To find more missing persons, send more alerts, Hillsborough sheriff says

After the death of Gabby Petito, the effort now includes more news releases, a web portal featuring nearly 100 people, a cold case unit and a podcast.
Cieha Taylor disappeared from Plant City on Feb. 6, 2020. Her car was found, still running, near railroad tracks. Nov. 16 was her 30th birthday.
Cieha Taylor disappeared from Plant City on Feb. 6, 2020. Her car was found, still running, near railroad tracks. Nov. 16 was her 30th birthday. [ Canitha Taylor ]
Published Nov. 26, 2021

TAMPA — Cieha Taylor should have been celebrating her 30th birthday last week.

Instead, for the second year in a row, her mother met that day with friends and family where the railroad tracks cross Trapnell Road in Plant City — the spot where her daughter’s black Toyota Solaris was found abandoned and running with her purse and cellphone inside on Feb. 6, 2020.

As cars whipped past, they lit candles, wept and prayed while listening to the haunting hymn Gracious Tempest by Hillside Young & Free. They couldn’t help but take another look around the wooded roadside, searching for anything that might have been missed during two years of searches.

“We went over every scenario and every possibility we can think of in our heads and still are coming up with nothing,” said the missing woman’s mother, Canitha Taylor. “The detectives have followed up from tips called in, saying they saw someone who resembled Cieha or they thought it was her, that have led to nothing.”

Related: A look at 25 Tampa Bay names in the national missing persons database

As weeks turn to months with no news, the family has added $10,000 to the CrimeStoppers rewards for tips on Cieha’s whereabouts. Adding to the pain is the national attention generated by the disappearance in September of Gabby Petito, found slain in Utah. Suicide was suspected in the death later of her North Port boyfriend.

“We didn’t get that,” Canitha Taylor said. “We didn’t get all that attention, all the coverage that helped find their daughter in just eight days while mine is still gone. We asked the FBI to come in, and they didn’t.”

The Petito case, involving a young white victim who shared online the couple’s cross-country journey, prompted a debate about priorities in missing persons cases. It also has prompted a change in the way at least one local law enforcement agency asks for help in finding them.

Florida law dictates how to deal with established categories of missing persons — “endangered,” “Silver Alert” or “runaway” for example. But Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office is stepping up the attention it brings to people in all categories, especially those whose cases are growing cold.

“This is about justice for the families of these victims,” Chronister said. “Too many of them have grown up without a parent, brother, sister or friend. They deserve answers, and we won’t stop until we are able to give them that.”

Since Chronister took office in 2017, his office has worked to revamp its online missing persons portal. The page now includes headshots, a rough timeline and additional details for every missing persons report the office receives. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has since established a similar portal.

As of last week, 92 people missing since as far back as the 1970s were listed on the Hillsborough portal.

In addition, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office has dramatically increased the number of missing persons alerts it sends to local news organizations, no longer limiting them to those classified as endangered, said spokesperson Crystal Clark.

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“We noticed that news outlets were asking more about these cases and not referencing the HCSO website for the information,” Clark said. “In an effort to make it easier for those inquiring about these cases, we have been sending press releases this week, in addition to posts on our public website, to test if the flow of information will work better this way.”

It’s a massive undertaking that requires added staff time while risking “information overload.” Each major local law enforcement agency receives hundreds of missing persons reports each year, and Clark admits “it is unclear at this time if this new process will continue.”

In the last week of October, before the agency’s November push, the Sheriff’s Office fielded 51 missing persons reports and sent news releases about three of them. The following week, the agency sent 29 news releases.

No other local agency has taken this step yet, largely limiting their news releases to the Amber Alerts issued for missing children and the Silver Alerts issued for missing older people. Cases are added at the discretion of public information officers and supervisors, according to agencies’ standard operating procedures.

Missing persons also figure into Chronister’s creation in August of the agency’s first Cold Case Unit, dedicated to bringing closure to some 240 unsolved cases dating back decades. The unit reviews cases, resubmits evidence for testing, re-interviews witnesses and seeks out new details that could bring about a resolution.

At the same time, the Sheriff’s Office is producing a podcast series launched in 2020 and titled Unfinished Business, with each 10- to 20-minute episode featuring a missing person or unsolved homicide.

The 16 episodes released so far have been downloaded more than 13,300 times from listeners across the U.S. as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

The first episode featured Cieha Taylor. Lead Detective Joseph Florio describes his frustration, noting that every homicide detective in the office has helped in the search and saying, “Of all the cases I’ve worked prior to this, we’ve had some type of resolution to them. Unfortunately in this case we still have not found Cieha Taylor.”

Many experts say real progress in finding more missing persons will only come when law enforcement modernizes its online databases of cases. Florida agencies must report missing persons to the broader National Crime Information Center and to the Florida Crime Information Center — both slammed by forensics experts and others as largely unavailable to the public and fragmented in their reporting requirements.

One potential step forward is a proposal introduced in the state Legislature last week requiring Florida agencies to join the federally funded National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. Ten states already have imposed the requirement. The sponsor is state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Palm Beach Democrat.

The free online portal is accessible to both law enforcement and the general public. Anyone can post photos of missing or unidentified persons as well as DNA information. As of last week, the NamUs website was tracking more than 21,000 missing persons and nearly 14,000 unidentified persons nationwide. Florida accounted for 906 of the unidentified persons and 1,574 of the missing persons on the site.

Among backers of the Florida push is nationally known forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida; cold case investigators at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, who have long used the NamUs database; and Gabby Petito’s father, Joseph.

Missing person tips

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of a missing person can call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-8200 or Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay at 800-873-TIPS.