Families put grief aside to find missing loved ones when police resources dry up

Updated April 06, 2019 13:54:26

Nikii Smith has spent almost three years scouring hundreds of kilometres of state forest for any signs of her father.

Key points:

  • Since her 77-year-old father disappeared almost three years ago, Nikii Smith has been searching for him in bushland with the help of volunteers
  • Advocacy group Leave a Light On Inc says there are more than 2,600 long-term missing person cases in Australia
  • The group says it’s common for families to take on investigations because there are not enough detectives

Ray Speechley, 77, escaped from a nursing home on the New South Wales far south coast home just a week after he was admitted with dementia in July 2016.

He was last seen walking with what was described as an “air of determination” along the Princes Highway north of Narooma, in the pouring rain.

Since then his daughter has been searching nearby bushland with crews of volunteers at every opportunity, in the hope of finding a clue that would lead to police renewing their investigations.

“I always thought that bones are white, you know, they are going to stand out. If he was out in the sun, he’d get bleached, but bones under wet canopy can either be brown, grey, or even green,” Ms Smith said.

It’s hardly the language you imagine using to describe a parent and Ms Smith said she has had to “turn off” her love in order to concentrate on finding her father.

Her first search was based on guidelines she found on a State Government website.

“And that’s the only thing that I’ve been able to get to help, other than me studying individual things myself — a written note on how to plan a search.

“It’s once the police don’t have a lead any more, you’re left in limbo and it’s up to the families to organise all of this kind of thing,” she said.

Since her father’s disappearance, she has studied the behaviour of dementia sufferers, bush search techniques and body decomposition.

“Things that I didn’t think I’d ever have to learn and wish I never had to. Learning about what happens with bones, that takes a bit of getting used to,” Ms Smith said.

“I have an A4 paper with their skeletons, with the names of all the bones, so we can make sure we have the right one, and [I’ve] pretty much got the idea of what the measurements should all be.”

Grief on hold and lives in limbo

Advocacy groups say it is all too common for families to take on the responsibility for investigations because of a lack of public money to resource more than 2,600 long-term missing person cases in Australia.

“With such a high number of cases, there are not enough detectives and enough support networks for these families and the missing person,” said Suzie Ratcliffe, who started support service Leave a Light On Inc with her late mother Kathleen to help families such as theirs.

Joanne Ratcliffe, then 11, and Kirste Gordon, 4, disappeared from Adelaide Oval in 1973.

South Australian Police renewed their investigation and dramatically increased an information reward after Suzie Ratcliffe demanded the case be released to a private investigator.

“There are a lot of families who are very disgruntled with the way investigations have been run over the years,” Ms Ratcliffe said.

Leave a Light On Inc is calling for specialist missing person units in every state and territory, automatic reporting of long-term missing persons to the national register, more cooperation between states and territories, and equity of information rewards.

“Quite often families are very upset that evidence has gone missing, suspects weren’t followed up, witnesses weren’t interviewed, calls to Crime Stoppers or police units weren’t followed up with and this causes a lot of heartache for families,” Ms Ratcliffe said.

She said it was particularly common in older cases, when police had less experience with missing people, but said it was still prevalent today.

“You struggle to be able to deal with this on an everyday basis, dealing with grief and anguish of losing a loved one in this sort of situation, but to have that added torment of doing things that realistically the police should be doing — it adds to that pain that you’re going through.”

Red or maroon car could be the missing link in Ray Speechley case

Last month, the NSW coroner asked police to renew their search for a red or maroon car, similar to a Honda Accord, that was seen parked on the Princes Highway close to the point where Mr Speechley was last seen.

“This should have been publicised not just locally, around the area where Ray went missing, not just with the state where Ray went missing, but nationally,” Ms Ratcliffe said.

It is thought the driver may have given Mr Speechley a ride north, or could have seen where he walked off the highway.

“This family has gone to hell and back, they’ve lived a nightmare of not knowing what happened to a beloved husband and father and all of this could have been out to rest two and a half, nearly three years ago,” she said.

Police said their investigations were continuing and they had renewed their appeal for information prior to a coronial inquest.

“Officers continue to liaise with relatives regarding investigations and ensure they are kept informed of any developments,” police said in a statement.

The ABC also approached NSW Police to respond to criticism about long-term missing person investigations, but they declined to comment.

Resources not utilised

Search dog organisations are one of the resources desperate families turn to for help.

But Chris Darcy, who runs registered charity organisation Search Dogs Sydney, said that he was frustrated the free service was “underutilised” by police.

“Our primary deployment is through the families who, once they have unfortunately reached a sheer state of desperation, will contact us to see if we can come in and assist,” he said.

Mr Darcy believes the search-and-rescue-trained canines, which differ from police dogs in that they can work in areas that have already been contaminated by other scents, could fill in the resource gap to assist the families of missing people

“The police are doing the best job that they are able to,” said Mr Darcy, who is also a member of other voluntary emergency agencies.

“That’s where agencies like ours are here to assist the police in boosting those capabilities, and that’s why we don’t charge, that’s why we volunteer to do what we do, and that’s to bring the loved one home.”

He said it would improve the chance of finding missing people alive, if search dog teams were brought in at the time of disappearance.

NSW Police said they were not in a position to comment.

In addition to its canine resources, Search Dogs Sydney uses a system pinpointing potential areas to search.

The system was designed by international missing person guru Robert Koester who analysed case files of long-term missing persons cases around the globe to compile a database of Lost Person Behaviour.

Topics: police, missing-person, alzheimers-and-dementia, government-and-politics, bega-2550, muswellbrook-2333, melbourne-3000, adelaide-5000, narooma-2546

First posted April 06, 2019 08:59:05

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