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Every day brings a new mystery for Tampa's missing

TAMPA — Wendy Mullins left her apartment about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 1, carrying her kitten. She waved goodbye to a neighbor and vanished.

A few hours later, her worried roommate called police.

It's a call Tampa police take more than 400 times each year.

Someone disappears. It could be an elderly Alzheimer's patient or an adult who simply wants a new start.

"Missing children, right away we're rolling out the canines," Maj. George McNamara said.

This time, it was a suicide.

A man on his way to work that Monday morning found Mullins under an outside stairway at east Tampa assisted-living facility, a block from her apartment on 21st Avenue. She had a faint pulse but died in the hospital.

Of the hundreds of people who disappear in Tampa each year, most are found safe.

A few remain missing, even for years. Sometimes, police find people too late.

When someone disappears, the call first goes to a Tampa patrol officer, who gathers information from relatives and friends, then calls hospitals and crisis centers.

A missing child is an immediate signal for canines and a search party.

Take the case of Jennifer Marteliz. A bubbly 7-year-old girl, Jennifer disappeared in 1982 from her family's Sulphur Springs neighborhood.

Police immediately brought tracking dogs, helicopters and volunteers to search. Her picture went up on billboards, grocery bags and milk cartons.

Even with all the efforts, she was never found.

In the case of a missing adult, the officer looks for signs of danger: suicide attempts, illness, drug abuse, evidence of foul play.

If someone has disappeared before, the officer looks up the person's ultimate destination and checks that place. "It should be done within a several-hour stretch, easily," McNamara said.

An alert goes out for other patrol officers. Missing children cases go to the family violence and sex crimes division. Missing adults go to homicide.

The files for adults land on the desk of investigator Michael Wirth, 49.

"He takes all these cases personally," McNamara said. "I'm only aware of a few cases of people who have not been located."

Wirth joined the department 26 years ago as a patrol officer.

In 1986, doctors told him he had a fatal brain tumor. He was given three months to live.

"I survived something that many doctors said is impossible," he said.

His experience gave him insight and empathy into people with troubles.

Earlier this year, he located a woman who disappeared from a Hyde Park counseling center. Her family lived out of the area. The woman was in her late 20s, struggling with alcohol and food issues.

When Wirth found her lying on a bench, he persuaded her to return with him to seek help.

The family was so ecstatic that Wirth received an award from the U.S. Senate.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

Every day brings a new mystery for Tampa's missing 04/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 5:18pm]
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