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Into thin air

May 21, 2013|By Mick Swasko, @swasko | RedEye

It's been five years of waiting for Rose Mae Starnes, whose adoptive daughter vanished one day when Starnes was out of the house. Five years of anguish.

"I would just hug her and kiss her," says Starnes, clutching tightly an eighth-grade graduation photo of her girl, Yasmin Acree. The 15-year-old went missing from her bedroom in Austin on Jan. 15, 2008, before her freshman portrait could be taken. Her sudden absence was out of character, and Starnes was stunned.

Starnes, who adopted Acree, who also is Starnes' niece, and Acree's brother, Damarcus, when the girl was 8, has thought a lot about a reunion. Before any jubilant gatherings with family members, or shopping trips for new clothes, or therapy sessions she knows Acree would need, she imagines going somewhere quiet together, a time for the two to begin catching up on the five years they lost.

"We were close, very close," Starnes said.

Some days are better than others, Starnes said. She moved to Oak Park three months ago from the Austin home where Acree disappeared. She doesn't look for her niece in the kitchen anymore. She doesn't search the spare rooms in vain. Some days are spent in bed; the thought of what happened to Yasmin makes it too difficult to do anything else.

"Miracles," however, renew Starnes' spirit. The recent discovery of three women held captive in Cleveland for more than 10 years make her feel as though the reunion she's imagined might still be possible. The women were found alive, but the man charged in their kidnapping also is accused of sexual abuse.

"I get my down moments where I wonder if she is still here," Starnes said. "But sometimes a miracle happens where someone is gone a long time and they are still here."

Each year, Chicago adds to its list of those unaccounted for. In 2012, almost 15,000 missing-person cases were filed, with 16,000 reported the year prior. Of those, 14 remained unaccounted for from 2011, and 54 remained missing from 2012.

Nationally, there are about 87,000 active missing persons in the U.S., according to FBI statistics. The missing are found alive 98 percent of the time in Chicago, CPD estimates, but the remaining cases leave families like Starnes' relying on tips, the media and continued police check-ins for hope of a reunion.

While CPD handles all missing persons on a case-by-case basis, there are specific protocols in place in the department to log and track the incidents. All of them have one thing in common—they all begin with a concerned party who has to decide when to turn to the police for help.

"It comes down to common sense and good judgment," said Chicago Police Central Investigations Unit Commander Eugene Roy of families and friends who suspect a loved one may have gone missing. "If this is totally out of character, if the person was disturbed, it's something you call immediately on."

In some cases, Roy said, a missing persons report amounts to nothing more than a car breaking down, a friend getting lost or a cellphone running out of battery. But all reports are taken seriously, he said, with no mandatory period of lost contact required to file a report.

It's critical, he said, that friends and family give detectives—who follow up on cases in their district before the end of the day a report is made—as much information and detail as possible for better chances of recovery. Helpful details include whether the person had debt, relationship problems or mental health issues. Investigators also probe whether the person had been acting differently. The clothes the person was last seen in, the type of car he or she drove, where the person last said he or she was going and any other specific details also help focus the investigation.

"[Detectives] are looking for something that could have triggered the person being missing," Roy said, adding that a determination on whether a case is considered missing persons or a kidnapping is made on a case-by-case basis.

Starnes and her family filed a formal complaint against the police in Yasmin's case, contesting CPD's claim that she was a runaway. About a year later police admitted they mishandled the initial investigation, but asserted de department had been pursuing the case. Starnes said she often wonders if her niece could have been found if evidence—like a broken lock—had been collected immediately, but said police since have had weekly contact with her about the status of the case.

For Starnes' cousin, the Rev. Ira Acree, the Cleveland kidnappings and the grisly details surrounding them have given him mixed emotions about the search for Yasmin.

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