http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/articles/17349/newsFive Years Gone
Army vet Lisa Michelle Hatchell is still missing. Her mother wants to know: Does anyone in Philadelphia care?
by Frank Rubino
For what should be a festive occasion, Alonie Walton of Abbeville, S.C., might be shopping for a present, stocking up on candles or buying a cake. Instead she’s steeling herself for a grim anniversary.
“Every day we look at the calendar,” the 67-year-old former North Philadelphia resident says over the phone. “They say, ‘A few more days and it’ll be Mama’s birthday,’ and, ‘A few more days and it’ll be five years.’ They miss their mother so very much.”
“They” are Walton’s grandchildren, 20-year-old Tony and 12-year-old Khadijah. Walton took them in after her daughter, Lisa Michelle Hatchell, disappeared from a Southwest Philadelphia street on July 19, 2003—her 37th birthday. She hasn’t been seen since.
“It’s like Lisa just vanished from the face of the earth,” Walton says, adding that although her daughter was a crack cocaine user, she wouldn’t have abandoned her family.
“As high as Lisa got, she always called me at least every two weeks, even if just to say, ‘Mom, I’m still alive,’” she says.
That’s why Walton doesn’t believe her daughter—a divorced Army vet who struggled with her addiction for a decade—simply walked away and started a new life somewhere.
Hatchell was last seen with her boyfriend in front of his house on the 5400 block of Warrington Avenue around 10 p.m. on July 19, 2003. The couple had been together for more than a decade; Hatchell had lived in the house for roughly a year.
Walton says Hatchell’s ex-boyfriend has acknowledged quarrelling with her over money that evening. “He told me, ‘Me and Lisa had a big fight because I wouldn’t give her the money to have her hair done,’” she recalls.
Walton hasn’t spoken with the ex-boyfriend in years, since he became annoyed by her frequent phone calls in the aftermath of Hatchell’s disappearance.
“That bothers me,” says Walton. “They were together 11 or 12 years.”
Det. Valarie Miller-Robinson of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Long-Term Missing Persons Unit says police don’t respond any less vigilantly to word that drug addicts have gone missing.
“That’s not the way the department is run,” says Miller-Robinson, who in December 2005 became the lead investigator in Hatchell’s disappearance.
Miller-Robinson says she can’t speak to interactions Walton had with police before she got the case, but emphasizes that in her office, a missing person’s lifestyle is irrelevant.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “If they’re missing, they’re missing.”
Unfortunately, five years back, Alonie Walton had a different experience.
Within weeks of her daughter’s disappearance she began calling the 18th Police District only to be rebuffed by officers after apprising them of Hatchell’s crack addiction.
“One cop asked me, ‘Do you think we have time to go searching for every crackhead who runs off?’”
Walton says she couldn’t even persuade police to take a report about her daughter until the summer of 2005, when she called Internal Affairs at the height of the massive search for La’Toyia Figueroa, a pregnant West Philadelphia woman found murdered in Chester on Aug. 20 of that year.
“I asked them how all those people could be looking for the Figueroa girl [a cousin of then-City Councilman Juan Ramos] when nobody had lifted one finger for my daughter,” Walton says. “That’s when they finally opened the case.”
Miller-Robinson says she doesn’t know exactly when police took the initial report on Hatchell, but acknowledges the case file’s first entry date appears to be Aug. 23, 2005.
Walton further argues police have been remiss in not searching the ex-boyfriend’s house.
“Lisa lived there, and they haven’t searched it to this day,” she says. “She could be buried in the basement or in one of the walls. Even if she’s not, any other evidence is gone.”
Miller-Robinson says she did interview the ex-boyfriend sometime during 2006 but admits nothing in the file indicates police ever searched his house.
She has, however, approached the district attorney’s office about procuring a search warrant.
“I want to [search the house] myself,” she says. “It’s been on the table with the DA’s office since some point last year but their only concern is … they don’t necessarily want to give me permission to forcibly enter someone’s home to look for evidence about something that happened five years ago.”
“The only thing they’re worried about is somebody suing them,” says Walton, who’s frustrated by the lack of progress on Miller-Robinson’s part.
Miller-Robinson counters that no matter what Alonie Walton believes, Lisa Michelle Hatchell might still be alive.
“You never know,” she says. “There are several missing persons cases where people just up and leave and start their lives over again. Granted, that’s not fair to the families and loved ones, but it does happen.”
Miller-Robinson adds that investigators in Georgia have relayed several leads placing Hatchell in the Atlanta area since she went missing.
“Hopefully, she is [living in Georgia],” she says. “It’s just one thing we’re investigating to determine whether it’s a good lead or a false lead. Hopefully, we’ll find her alive and well and doing her own thing down there.”
Walton says Hatchell lived in Atlanta for several years during the early 1990s and is sure the leads Miller-Robinson speaks of have either come from people who have their dates confused or are associated with another Lisa Hatchell.
“Lisa never, never, never would’ve gone away this long,” she says. “I think the Atlanta thing is something she’s saying just to pacify me. Lisa’s not in Atlanta.”
She pauses to reflect on the youngest of her three children, who she says prior to disappearing was considering joining her in Abbeville.
“Lisa was a sweet, funny person,” she says. “She was on drugs, but she was never disrespectful to people. The police should give her a birthday present by trying to find out what happened to her.”