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Authorities: Treat missing persons case as genuine article

Television crime shows flub many aspects of police work during prime time, but one misconception in particular continues to irritate officers who have worked tense missing-persons cases involving juveniles.

"We don't wait 24 hours or whatever amount of time you see on TV to begin investigating a missing-persons case," Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney said.

This myth was tested March 2 after a 14-year-old Central Point girl went missing from a Medford skate park. As soon as the first officer was called to the park, a tide of patrol officers, detectives, tech cops and supervisors hit the ground in search of Starla Carrero.

The initial facts of the case were troubling, Medford Detective Bill Ford said.

Officers found the girl had vanished from the skate park, leaving behind her purse. Not a good sign.

"The fact that the purse was left was definitely a concern," Ford said.

Responding officers immediately began canvassing Bear Creek Skate Park, looking to speak with everyone who was nearby when the girl disappeared from the park.

Meanwhile, detectives were called in to speak with the girl's family and friends in various parts of the county. Cops at the Southern Oregon High Tech Crimes Task Force in Central Point were given the girl's phone and computer to crack into to look for clues as to who she might have contacted in the hours leading up to her disappearance.

As this was happening, officers who received a tip the girl might have contacted some transients camping outside Talent were sent there to beat the bushes.

Detectives also fanned out to peek at surveillance videos posted outside nearby businesses. They hoped to catch a glimpse of the girl leaving the area, which would give them a direction of travel and possibly a suspect.

In addition, two FBI agents came to lend a hand in the search effort.

All this went down in a matter of hours after the initial report.

What began as a missing-persons report at a skate park blossomed into a multitiered search involving several agencies and volunteers from Jackson County Search and Rescue.

"You see, we don't know this person who went missing," Medford police Chief Tim George said. "We have to find out who they are, who are their families, what their home situation is like. There's a lot to do in those early hours of a missing-persons case."

The Medford Police Department investigates about 22 missing person cases per month. Many are closed within minutes of the initial report.

As Saturday's search stretched into the early-morning hours, concern grew among investigators.

During a briefing that night, George made the decision to call in more resources if the girl didn't turn up the next day.

The plan was to phone the FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team, who would come in from Portland to scour the county.

At this point, the department didn't know whether it was dealing with a runaway juvenile who fled home after a fight with her parents or something much worse.

No time to wait

It might seem excessive that one person's actions could spark a countywide search that would bring in federal agents from hundreds of miles away.

After all, stranger abductions of juveniles are exceedingly rare in the United States, according to retired Arlington, Texas, Detective Mark Simpson.

"There's only about 150 to 200 nationwide per year," Simpson said. "Usually, a child or a juvenile is abducted by someone they know."

Simpson has made missing youngster cases his life's work after he investigated the kidnap and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington. The girl's case made headlines in 1996 when she disappeared after going on a bike ride near her grandparents' home. Her body was discovered four days later in a drainage ditch in Arlington. The case was the genesis of the AMBER Alert system used by law enforcement across the country to track down abducted children.

Simpson, who retired from the force after 32 years, remains haunted by the Amber Hagerman case. He now gives presentations at law enforcement conferences and teaches classes on the best ways to investigate potential abduction cases.

The key, according to Simpson, is for law enforcement to keep its foot on the gas in the early hours after a juvenile is reported missing.

"Time is critical because studies have shown when murder was the end result of an abduction, the child is usually dead within three hours after disappearing," Simpson said.

This aggressive response was not always how it was done, Simpson said.

"There was a time when law enforcement did wait a day or two before they began a search," Simpson said. "Unfortunately, some children died because of this."

Friends and family of Kaelin Glazier, who was murdered in Ruch in 1996, have said that police at the time assumed the 15-year-old South Medford High School sophomore was a runaway who would return in time.

The girl's body was found in 2008, and William Frank Simmons, the last person to see Kaelin alive, according to prosecutors, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in her death.

Simpson's classes present such cases, wherein the details are sharply critiqued.

"We want to find out what went wrong and how that happened," Simpson said.

Jackson County sheriff's Capt. Monty Holloway said it's become policy among most law enforcement agencies to dive into missing-juvenile cases with the assumption that a serious crime might have occurred.

"We don't let the term 'runway' deter us from using all our available resources in the search," Holloway said. "You hit the ground running until you find the person."

Medford police Sgt. Josh Reimer said investigators sometimes face roadblocks from the juvenile's friends who don't want to get the person in trouble.

"But that's why we just keep talking to the people who know the person," Reimer said. "You just want to keep collecting information."

George said there is a balancing act when it comes to calling in resources such as the FBI team or issuing an AMBER Alert.

"You don't want to use these things without cause, because sooner or later people will stop paying attention to them," George said.

Finally, on Monday, a break in the case led officers to a home in Central Point where Starla Carrero was staying with a 19-year-old man, identified as Kody Liston.

Investigators were tipped onto Liston after speaking with people who knew Carrero.

Though the girl was found safe only a few miles from where she went missing, officers who worked the case feel that the resources put into her search were worth it.

"We'd put the same amount into it again tomorrow," George said.

Even though the girl was found unharmed, police say she was in a situation in which Liston had given her marijuana and hid her, knowing police were looking for her.

"This was not a good situation for this girl," Doney said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Authorities: Treat missing persons case as genuine article