The Missing, Linked

Annual Michigan event helps families and friends revive their loved ones’ unsolved cases

On May 24, 1990, Paige Renkoski’s car was found running on the side of I-96. The lights were on. Her purse and shoes were inside. But no Paige.

Several passers-by remember seeing Paige that day with a maroon minivan parked behind her Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais. There’d been a man there, talking to her on the side of the road.

Paige hasn’t been seen since.

Nearly 26 years later, the search for Paige, who was 30 when she disappeared, continues. And while there are plenty of ways in which her mother, Ardis, wishes Paige’s case would have gone differently in the beginning, she’s glad to see how the handling of missing persons cases has changed.

“They come to the public eye so much quicker now than they used to,” Renkoski says. “It’s something that, in the last 10 years, has become much more effective.”

Missing persons cases now get into the public eye through Amber Alerts, Facebook posts, and other forms of social media. But that doesn’t mean that plenty of cases — dozens — still go unreported or slip through the cracks of law enforcement every year. That’s part of the reason why the Michigan State Police, which has roughly 4,100 missing persons cases on file, began hosting its annual Missing in Michigan event (aka Missing Persons Day) in 2011.

Detective Sgt. Sarah Krebs founded the event and now heads up the Michigan State Police’s missing persons department. She says it’s not at all uncommon for older cases to go forgotten, especially as departments, personnel, and technologies change.

“There’s so many cases out there that have slipped through the cracks, and the families don’t even realize it,” Krebs says. “They think, ‘Hey, I went to my local law enforcement agency back in 1983 and I reported it, and they’re still looking.’ Odds are, they’re not. That’s the harsh reality of it.”

To fix that, Missing Persons Day gathers state police, county officials, and search and rescue departments to create what Krebs describes as an “actual, functioning, command post of law enforcement.”

Families are encouraged to cycle through a series of stations where they can submit new missing persons reports or have older ones re-checked. Police and other agencies update cases in their databases and collect valuable information from family members: photos, police reports, dental records, and biometrics, including DNA, which can be especially important in missing persons cases.

“If my sister was found, or if I didn’t have a missing person, I would continue to go to these events.”—Dee Dee Jawhari

To date, Krebs’ department, which oversees Missing Persons Day, has solved nearly 50 cases. At the 2014 event, they helped a Detroit family get closure about the fate of a loved one missing since 1988.

After Krebs and her team collected DNA samples from the missing girl’s mother, they found a match.

“We pretty much could draw a line to our unidentified remains list that day and say, ‘There she is,’” Krebs says. “It’s sad, but we were also able to give that mother those answers.”

Recognizing the benefits of the event, law enforcement agencies in at least five other states now host Missing Persons Days modeled after Michigan’s.

But as much as Missing Persons Day allows for law enforcement to interact with families, it’s also an opportunity for families to connect with each another. The event, which has been held in Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Flint, and its current home, Detroit, provides a much-needed outlet for those in the midst of a frightening and frustrating situation. Having attended Missing Persons Day every year, Renkoski can attest to its importance.

“It’s amazing what a bond there is,” Renkoski says. “You hardly have to explain anything to one another because we all know.”

DeeDee Jawhari, whose sister went missing in 2009, says she’s been grateful for the connections that the event provides, having participated at Missing Persons Day in 2011 and 2015.

“If my sister was found, or if I didn’t have a missing person, I would continue to go to these events,” Jawhari says. “It’s a community. We’re like this little family now.”

Collaboration among family members and law enforcement is key to solving a case, but it’s dedication from both parties that often sees an investigation through to its end. And although few cases linger long in the public eye, there are those that law enforcement themselves can never seem to shake.

“Over the years, I’ve had so many different detectives,” Renkoski says. “They all pretty much felt the same way. They said, ‘We keep a picture of Paige on our desk and every morning we go in and say, ‘Good morning, Paige, maybe today will be the day.’ ”

Missing Persons Day will be held May 14 at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, 1301 Third St., Detroit.