missing persons

Vanished: South Florida Detectives' Determined Work Finding the Missing

While many are found safe, there are many cases that end in heartbreak – and then there are those that remain cold.

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Missing persons cases have been capturing the attention of so many across the country. The stories of Gabby Petito and South Florida teen Miya Marcano have both ended in heartbreak and loss.

The families of those who are missing go through excruciating pain and oftentimes don’t have the answers they need to feel closure. 

Law enforcement never leave a stone unturned while pursuing missing person cases. The men and women in blue who devote their lives to solving these cases, that often turn into crimes, also feel the sadness that families feel when they hit a wall. 

Police assigned to missing persons cases tell NBC 6 it’s a job that can be exhausting and lead to sleepless nights. 

Detective Marjorie Eloi, who is part of the missing persons unit in the Miami-Dade Police Department, has seen hundreds of missing persons cases come through the department this year. 

Eloi is one of 11 officers in the unit who have their hands full. 

“Not only do we investigate missing persons that live within Miami-Dade County, we also have people that come through our airports and through our seaports,” Eloi said.

The Miami-Dade Police Department averages about 60 missing persons cases per month. The reports are divided into categories; adults, missing juveniles and runaways. 

Officers said they typically have a high success rate of finding the juveniles and adults reported missing. 

“Anytime you have a loved one that doesn’t have whereabouts to the person they’re concerned for, it’s a concern for us and the community,” Eloi said.

Each detective is assigned a case, and sometimes they’ll pair up. While it’s not the standard, oftentimes after 90 days, some cases may shift into what’s considered a cold case. 

“I’ve had cases in my investigations where I’ve had it for over a year. If there’s still information for me to look into, I will keep the case until I’ve exhausted all my leads,” Eloi said.

In the special victims unit, where the team of missing persons detectives work, there is a wall of cold cases displayed and the oldest case dates back to 1967.

A missing person case never starts out as criminal, in fact, until there is probable cause, and law enforcement is limited to what steps they can take. 

“Many people ask why certain things aren’t done in an investigation with a missing persons case, but we have guidelines and state law that we must abide by in order to continue the investigation,” Eloi said.

In the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, one of its recent missing persons cases has turned criminal. Officers there are still perplexed by the disappearance of Sophie Reeder, 15, who disappeared in 2017. Four years later and the case is considered cold. 

The story of Miya Marcano and other missing person cases in Florida. NBC 6's Julie Leonardi reports.

“Fort Lauderdale averages about 1,200 to 1,500 missing person cases per year. I would say out of that, we probably have 50-75 where we consider them suspicious and they get the full court press and follow up,” said Sergeant Steve Novak of the Fort Lauderdale Police. 

Their department only has two sworn officers, including Novak, working in the missing persons unit. It’s a small team, but it’s more than what they used to have. The department has added staff to tackle all of the cases. 

“We work everything until there is just nothing more for us to work,” Novak said.

Novak said technology, social media and DNA are all improvements from the last two decades that have significantly helped in many cases. 

Police tell NBC 6 they react instantly when a person is reported missing, and that wait times are a myth. 

“We will work everything until there is just nothing more for us to do. Sometimes we get a tip in several years later that will lead us to maybe a new path to investigate. Currently, we are doing that with a couple of our missing persons cases we believe are criminal in nature,” Novak said.

Novak said he loses sleep over many of these cases, but he and the department will never stop hunting down leads. They want families to never lose hope. 

Families of missing persons like Brigette Simpkins, the mother of Jaytwan McNeal, said they keep the faith alive. McNeal, 23, has been missing since September. 

Simpkins lives in Fort Lauderdale but tells NBC 6 that the Broward Sheriff’s Office is handling the case. 

“It’s like a part of me is missing,” she said.

Every year, hundreds of people are reported missing in South Florida. Many are found safe, but there are many cases that end in heartbreak – and then there are those that remain cold. NBC 6's Julie Leonardi explored what it’s like for loved ones who still have no answers.

Simpkins said this feeling is something she wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“I feel devastated, I feel like I could have done more,” she said.

Simpkins said McNeal was reported missing by his employer after he didn’t show up to work. Since then, she said she’s left without answers and a void in her life. 

“I know there’s other mothers out there going through the same thing I’m going through. Their kids have been missing for years and years,” Simpkins said.

Novak understands this pain.

“Those are the cases that detectives wake up in the middle of the night thinking about because those family members have no closure. The moms, the dads, the children, the siblings, they get no closure in these cases because we have no answers for them,” Novak said.

But it’s not for lack of determination and hard work. 

Both Eloi and Novak are familiar with painful conversations with family. Many times, they will ask why can’t more be done. 

“Some will ask, why wasn’t this person taken into custody? That person may be a person of interest but they’re not the subject of a crime,” Eloi said.

The sole person of interest in the disappearance of college student Marcano was 27-year-old Armando Caballero. Marcano vanished from her Orlando apartment complex and was reported missing by her family after she never boarded a flight to South Florida. 

Caballero, a maintenance worker in her complex, turned into the prime suspect in the case, and her family questioned why he was never arrested. 

Police in Orange County said there wasn’t enough evidence to take him in early on, and he killed himself days later. A week after Marcano vanished, her body was found with tape around her hands, feet and mouth. 

Eloi said that once there is evidence and probable cause in a missing persons case, they can begin requesting search warrants and phone records. 

“Unlike criminal investigations, missing persons is a non-criminal offense and we’re limited with steps that we can take at the time,” Eloi said.

For the cases that turn cold, police said families never stop calling, especially when remains are found. 

A grant from the Department of Justice allows them to gather DNA samples from blood relatives, Novak said. The swabs will go into the national missing and unidentified person’s system and the FBI will enter that into their database. 

“That way, if remains are recovered and they’re not identified, they can take the DNA from those remains and compare it to the DNA we entered into the system,” Novak said.

Simpkins said police swabbed her DNA. Her family has been very vocal about Jaytwan’s disappearance. 

“Between the flyers and the shirts, my family’s support. We’ve just been trying to get it out there as much as possible, like push,” Simpkins said.

She wishes she checked in more with her son and advises other parents to communicate with their children. 

“Please stay close to your kids, get involved in their life. Find out what’s going on, talk to them!” Simpkins said. “I just feel like something’s not right, I know something is not right.” 

Police agree this information could be key to finding someone.

“Our biggest asset is the family members. They know their loved ones better than we do. We’re getting to know that person through the family member,” Eloi said.

Both Miami-Dade and Fort Lauderdale police often use bloodhounds to track the sent of individuals that go missing on foot. The dogs have been donated to the department by the Jimmy Ryce Foundation, which was founded in 1996 after Jimmy Ryce, 9, was abducted and killed. 

Just in 2020, 20 dogs were given out to departments across the country and even the world. Mark Young, the director of the foundation, said the searches come up more successful than not. 

“They do what a human can’t, they do what a computer can’t, they do what a drone can’t, they do what helicopters can’t,” Young said.

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