May 21, 2006
There are more people than you'd think
BY JENNIFER GREFF AND CHRISTOPHER BURBACH
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITERS
Every time she hears that another family is searching for a suddenly missing loved one, Kelly Jolkowski's heart breaks once more.
Most recently, it was the relatives of Jessica O'Grady, an Omaha college student who was last heard from May 10, whose public heartache made Jolkowski want to reach out and help.
Before that, it was relatives of 12-year-old Amber Harris, and before that, others. Jolkowski tries to contact the families, feeling compelled to offer empathy and support to strangers to whom she feels an instant bond.
She knows the pain of not knowing.
Her son, 19-year-old Jason Jolkowski, disappeared in Benson on his way to work June 13, 2001.
"You are always haunted by 'Are they safe?'" Jolkowski said. "'Did something horrible happen to them?'"
An unusual two weeks in metropolitan Omaha have put missing people in the forefront of Omaha's consciousness. The discoveries of two bodies and the disappearances of two women were rare because they occurred so close together in time, but authorities see no connections among the cases.
"It's freakish," said Chief Deputy Jim Matthai of the Pottawattamie County Sheriff's Office. "But they have nothing in common with each other except the timing."
Hundreds of people are currently missing in the area.
In Nebraska, 329 people were listed as of last week on the Nebraska Missing Persons Web site, which is maintained by the Nebraska State Patrol. Of those, 129 were reported missing to the Omaha Police Department. As of last week, 299 people were listed on Iowa's Web site.
The Amber Harris case is not typical.
Most missing people cases are resolved quickly - in Iowa, almost half are found safe within one day.
Only 30 of those in Nebraska have been missing as long as or longer than Jason Jolkowski. Only 22 of Nebraska's missing people cases are more than a decade old.
Rare is the case, said a woman who works on Nebraska's list, that goes on for years without answers, or that ends with the tragic news Amber's family received Friday, that a loved one was found dead.
"There's a very small percentage there," said Chris Price from the criminal identification intelligence division of the Nebraska State Patrol. "Unfortunately, it happens. Look at Amber. This is going to hit everybody hard."
Not having closure also hurts, but in a different way.
"It's a grieving process where you are stuck in the middle. You don't really know what you're grieving for," Kelly Jolkowski said.
She established Project Jason to communicate with other families of the missing. She also played a large part last year in establishing the missing people clearinghouse through the Nebraska Legislature.
It was a start, she said, but more needs to be done. The Web site needs more specific information on each missing person and pictures of each one.
She plans to ask the Legislature for another law requiring law enforcement to give families of missing people a national hot line number where they can find resources. She also is helping to bring a missing people training session to Omaha this fall for law enforcement personnel.
"Families don't realize they can't sit at home on the phone and someone else will do everything for them. Often, they have to fight for attention. . . . They have to fight to get investigations," she said.
Police say they take all missing people cases seriously and follow national and agency protocols on investigations.
Most of the time, a missing person is a chronic runaway or a juvenile who is at the home of a girlfriend or boyfriend, Matthai said, and this could be an issue in how cases are handled. He compared it to a business that has consistent false alarms; after awhile, it's natural to assume any alarm there is false.
If the missing person is a child, deputies immediately search in and around the home. But if the parents have no idea where the missing person has gone, there's not much the deputies can do, Matthai said.
"We can't knock on every door," he said. "But we would certainly hope it's not just rubber-stamped and ignored."
Many people believe they have to wait 24 hours before a person can be reported missing, but that is not true, Matthai said.
Family advocacy efforts such as Jolkowski's have helped to raise the public profile of missing people cases, said Barbara Nelson. She is program manager for the Criminal Justice Center for Innovation, which offers law enforcement training led by veteran investigators from missing people cases. The center is a part of Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis.
When Jannel Rap's sister, Gina Bos, disappeared nearly six years ago in Lincoln, Rap spent a year struggling to get the amount of attention for the case that she felt any missing person case deserved.
Bos - a 40-year-old singer, songwriter and single mother of three - disappeared Oct. 17, 2000, after an open-mike night at a pub in Lincoln. Police assumed she was dead from the beginning, Rap said.
Rap, who lives in California, formed an organization called Gina for Missing Persons.
That led to a Web site, monthly webcasts and more than 100 benefit concerts highlighting missing people.