To the parents of 18-year-old Karen Levy, a freshman at Syracuse University, the policeman at the other end of the telephone line seemed cold and indifferent. Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Levy had called the Syracuse police from their home in Cherry Hill, N.J. to report their only daughter missing. "She's probably gone south," the policeman replied laconically. "They all do. She'll be back in class on Tuesday."

She wasn't. Now, 18 months later, Mrs. Levy thinks that Karen is almost surely dead. And she and her husband are just as certain that had police acted more quickly, Karen might still be alive.

The experience has prompted the Levys to lead a fight to change the laws to authorize—and in some cases force—law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to enter "missing persons" cases more quickly. More than a million children are officially listed as missing every year, and many more run away and are not reported. Most eventually return home or later contact their parents, but an astonishing number are never heard from again, and some, inevitably, meet foul play.

Karen had advertised on her dormitory bulletin board for a ride from Syracuse to Long Branch, N.J. to join her boyfriend for his birthday celebration. A stranger, who identified himself as Bill Lacy, answered her ad. Karen was careful enough to ask two friends to accompany her to look Lacy over. He seemed harmless enough.

Karen's boyfriend called the police that evening when she did not show up, but they would not accept a missing report from a nonrelative. Her parents, out of town until the following day, filed a report, but got the impression they were not being taken seriously. "Every time we'd call," Mrs. Levy remembers, "some different officer would take the same information over and over." It was not until Monday evening, 72 hours after Karen's disappearance, that the police undertook a full investigation. The FBI never officially entered the case at all.

Sylvia Levy is resigned. "My husband's just not willing to accept it," she explains, "but I do. But I will never rest until Karen is brought home and buried with some dignity."

With the aid of Rep. Edwin Forsythe (R., N.J.), Sylvia Levy has zealously campaigned for special legislation that would authorize FBI intervention when someone voluntarily accepts a ride to a destination across state lines and doesn't arrive within a reasonable time—a case like Karen's. Because of the staggering work load this would generate, the FBI has thus far opposed the idea. But Sylvia Levy is not to be dissuaded. "It's not just Karen Levy legislation I'm after," she insists. "Some other kid is going to make the same mistake. I fear for the next one. Why should another family have to endure this?" It was little consolation, she recalls, when one detective told her: "Don't worry. Whoever did this, we'll catch him. They're all repeaters. He'll do it again."