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'Missing in Florida Day' event at USF to draw attention to crisis of missing persons

TAMPA — More than 3,200 people are missing in Florida. Countrywide, that number tops 84,000.

But even that doesn't represent the true number of missing persons, experts say. Too often, cases go unreported, or they get mishandled, or erroneously closed. Meanwhile, more than 40,000 bodies have gone unidentified.

This crisis is called "the nation's silent mass disaster."

A new event at the University of South Florida this week hopes to bring attention to such cases, giving families a chance to file new reports in the hopes of cracking cases new and old.

Scientists, law enforcement agents and other experts will fill USF's Marshall Student Center for "Missing in Florida Day" on Saturday (Dec. 3). Similar events in other states have led to positive identifications.

The USF Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science is partnering with two dozen Florida law enforcement agencies for the event, as well as medical examiners and non-profits. Speakers will address the crowd, and experts will show families the ins and outs of tracing missing persons.

Speakers include USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who is also chair of the Cold Case Advisory Commission. The mother of a missing University of Florida student will also share her family's story.

Tiffany Sessions disappeared in 1989, and 25 years passed before her family learned who was responsible for her death. Her body was never found. Hilary Sessions, Tiffany's mother, now advocates for missing people like her daughter.

Throughout the day, law enforcement from central Florida will talk with families and attendees. They'll ask families for identifiers, such as fingerprints and dentals, that can help crack open cases.

Attendees can also expect safety tips for keeping autistic children and the elderly from getting lost, and information on how officials are fighting human trafficking in Florida.

Times staff writer Claire McNeill