More News:

January 08, 2015

Last Seen: Our missing souls

In wake of Montgomery case, families and law enforcement struggle to find the lost

Law Enforcement Missing Persons
050115_MONTGOMERY_02_Carroll.CR2 Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Brandyn Schweitzer's missing persons poster hangs on a utility pole along with Shane Montgomery's.

Shane Montgomery’s five-week-long disappearance and the tragic discovery of his body in the Schuylkill River in Manayunk this past weekend captured the region’s rapt attention. 

It also brought into sharp relief Philadelphia and South Jersey’s missing people, teens and adults who were last seen in a home, backyard, garage, bar or street corner and then vanished, leaving behind anguish, dread and uncertainty for family members, and the police and volunteers looking for them. 

People like Brandyn Schweitzer, 41, of Absecon, who was last seen Dec. 22 in Roxborough. 

“We’re not going into Philadelphia and look for him. We’re a department of 25 officers handling 37,000 cases a year. It’s not like on TV. On TV it’s a whole different ballgame." - David Risley, Absecon police chief

Two weeks ago, when Montgomery’s disappearance was still a mystery and green, remembrance ribbons and posters featuring his picture remained on restaurant windows and utility poles, Schweitzer’s mother and family members taped his picture next to Montgomery’s photo.

Schweitzer’s mother, June McLean, 62, was hoping anyone stopping to look at the Montgomery posters would notice her son’s disappearance, as well.

“Wherever we saw Shane’s poster, we put Brandyn’s poster next to them,” McLean said. “They found Shane Montgomery, now it’s time to find my son.”

Related Story: Missing in Philly since Shane

But unlike Montgomery’s case, Schweitzer’s disappearance, like the majority of missing person cases, hasn’t attracted a lot of attention or extensive police involvement, even though he was the alleged victim of a beating that left him impaired. 

In fact, the vanishing of Schweitzer could be a textbook example of the challenges family members and law enforcement face in finding a missing person, especially an adult.

First, can they even be called missing?

Law enforcement officials say the criteria for when police can take and act on a missing person’s report is fluid and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.  

The disappearance of a 5-year-old, for example, will likely be treated differently than a 55-year-old, said Lt. John Stanford, head of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Public Affairs Office, which publishes a website featuring city residents who have gone missing. 

“A child that’s missing falls under a different category,” Stanford said. “We’re pretty much going to shut down an entire area in looking for that kid.”

Because an extensive search takes resources from other policing priorities, law enforcement officials say only the most pressing cases receive such an effort.

“If it’s a habitual runaway, it’s kind of different,” said Sgt. Janell Simpson, who oversees the Camden County Police Department Special Victims Unit. “We won’t exhaust all of the manpower that we normally do.”

Missing children typically are deemed high priorities.

In New Jersey, a missing child age 13 or younger can trigger a Child Abduction Response Team (CART), enabling various agencies to join the search, including the local district attorney’s office and the FBI. Additionally, an entire police unit might be dedicated to finding the child, Simpson said.

Social media is a game-changer

Despite varying degrees of urgency, law enforcement officials stress that each missing person case is investigated. 

The first step is covering the basics – interviewing the family, determining the missing person’s last known contact and checking electronic records. From there, Simpson said, police will use a variety of resources, including canvassing, search dogs, door-knocking and social media.

Social media has been a game-changer for law enforcement agencies in many ways, but particularly as it relates to missing or wanted people. Shane Montgomery’s photo and story was shared extensively across Facebook and Twitter, making him a familiar face to thousands of strangers.

Stanford said Philadelphia police aggressively use social media to alert the public about missing people, including a website listing the latest updates. “It doesn’t take the place of an investigation, but it gives us an opportunity to get the information out to the public,” he said.  The department has more than 85,000 followers on its Facebook page and some 51,000 on Twitter.  

“It’s really helpful,” Simpson said of social media. “We’ll get calls from our tipline saying ‘I’ve seen this person - they’re at this location.’ Our last missing person where we activated the CART team ... it was through social media that they were located.

“At a minimum, people will post information. They’ll say, ‘They’re not missing; they’re right here.’”

'It didn't make sense'

The FBI, for its part, typically doesn’t get involved in missing person cases unless its help is requested from police, as was the case in the Shane Montgomery search.

But once involved, the FBI can offer a litany of resources not readily available to local police departments, including analysis of historical, financial and cell phone records. Critically, the FBI can conduct investigations where local police do not have authority.

“As the investigative work begins to expand outside a police department’s jurisdiction, it’s a lot easier for us,” said Special Agent J.J. Klaver, of the bureau’s Philadelphia division. 

The FBI joined the Montgomery search when Philadelphia police sought assistance from its violent crimes task force, Klaver said.

“It was deemed suspicious from the start, because right away it became apparent there was no reason for this guy to disappear on his own,” Klaver said. “There was nothing, seemingly, no reason why this person would voluntarily cut themselves off from all his friends and relatives. It didn’t make sense. We were assisting them for that reason.”

The FBI has no standard protocol for missing person reports and lists only 73 people on its website as active cases, including two from Philadelphia – the decade-old disappearance of Danielle Imbo and her boyfriend, Richard Petrone, who were last seen leaving a bar on South Street in the late evening hours of Feb. 19, 2005.

Keeping track of the missing

Philadelphia police received 4,210 reports of missing persons in 2013, the most recent statistics available. At least 3,953 of those cases were closed when the individual was located. The number may be higher, authorities said, because the missing may turn up without police being notified. 

Those figures are reported to the federal National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which has been keeping track of missing people since 1975. A report is kept indefinitely, until the individual is located, or the law enforcement agency that filed the report cancels it. 

As of 2013, the center had 84,136 active missing person cases. Children and teens under 18 accounted for a little more than 40 percent of the cases - 33,849 - while young adults between 18 and 20 accounted for close to 12 percent: 9,706.

But like a rolling tide of the missing, the numbers keep churning.

During 2013, more than half a million missing person cases were reported to the center: 627,911, an actual 5 percent decrease from 2012. But during that same period, an even greater number of current and past cases were cleared or canceled - 630,990.  

Reasons for the high clearance number: a law enforcement agency located the subject, the individual returned home or the record had to be removed because the person was never truly missing.

For a person to be considered missing, the center has some specific criteria.

The person must have a proven physical or mental disability, for example, or are missing under circumstances indicating that they may be in physical danger or under circumstances indicating their disappearance may have been involuntary or are under the age of 21. 

But since anyone over 18 can just walk up and legally disappear, whether a person has gone missing voluntarily or under duress can be difficult for police to discern.

"It's so difficult and frustrating," said Detective Sgt. Megan Lynch of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Lynch has been in regular contact with Schweitzer’s family since she was alerted Dec. 29 that he had vanished.  The District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Robert Conner, 37, in connection with Schweitzer’s assault and has leveled numerous charges, including attempted murder, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

“We thought he was going to die,” said Lynch, who declined to provide details of the assault, but confirmed it occurred March 22, 2014, in Germantown.

Police 'waiting and seeing'

McLean fears her eldest son’s disappearance may be connected to the criminal assault, but Lynch said there is no evidence linking the two.

“I’m not convinced,” the detective said. “The attacker is incarcerated.”

And Schweitzer’s disappearance will have no bearing on Conner’s criminal prosecution, scheduled for November 2015, Lynch said.

“We would do something called prosecution from absentia,” when the victim of a crime can’t be located, she explained. “We would have to prove we can’t find Brandyn or that he’s deceased."

Lynch, from Roxborough, was keenly aware of Shane Montgomery’s disappearance and went out on the street looking for Schweitzer to no avail. “He’s a 41-year-old and it’s difficult to say if he’s making his own decisions right now.”

“[June McLean] should take a page out of Shane Montgomery’s family's book and get the word out and get the community involved." - Detective Sgt. Megan Lynch

The lead investigative agency looking into Schweitzer’s disappearance is Absecon’s small police department. While Philadelphia police would lend assistance, jurisdiction and protocol dictate this is Absecon’s case, Stanford said, adding to the complication of finding a missing person, especially from another jurisdiction. 

Absecon’s police chief, David Risley, acknowledges there is little his department can do: “We’re not going into Philadelphia and look for him. We’re a department of 25 officers handling 37,000 cases a year. It’s not like on TV. On TV it’s a whole different ball game.” 

The Absecon department issued a press release a few days after June McLean reported Schweitzer’s disappearance Christmas Day:







And for now, the department is essentially “waiting and seeing” what happens, Risley said.

For McLean, the mystery of her son’s disappearance runs deeper than the terse description from the department’s public notice. 

After his alleged assault and three months of physical rehabilitation, Schweitzer, suffering from short-term memory loss, moved in with his mother in Absecon, a small town outside of Atlantic City, as he tried “to get back to some kind of normal life." He worked as a laborer in Philadelphia, cleaning gutters and fixing roofs. 

Hoping for closure

On Saturday, Dec. 20, mother and son attended a family Christmas gathering in the city before heading back to New Jersey. That Sunday, Schweitzer announced he was going back into the city to find a place to live, McLean said. 

“I told him to take it easy and keep in touch,” she said. “And that was the last time I spoke to him.” 

On Monday, Dec. 22, family members say Schweitzer apparently saw an old girlfriend. There was an ATM withdraw on Ridge Avenue for $160. But after that, nothing.

For days, McLean did not hear from her son, including Christmas. And there were no charges on his debit card, for which McLean had access. On Christmas Day she reported her son missing. The day after Christmas, she terminated the card, afraid someone else might use it. 

Risley said it’s unheard for “some people not wanting to be found by their family,” but McLean said there’s every reason to believe that’s not the case here. “He said he was going to be home Christmas Eve,” and Schweitzer had dental work scheduled for Jan. 20. 

Since then McLean and other family members have continued their search, hanging posters in Norristown, Roxborough, Manayunk, East Falls and Kensington. 

“She’s doing the best she can,” Lynch said of McLean. “She should take a page out of Shane Montgomery’s family's book and get the word out and get the community involved. There are so many children who are missing out there; people have gotten numb over it. It’s disgusting. This is true for all families with missing people, they have to get the word out.”

McLean is hoping for some closure. “I just know something bad has happened to him,” she said.  “He went into the Badlands (of Philadelphia) and he never came out.”

Meanwhile, the churn of missing person cases continues. Within hours of divers finding Shane Montgomery’s body, the Camden prosecutors office issued separate press alerts about three missing people, two of them teens who had never gone missing before. 

This time, authorities say, the three individuals were found. 

As for Shane Montgomery, the 21-year-old West Chester University student's death ultimately was ruled accidental by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office, family members said. On Facebook, organizers have asked that people take down the thousands of missing posters posted throughout the city and recycle them.

His funeral is scheduled for Friday.

PhillyVoice reporter John Kopp contributed to this report.