In the past year, more than two dozen Tampa Bay residents have been added to a federal public database for missing people.
Among them: a Hernando County woman who disappeared a day before she was to meet with prosecutors about a man she said attacked her, and a Valrico woman who said she was going to a Tampa casino with friends and never came back. Teenage runaways and adults with reported episodes of mental illness also show up in searches.
In the weeks since the highly publicized disappearance and death of Florida resident Gabby Petito, there has been increased discussion around all cases of missing people and questions over why others received far less public scrutiny.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed all available public records on the 25 locals who were added in the past 12 months to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System run by the National Institute of Justice. Eight have been found alive. Two were found dead. The others remain missing.
Those names don’t account for everyone reported missing to police in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties in that time. Those calls number in the thousands, and the vast majority of cases are closed in days or hours. Tampa police, for example, received 1,823 missing person calls this year as of Oct. 5. Almost all returned on their own or were found within three days, a spokesperson said.
Names are usually added to the federal public database after police have exhausted all leads or when investigators want to share dental records and DNA swabs from family members in case a body turns up.
The 25 locals on the list provide a look at the varying circumstances around missing people and how law enforcement officials investigate them.
More than half are male. Ten are listed as Black, two as Asian and two as Latino. Ten were under 18 when they went missing.
A handful made it into the news after their disappearances. Others, including some considered runaways or who are suspected of having killed themselves, have gotten less public attention.
In August 2020, a Hudson teenager disappeared out of the window of a friend’s house hours after being picked up by deputies as a runaway.
A Pasco County sheriff’s investigator searched for months, sent a subpoena to Facebook and pinged the girl’s phone. They tracked down a man rumored to be her boyfriend and parsed cryptic texts she’d sent to friends with the names of people to blame “if anything happens to me.” Nothing. She was added to the database.
Ten months later, the girl surfaced. She told deputies she’d hitched a ride to St. Petersburg, lied about her age, rented a room off Craigslist and worked an under-the-table job at a family restaurant. Employees there saw her “missing” flyer on Facebook and discovered she was 17. Confronted, she went home.
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Many missing person cases in Tampa Bay are classified as juvenile runaways, including all 10 children listed in the national database in the past year. The Tampa Police Department said about two-thirds of the more than 900 missing person cases it’s handled this year fall into that category.
Florida law considers any missing child “endangered,” no matter the circumstances.
“There’s a big misconception in the public that runaways aren’t in danger because they chose to leave,” said John Bischoff, vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “The bottom line is a child is not where they’re supposed to be. They’re all at risk.”
In 2020, about 365,000 of the 600,000 missing people tracked in an FBI database were children, but most were found relatively quickly. About 30,000 were gone long enough for the Center For Missing and Exploited Children to produce a flyer.
Bischoff said data suggests as many as one in six may be involved in sex trafficking. That makes it imperative to keep missing children’s cases in the public eye, even many months later.
Experts say children in the midst of custody changes or in foster care are at higher risk for going missing, as are those with a history of running away from home. Seven of the Tampa Bay children added to the national database in the past year were recently adopted or in foster care; at least nine of the 10 had run away before.
One 16-year-old St. Petersburg girl who was found after being added to the federal database had run away from a group home in June 2020. She first stayed with an adult boyfriend, she later told police, then lived with a female friend until that friend suggested she have sex in exchange for marijuana.
Others remain missing, including 14-year-old Quintyn Robinson, who disappeared in February. He’d been removed from his Tampa home last October after his mother’s boyfriend was arrested for fatally beating Quintyn’s younger brother. His mother told the Times he’d run away 20 times.
Missing adults not always mysterious
Keyonna Cole was 27 when she disappeared from Brooksville in 2019. Three months earlier, her partner was arrested on charges of attempted murder, accused of choking Cole, then five months pregnant, and causing her to miscarry.
Cole had an appointment at the state attorney’s office Feb. 11 of that year to discuss the case, but she never arrived. She was last seen at 11 o’clock the night before, walking from a friend’s house. She was added to the national database in 2020.
A family member said Cole, who has a 3-year-old son, had been afraid to testify against her ex, who was out on bail at the time of her disappearance. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him earlier this year, citing a lack of evidence.
The stories behind the adults on the list run the gamut. Some disappear after a suspected accident or suicide. Some have a history of mental illness.
Edward Brunt III, 41, left New Port Richey to go spearfishing with friends last September, on a morning when the forecast said bad storms were coming. Brunt went underwater and never surfaced. His friends searched until the weather turned ugly, then the Coast Guard took over but didn’t find him.
Gary Litaker, 54, walked off toward a Brooksville park after threatening to hurt himself when a relationship ended. His body was found in the woods eight months later. Because he was already listed in the database and investigators had sent in a DNA swab from a family member, his remains were positively identified several weeks later.
Seven others on the list also said they would harm themselves before they went missing — including two men in their 20s whose cars were found abandoned atop the Sunshine Skyway bridge — but not all the cases ended tragically.
Michael Brooks’ family feared the worst after they found his pickup truck abandoned in south Hillsborough County with his phone and a note inside detailing his wish to be buried in the yard of his childhood home. Investigators visited his friends’ homes in two counties and searched by helicopter but had no leads on the 50-year-old man for five months.
Then a Tampa officer encountered Brooks, alive and well, while responding to a disturbance call near the Sulphur Springs Water Tower. Even in a digital age, when investigators can scour social media, dig up IP addresses and ping phones for their location, Brooks was one of six on the list who was able to disappear for months undetected until police stumbled upon them by chance.
All missing person cases are investigated to some degree. At the least, the person’s name is entered into the FBI National Crime Information Center, a private database that every law enforcement officer in the country can access. But the cases that are publicized, either on the agencies’ own social media pages or on the news, often involve an “endangered” person, meaning someone with physical or mental illness or who appears to be the victim of a crime.
Scott Kurland, 49, arrived home in the middle of the night, soaking wet, and told his wife he’d baptized himself in a lake. She’d been researching Florida’s Baker Act, which allows a third party to request emergency mental health services for people who can’t or won’t do it voluntarily, after Kurland told her he’d been talking to angels, records say. But she could not prevent him from leaving again soon after. His car was later discovered abandoned on a Wesley Chapel road. He has never been found.
At least three people on the list had no permanent address. A Tampa police spokesperson said that’s fairly common with missing person cases because transient people can be hard to reach.
Shann Massey, 48, was described as homeless by Tampa police, but he called his family regularly. He spoke to them shortly after his release from a hospital in August 2020, but they called police when he fell silent soon after.
Seven months later, a woman bringing a prospective buyer to see a motor home she’d left at a Seminole Heights RV park found the skeleton of a stranger inside. It was Massey. A pack of cigarettes was on a table, and a nearby sandwich still in the wrapper was dated Aug. 20, the day Massey went missing, according to a police report.