Cook County sheriff launches Missing Persons Project to solve disappearances from long ago
Experts say that after the first three days someone has gone missing, the chances of finding that person begin to drop significantly.
If that's true, locating someone gone three years or more seems almost an impossibility. That's the mission for the detectives assigned to a new initiative launched this week by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
The Missing Persons Project will have three investigators working full time to locate people who vanished from Cook County three or more years ago. There are 170 of those cases on the team's list -- the oldest dates to 1930 -- but for now, the focus is on some of the more recent disappearances.
"Our goal is to help the families," Dart said at a news conference Wednesday to announce the project. "The families who have had their hearts torn out. The families who have thought at any moment their loved one is going to walk through that door. Our hope is that some of these cases we're going to resolve, so the family will finally have the resolution they never had."
Among those families is that of Viola Martin, who disappeared Dec. 26, 2009, after leaving her daughter's home in South suburban Glenwood to visit another daughter nearby. Her car was found abandoned four days later near Dixmoor, but she remains missing.
Martin's case will be one of the first the Missing Persons Project will tackle. Her daughter, Angela Martin Fields, attended Wednesday's announcement.
"Our mother, Viola Martin, has been missing for 11 years, and it has been the hardest 11 years that my sisters, my family, has had to face," she said.
Fields described her mom, who was 56 years old when she vanished, as loving, caring and the most genuine person you will ever meet.
"She has great grandkids that she hasn't met yet. And it's time for us to find her," she said. "Whatever it is, we need closure, but we're hoping for the best."
Experts in the field
Dart said his office has expertise in missing persons cases in part through its work identifying previously unknown victims of John Wayne Gacy and locating missing people who were thought to be victims of the suburban serial killer. Since reopening the Gacy case in 2011, the sheriff's office has closed more than a dozen such cases, including those of Gacy victims, victims of other killers and missing people who are still alive.
"Most people focus on just the individuals we identified as (Gacy victims), but we found five or eight people who family members thought were missing but were alive all this time," Dart said. "When we started working on the Gacy case, it literally was focused on just the six individual victims that were not identified, but it expanded into this much bigger thing."
Dart said his team is willing to work with any other county police department to solve a case, or take over if that department thinks it's exhausted all its leads. The project also includes a website, www.cookcountysheriff.org/person, where the public can go to learn more about the cases and provide any information they may have.
"Our strong hope is that we are going to be able to periodically talk to (the public) about individuals that we have been able to find, but that is going to be incumbent upon not just the hard work of our detective but the work of the public to give us tips and give us information that they may have in regards to somebody," Dart said.
Principal's conviction reversed
Ruling that a Kane County judge misinterpreted the law in reaching a guilty verdict, a state appeals court this week reversed the conviction of a former Aurora elementary school principal who didn't report allegations a student had been abused.
Matthew Willigman of Geneva was found guilty in late 2019 of violating the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. The misdemeanor charge stemmed from his tenure as principal at O'Donnell Elementary School and his failure to call the Department of Children and Family Services abuse hotline after a parent told him a 9-year-old had been touched inappropriately by a school social worker.
In a later interview with police, Willigham said he had assumed DCFS already had been notified and that his own investigation found no evidence to support the claim. DCFS later determined the accusation to be unfounded.
Despite that determination, Kane County Judge Michael Noland found Willigham guilty in December 2019, ruling that he had a legal duty to report the accusation regardless. Willigham, who had resigned from O'Donnell about three months earlier, was sentenced to a month of court supervision.
In a unanimous decision handed down Tuesday, justices tossed the conviction and ordered a new trial. They sided with Willigham's argument that Nolan misapplied state law to find him guilty.
According to the appellate court, a mandated reporter -- like a teacher, doctor or police officer -- must contact DCFS when they have "reasonable causes to believe" that a child has been abused. Requiring that every accusation be reported, regardless of its credibility, would "divert valuable resources from allegations that need immediate attention," Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok wrote.
"Other courts have held that mandated reporters have the discretion to determine whether a report is warranted and explained that such discretion should be limited to ensuring that something more than a mere allegation of abuse exists, to rule out 'assertions that are impossible, utterly fantastic, plainly fabricated, or made only in jest,'" she said.
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