'They wouldn't listen to any other theory but runaway'
Kaelin Glazier's two best friends understand it was unlikely the Ruch teen would have been recovered alive after the fateful night she visited William Simmons' trailer in 1996. But 15 years later, they still remember their frustration with police who labeled the missing girl as "just a runaway."
"I don't think anything could have stopped this from happening," Jennifer Gonzales said. "But I think everyone has a little bitterness toward the process of collecting evidence."
Kaelin, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Medford High School, disappeared on Nov. 6, 1996. Her skeleton was discovered in a field just across Haven Road from the property where Simmons lived. After a 10-day murder trial in Jackson County Circuit Court, Simmons on Feb. 14 was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in Kaelin's death. His sentencing is scheduled for mid-March.
Gonzales, now 30 and a mother of two, and Rachel Hunt, also 30 and living in New York, said the trio were inseparable as teens and kept no secrets from each other.
"We knew she didn't run away," said Hunt. "We were convinced it was Billy (Simmons) from an early standpoint."
When Kaelin didn't arrive at church or home that night, her mother, Kimberly Cruz Waller, called the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to report her missing. Initial reports said Kaelin disappeared while walking several blocks from Simmons' rural Ruch home to a youth group meeting at Applegate Christian Fellowship on Highway 238. Officials suspected she might be a runaway.
Detective Sgt. Colin Fagan said Thursday that the legacy of Kaelin's and other prominent missing-children cases have forever changed the way the sheriff's department handles missing persons cases.
There have been institutional, philosophical and technological changes for the better — both locally and nationally — between 1996 and 2012. And for Jackson County, it came to a head with a regime change, shortly after Sheriff Mike Winters took office in 2003 — a year in which several high-profile cases featuring missing and murdered children gained national attention, Fagan said.
Honoring a campaign promise to Vicki Kelly, executive director of the Tommy Foundation in Jackson County and board member of the Surviving Parent Coalition, Winters attended a two-day seminar at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia in 2003. When he returned, Winters handed Fagan the national model policy.
"He said, 'We're going to change how we do this,' " Fagan said. "There was a major shift when he came back. Prior to that we didn't have any policy."
The policy changes required deputies to step out of their "Mayberry" mindset and face the grim realities of missing children cases, Fagan said. The sheriff's department now thoroughly investigates all reports of missing persons. And every person reported as missing is considered to be "at risk" until significant information to the contrary is confirmed, he said.
Statistics show the best results for a positive outcome happen if a child is recovered within the first three hours after going missing, he said.
"And that's from when they actually go missing" — and not from when an adult may finally call police after exhausting all their search options, he said.
Hunt said she and Gonzales tried to call Kaelin's mother from school the following morning after Kaelin disappeared. An adult hall monitor told them to get back to class.
"She said, 'Oh don't worry. She'll be back in a week,' " Hunt said.
Three weeks after Kaelin was gone, sheriff's Detective Hugh Crawford pulled the two girls out of their Spanish class. He pressed them to tell him where Kaelin had run away to, Hunt and Gonzales said.
"We tried to tell him she wouldn't run away. We tried to tell everyone," Hunt said.
Reports of missing persons, especially missing children, can be among the most difficult, challenging and emotionally charged cases a law enforcement agency will ever experience, according to the sheriff's policy.
"The attitude and approach that an agency and its officers take in responding to reports of missing persons may very well determine whether the person is recovered promptly and safely or remain missing for months or years or, even worse, is never recovered," the policy states.
There is now no required waiting period for reporting a missing person. A person may be declared "missing" when his or her whereabouts are unknown and unexplainable for a period of time that is regarded by knowledgeable persons as highly unusual or suspicious in consideration of the subject's behavior patterns, plans or routines, Fagan said.
"I can't emphasize this enough: Hope is not a strategy. You can't get that time back," Fagan said.
All reports of "runaways" are treated as missing persons until significant information to the contrary is confirmed. A known runaway case receives a priority 3 response, which is the same as a person caught shoplifting and detained by store security, while a missing child will be a priority 1, Fagan said.
"We don't even like to use the word 'runaway.' It has a whole different mindset. It's almost dismissive," Fagan said, adding children who do intentionally run away often become victims of crime and need to be protected.
"What's more important in a police officer's day than finding a missing child?"
Hunt kept a running journal in her notebooks in the weeks and months after Kaelin disappeared.
"I started writing her," Hunt said. "I had the articles from the paper. I told her how everyone was looking for her."
Hunt said she also kept a letter Kaelin had written to her from the previous summer.
"I kept it in my binder because I liked seeing her handwriting," she said.
Classmates reported seeing the letter. Crawford returned to interview Hunt at school, she said. Again she was pulled from class and pressed to reveal Kaelin's hiding place.
"They wouldn't listen to any other theory but runaway," Hunt said.
Former FBI agent Shawna Carroll came on the case in 1998. Hunt said Carroll appeared to be willing to listen to other possibilities.
"She was open with us," Hunt said. "By that time I was so fed up I wasn't very helpful."
As the days stretched into years, multiple police detectives questioned Simmons and his family repeatedly about what happened the night Kaelin disappeared. Simmons' camp trailer was tested for blood and DNA. Even the pond and septic tank were searched. The field directly across the small county lane where Kaelin's body lay decomposing, however, was apparently never searched.
Policy alone would prohibit those mistakes now, Fagan said.
"Two detectives go together to the last reliable seen location of the missing person and search to assure they are not within 200 yards of where they were known to be," Fagan said. "If the same set of facts occurred today, the amount of evidence we would collect would be overwhelming."
Today, upon receiving a report of a missing person, sheriff's investigators respond promptly to the scene of the report, interview the person who made the report, obtain a description of the missing person and verify the person is, in fact, missing, Fagan said.
Distraught parents may not have performed a thorough search, he said. Any place on the house and grounds where a child could be trapped, asleep or hiding is searched. Special attention is paid to refrigerators, freezers or the interiors of parked cars which may place a child at risk of injury or death.
Technology advances also have aided searches. Fagan was a patrol deputy when Kaelin disappeared. Now he conducts training seminars locally and nationally on digital technology and its ability to improve the response to missing and abducted children.
Cellphones, GPS tracking and social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace all offer "bread crumbs" in the search for a missing child, he said.
The advent of Amber Alerts and A Child is Missing 800 numbers, in addition to mobile data computers in all police vehicles, means a massive amount of information can go out in a matter of minutes, Fagan said.
"We can now disseminate information at a rate that is almost incomprehensible," he said.
There also has been an increase in staffing at the sheriff's department to cover cases such as Kaelin's. There are two additional sheriff's detectives, one more medical examiner with a caseload devoted to death investigations and missing persons, and another detective assigned to major crimes, Fagan said.
Hunt had her mother attend every day of Simmons' two-week trial. Each morning her mother would call and report the day's testimony. Each evening Gonzales, who also attended the trial, would call, and the still-close friends would discuss their thoughts and feelings. Some days the information was overwhelming, Hunt said, remembering her reaction to hearing 8 feet of duct tape had been discovered wrapped around Kaelin's skeletal remains.
"As much as you think you're prepared for that, you're not," Hunt said. "I'd so been looking forward to the start of trial, thinking that would bring closure. But you sort of realize it never ends."
Hunt and Gonzales are both concerned that pending defense motions might mean Simmons' sentence could be delayed or even overturned.
"We've been waiting for 15 years, which was the entire length of (Kaelin's) life," Hunt said. "When someone dies, you can mourn and move on. But when someone disappears from your life, you have to remain hopeful. When you grieve, you give up that hope."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.