publication lacked sufficient information to run a full story on the search.

At The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Senior Content Editor Mary Sharp said, “The bottom line is we did not do a good job in the Similhomme case.”

She added, however, that such cases are far from cut and dry.

Tom Rocklin, interim vice president of student services, said university officials made a calculated decision not to notify the campus of Jacques’ disappearance.

Notification is “not a neutral or risk-free event,” he said, adding that administrators don’t generally notify the community when off-campus students go missing. He said he knew little about the case, which campus police solely handled.

“In hindsight, it’s possible that we could have done something helpful,” Rocklin said, but later added that “I’m not sure there was any problems” with the response.

Said Green: He went missing off-campus. “It’s not my case.”

Green said he could recall talking to Dessalines Similhomme late in the case about the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s response, but Similhomme said he sought Green’s help at least twice, including once to seek distribution of Jacques’ picture.

Officials initially thought he left town to be alone. Then the car Jacques was driving turned up in Cedar Rapids. Inside were Jacques’ wallet, cell phone and laptop, items he would not leave behind, Similhomme said.

GETTING WORD OUT IN AMES

When Lacina was reported missing on Jan. 30, Iowa State officials immediately spread the word via a news release and links on its Twitter and Facebook accounts. Jerry Stewart, director of public safety, contacted local, state and federal organizations.

It was “a priority,” said Dean of Students Dione Somerville.

Stewart said the university follows written procedures, starting with gathering details, including a physical description, places the person had visited, reasons the missing student may have left and the amount of money he or she possessed.

The student’s photo goes to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and to state and national missing-person clearinghouses.

posterUniversities “should use all available resources to locate a missing person,” and they should notify the community “as soon as possible,” said Stewart, who led a similar search when Abel Bolanos, 19, vanished from campus and was found drowned in 2007.

Other institutions, including Grinnell College, Virginia Tech University, Penn State University and the University of North Dakota, deal similarly with missing students.

In Iowa, official interest in Lacina prompted media coverage, spreading from the Iowa State Daily student newspaper and Ames Tribune to the Des Moines Register and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. That coverage prompted the massive volunteer turnout. The Lacina family wrote a letter to the community on Feb. 7, saying they were touched by the wide response.

“The physical search has been exhaustive,” they wrote. “Everyone has put forth incredible time and energy trying to find Jon, and they continue to do so.”

LOBBYING FOR HELP IN CEDAR RAPIDS

After finding the black 2003 Cadillac that Jacques was driving, Similhomme sought police help but initially hit a bureaucratic wall. He said the Cedar Rapids police said they had no jurisdiction, because Jacques was last seen in Coralville.

“If you find the car in Cedar Rapids, how can you not look for him in Cedar Rapids?” Similhomme said. “The car could not drive to Cedar Rapids by itself.”

Police records show the department started an investigation Oct. 5 — five days after the car was found.

Documents also show the Fire Department did a water search on Sept. 30, a quick evening sweep of Ellis Park was made Oct. 6 by police and a three-officer search was made, covering three-one hundredths of a square mile in the Time Check neighborhood, that excluded locked houses with no signs of entry and buildings with unstable foundations.

Police officer Craig VonSprecken, lead investigator, refused to comment.

Capt. Bernie Walther, who reviewed the investigation, including 20 pages of summarized interviews with family and acquaintances of Similhomme, said his department doesn’t have enough resources for searches.

Similhomme would have been happy if police had just fingerprinted the car, he said. After they collected Jacques’ possessions as evidence, Danielle Holliday, the car’s owner, drove it home.

With little media access, Similhomme drove from church to church across town, handing out Jacques’ information.

Eventually, a few local volunteers trickled in. On Oct. 6, the Rev. Dwight Lapine, a pastor at Similhomme’s church in Rochester, arrived with another small band of searchers.

The search party peaked at 25, said volunteer Thies, of Waterloo. Police did not join.

DIFFERENCE IN APPROACHES TO SUICIDES

Four days after volunteers found the body, Jonathan Thompson, associate state medical examiner, declared Jacques’ death a drowning from an unknown manner. That same day, police ruled it an apparent suicide.

Despite the gash on Jacques’ head, described by witnesses and recorded in the police report, Thompson found no clear evidence of foul play. Citing confidentiality rules, he declined comment, but said “I agree” that the case seemed strange.

Police gathered video, audio and paper evidence showing that Jacques withdrew $4,100 from two bank accounts the day he went missing, checked on his insurance plan and deposited $2,500 into the account of his sister, Monide Dalien. Dalien and Similhomme deny telling police that Jacques was suicidal or that he left a “goodbye” message on his father’s phone, as was summarized in the Cedar Rapids police report.

Green, the UI public safety director, said the possibility of suicide played a role in his decision not to release information to the public.

Iowa State’s Stewart and Somerville said ISU shares information in all cases, including possible suicides.

“I can’t think of an example in which we wouldn’t want to spread information far and wide,” said Somerville.

“You can never assume a cause of death,” said Tom Crady, former vice president of student affairs at Grinnell College when Paul Shuman-Moore’s disappearance in 2006 made national headlines.

Shuman-Moore had left behind what some deemed a suicide note, but throughout the investigation, administrators and police searched as if he were still living. He was found in April 2007 drowned in the Grinnell country club swimming pool; his death was ruled a suicide.

To Similhomme, suicide does not explain his son’s death, and in his mind the case is not closed. He remains bitter about the lack of response.

“I found him and I buried him. … I want the whole world to hear my story.”

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