The New Hampshire Union Leader

June 11, 2006

When adults disappear

By Elise Castelli

Derry -- When Pail Gaffney vanished after leaving his Derry home for work in Massachusetts last month, there was no sign of foul play, no indication of an accident.

Derry police filed a report, followed up on leads gathered from interviews with friends and family of the 43-year-old, and put out a statewide attempt to locate" bulletin.

Gaffney's wife and six children were waiting and worrying. The disappearance was out of character, they said, for a man you could set your watch by."

But without evidence of a crime, police said, there was little more they could do because Gaffney, as an adult, had the right not to return home.

Bedford police found Gaffney -- unharmed, in his car -- on May 30, four days after his disappearance. They told him his family was worried and he should return home. He did.

The Gaffney incident typifies the missing-persons cases they run across each year, police say. But other cases -- such as those of college nursing student Maura Murray, who disappeared after a single-car crash in Haverhill more than two years ago, and Goffstown teen Laura Mackenzie, who was due to appear in court on shoplifting charges when she disappeared March 8 -- underscore the fact that New Hampshire has no standard reporting requirements or procedures in missing-adult cases.

State Police Sgt. Robert Estabrook, who handles missing persons cases, said procedure is based circumstances. If a person appears to have disappeared voluntarily and without having committed a crime, he said, the person has the legal right to remain missing.

(Adults) have the legal right to up and leave," Estabrook said. I can see how a loved one would be concerned with that, but you have a right to be missing."

In some instances, Derry Police Capt. Vernon Thomas said, the person who filed the report poses a risk to the missing person.

We have to be cautious about the source of the report," Thomas said

Erin Bruno, director of case management for the National Center for Missing Adults, said 99 percent of all adults reported missing are found safe -- and many don't want contact with the family they deserted.

For families of the missing, that may be hard to accept, Bruno said. In the family's defense, every minute a loved one is gone is a minute too many," she said. They're thinking the worst."

As of May 1, there were 108,801 people listed as missing in the National Crime Information Center database, including 50,177 adults. Because the NCIC has certain criteria for entering adults in the database, there may be many more missing adults who aren't included in the center's statistics, Bruno said.

According to the NCIC Web site, a missing adult can be entered into the national database if one of the following criteria is met:

The adult has a proven physical or mental disability;

The situation indicates physical danger;

The situation indicates the person is not missing voluntarily;

The person is missing after a catastrophe; or

There is reason to be concerned for the missing person's safety.

Unless the missing fall into one of those categories, some police agencies are reluctant to take reports on adults, Bruno said.

New Hampshire law does mandate that adults falling into any of the NCIC categories be reported to NCIC within 72 hours of the initial report. Federal law mandates all missing children be entered in the database regardless of circumstance.

At any given moment, there are at least 70 to 90 cases missing New Hampshire children and adults listed in the NCIC, said Estabrook.

When the disappearance is voluntary, the reasons for disappearing may be as disparate as the missing themselves, Bruno said. It could stem from family or marital troubles, from abuse, from debt, from addiction or crime.

Sometimes we don't know what's happened," she said.

Thomas, of the Derry Police, said the nature of the investigation depends on the circumstances.

Reports, bulletins, and interviews with relatives and friends are the standard in Derry on adult cases, he said. Family members are also told they should monitor bank, credit card and cell phone activity on statements, as the information can provide leads to the missing adult, Thomas said.

Often the investigation doesn't get very far before there is a break. Most (missing persons) turn up fairly quickly," Thomas said. But not all cases turn out like the Gaffney case.

Maura Murray remains missing more than two years after vanishing at age 21 after crashing her car in Haverhill.

Her father, Frederick Murray, recently filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court to unseal police records on her case. In an interview this week, he said reports from the early days of the case hold important clues that could be used by his team of private investigators to find his daughter.

Murray alleges the police are using claims of an ongoing investigation to avoid disclosure. In fact, he said, there is no active police investigation.

Bruno, the missing adults caseworker, said she would like to see national standards adopted that would require uniform investigation procedures for children and adults.

If there is not clear evidence of a crime, it doesn't mean the person was not a victim; there is just no evidence of it," she said.

One of the leads on Goffstown Police are pursuing in the Mackenzie case involves the timing of the teen's disappearance: the same day as her scheduled court date. Nevertheless, Goffstown Police Detective Kevin Laroche told the New Hampshire Union Leader, the case is baffling."

Laroche said a yearbook message Mackenzie wrote last fall sounded like much of what she had written in diaries and poetry, and seemed to forecast her disappearance. But, he added, it was so long before Mackenzie actually disappeared, We still think it was the arrest that made her run."

What exactly made Gaffney run, the family hasn't said definitively. On the day he returned his daughter Pauline said, We're just happy to have him home and want to spend as much time with him as possible."

For many families of the still missing that is all they want.