Friday, March 21, 2014

Can Social Media Crack Unsolved Vt. Missing Persons Cases?

By Jennifer Reading


On average, eight people vanish from Vermont every year. And it's these unsolved cases that tend to keep police officers up at night.

"I haven't met a police officer in Vermont or around the country, for that matter, who doesn't take their case work seriously. We do do everything that we can to bring people home safely," Lt. Michael Macarilla said.

And now investigators unveiled a new tool they hope will help crack more cold cases.

"It's incredible how far technology has taken things," Macarilla said.

Macarilla heads the Vermont Intelligence Center, the information gathering hub behind the Vermont Missing Persons Facebook page. In just two months, it's already racked up nearly 4,700 "likes." The goal is to keep communication flowing between the public and police. Users can share the missing persons posters and submit anonymous tips.

"It can be a double-edged sword," Macarilla said. "We have to devote people's time to scour through the social media now to look for those clues and look for those tips, look for those comments, but I'd rather us spend time doing that than not have that information at all."

VIC is run by state police and staffed by civilian analysts who, with detectives, monitor all sources of intel coming in.

"It's amazing to see how many people from around the country have visited the page," Macarilla said.
And the reach is pretty impressive. Maryann Foster disappeared from Proctor last month. Her missing poster has connected with 28,000 Facebook users and about 700 have shared the post.

Then there are the older cases. Brianna Maitland disappeared a decade ago. Police suspect foul play, but have yet to find any trace of the Franklin County teenager. In two days her photo reached 18,000 people with Facebook shares in cities as far away as Chicago and Las Vegas.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: How hard is it for law enforcement to get new information on these cases once they've gone cold?

Lt. Michael Macarilla: It's very hard.

Now, state police are working with lawmakers to pass legislation creating a cold case squad.
"I would just like to see some closure for these families and I think that they deserve to have somebody looking out and trying to find out what happened," Rep. Patti Lewis, R-Berlin, told WCAX News back in February.

"We'll keep working on it and try to get all the cold cases up there," Macarilla said.

To date, there 39 unsolved missing persons cases in the Green Mountains, some dating back to the 1970s. Police are hoping you may hold the missing clue that brings comfort to the loved ones left behind.

"It says a lot about the people in Vermont. We care about one another," Macarilla said. "We want to try to help make sure that everyone is safe."

The page is not without its challenges. The center is still trying to figure out the best way to handle runaways. Taking care not to mislabel potential victims as "runaways" if, in fact, they were abducted. The center is working with investigators to make sure these people are properly identified.

As for the future of the page, VIC plans on keeping it Vermont-based, but is considering an expansion to other social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram.

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