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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- October 27, 2003
- Vol. 60
- No. 17
Without a Trace
Every Day in the U.S. Thousands of People Disappear. And Every Day Dedicated Investigators—Like Those on the Hit TV Show—Make It Their Mission to Find Them. Meet Some of the Supersleuths Behind the Headlines, Learn the Tricks of Their Trade—and Hear How They Cracked Their Biggest Cases
After 27 years with the FBI, he's seen it all. Now he gives actors on the hit series Without a Trace clues about performing like the pros
The victim was a 19-year-old college student who had been abducted from his girlfriend's home in Goleta, Calif., and held for ransom. The kidnappers were unusually sophisticated, tapping into telephone company router boxes so their ransom calls could not be traced. So all FBI agent Mark Llewellyn and his colleagues could do was wait. "We weren't sleeping," says Llewellyn, 52. "We were working 24/7. We'd followed up everything we could, but we came up with nothing." Experience told Llewellyn his only hope was that even the cleverest kidnappers get careless after a while. "We knew they'd make a mistake," says Llewellyn. "They always do."
And so they did: One of the kidnappers unaccountably used a pay phone to make a ransom demand. As FBI agents coached the victim's parents on how to keep the suspect on the line, another team traced the call and put him under surveillance. But even that break carried danger. Would capturing the guy mean death for the victim at the hands of other accomplices? "That's a tough moment," says Llewellyn. "Do we go in and scoop the guy up? Or do you let him go and follow? You worry that he's seen you and is playing with you. You have to make a split-second decision."
Everything in that 1992 case worked out well. The agents swooped down on the suspect, who readily told them where the victim, Ryan Curtis, was being held. The hideout was in a posh neighborhood not far from Curtis's own home. The boy had been held for 13 days in a toolshed and a coffinlike container but was otherwise unhurt. Three suspects were arrested and eventually pleaded no contest to the kidnapping.
A veteran of more than 70 kidnapping cases, Llewellyn retired from the FBI in 2001 but still keeps his hand in by consulting on CBS's Without a Trace. His input ranges from pointing out that DNA samples can't simply be snipped from an uncooperative suspect's hair ("The FBI would never do that") to showing actors the proper way to use a gun ("You never threaten anyone with one. If you pull it out, are you willing to pull the trigger?").
But perhaps his biggest contribution to the show is conveying the intense personal involvement investigators feel when handling a kidnapping case, especially one involving children. Coexecutive producer Ed Redlich recalls a recent episode in which the star Anthony LaPaglia has just wrapped up such a case. "After it's all over, Anthony, without direction or it being in the script, walks over behind a car and throws up. It was the perfect way to show the emotions, and I think a lot of that comes from working with Mark." Says Llewellyn: "I just help them get it right."
Detective assistant, Orlando Police Dept. Helped recover more than 2,700 missing kids. Specialty: finding and helping runaways
She's never kicked down a door or slapped cuffs on a suspect, but when it comes to finding missing kids, Cheryl Holtz is as tough as they come. Over the past three years the detective assistant with the Orlando Police Department has helped solve more than 2,700 cases, a success rate of nearly 100%. "She puts herself in the position of the parents," says her supervisor Sgt. Barbara Jones. "She uses every resource she can and she is relentless."
Her secret weapon: a computer keyboard. "Bulldog" to her colleagues, Holtz, 43, rifles through Internet data banks, phone records, arrest reports and e-mail logs in search of clues to the whereabouts of the roughly 900 missing children, mostly runaways, reported to Orlando police each year. "Somebody's got to care," says Holtz, who started as an administrative assistant in 1998 and was promoted to her current civilian post two years later. "I think this is my calling in life and I hope I can make a difference."
Holtz has cracked hundreds of cases without ever leaving her desk. In 1999 police were stumped when an Orlando mother disappeared with her two young children. Holtz focused on their grandmother, believing she had misled police. "In her phone records we found calls to Germany," says Holtz, who got a tip the grandmother was going there for a holiday. "I used the Internet to find every airline that flew to Germany and contacted them all until we located her flight information." An FBI agent tailed the grandmother and found the missing children.
In another case Holtz tracked down a chronic runaway through letters the teenager had earlier written to a prison inmate. As she often does, Holtz personally counseled the girl, Lawsonia Dehaney, once she returned to her youth shelter. "I felt like she was someone I could talk to," says Lawsonia, now living with her mother and on her high school honor roll and cheerleading squad. To many investigators "runaways haven't committed a crime so it's no big deal to find them," says Joan Thompson, director of the Orlando-based Missing Children Center. "But Cheryl's attitude is different. She wants to get them picked up and get them help."
On top of spending an afternoon a week at Orlando's Orange County Youth Center, Holtz—the mother of one and stepmother of three—finds time to provide another invaluable service: helping devastated parents through their ordeal. "It meant the world to me to have her there," says Louise Miller, who credits Holtz with finding her then 16-year-old daughter at a bus depot and helping her kick drugs. "Not once did she say, 'Don't call me, I'll call you.' She was always encouraging, always telling me not to give up. She was my guardian angel."
Holtz has failed to solve only one case in three years—the disappearance of a 14-year-old prostitute in 1982. "We work on it when we can," she says. "My goal is to solve it before I leave." So far, she has cut the department's number of open cases from 110 to fewer than 20. "It will never be zero, because once we find some, others go missing," she says. "But I just think these kids deserve to be found, and I do whatever it takes to find them."
Many happy returns got this agent, lead investigator on the Elizabeth Smart case, promoted to run the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit
When FBI agent Mick Fennerty took charge of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in June 2002, just hours after the Salt Lake City teen disappeared, he had no idea how big the case would become. What he did know was that time was crucial: 74 percent of the abductors who kill their victims do so within the first three hours of snatching them. "You want to recover children as quickly as possible," says Fennerty, 37, who now coordinates the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit. "Your senses are heightened, you're definitely more alert and the adrenaline kicks in." He was shocked when Smart turned up alive 280 days later. "It's just so very rare to recover somebody after that length of time."
But in his line of work, attention to detail and a dose of hope are sometimes all he's got. Both the FBI and local law enforcement follow a strict investigative protocol for dealing with kidnapping cases. The details, of course, have to be kept secret, but Fennerty explains that in true stranger abductions, where the motive is often sexual, publicizing the abduction can help in the safe recovery of the victim. Kidnappings for ransom, which are motivated by money, are handled much more gingerly. In ransom cases investigators are obliged to stay more in the back-ground and not spook the kidnappers. "You have to consider what the kidnapper wants," says Fennerty.
He recalls one case in Boise, Idaho, where a young girl had been taken for ransom. Interviewing the parents, Fennerty and other investigators found out the missing child liked to eat at Wendy's. They staked out every Wendy's in the area on the chance the kidnapper would try to placate the girl with her favorite food. The perp soon showed with the missing girl at Wendy's and was busted. "You look forward to that moment when you get to put somebody's son or daughter back with them," says Fennerty. "That's a good feeling."
Private investigator, St. Petersburg, Fla. Tracked down more than 100 missing kids Specialty: children caught in custodial disputes
It was known as the "reverse Elian"—a Cuban mother who took her 5-year-old son away from his American father and sailed from Florida to Cuba in 2000. Federal authorities knew she was there but were powerless to do anything. "The FBI agents couldn't get into Cuba," says Price, 70, who took the case on behalf of the boy's father. "So we went in." Price got a special license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury that allowed him to enter Cuba, tracked down the mother and lobbied Cuban authorities to let the child return to the U.S. The process took nine months, but "we brought both the fugitive and the child back home," says Price. "The FBI was waiting for us when we got off the plane in Miami."
In his 30-year career Price has located more than 100 missing children—mostly in custodial dispute cases—in Egypt, Germany, El Salvador and other countries. A former Florida state representative, he works with attorney Michael Berry, an international child-abduction specialist, to enforce U.S. custody orders in foreign lands. "We don't go in and beat people up or shoot at them," says the married father of eight. "We do everything as legal as can be. We use every available court order to retrieve a child."
First, however, he has to find them. In 2001 Price used a tip from a car-rental agency to locate a boy smuggled across the English Channel and into France in a TV box. In 1996 he found a California girl abducted by her mother, a case that had baffled investigators for two years. "The father was just about broke after trying for years to find her," says Price, who agreed to take the case only if he felt he had a good chance of succeeding. "We found her in New York City in four weeks."
Price relies mainly on gumshoe standbys like travel records, credit card receipts and Internet data, but the most effective tool in his box of tricks is cold hard cash. "Good rewards lead to good tips," says Price, who recently found a 17-yearold runaway by posting $100 reward signs in St. Petersburg. "Money gets people to talk."
BILL HEWITT, ALEX TRESNIOWSKI and PAM LAMBERT
Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Kristin Harmel in Orlando, Lori Rozsa in Miami, Maureen Harrington in Los Angles and Amanda Orr in Washington, D.C.
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