When you think about missing people in New York, you might remember high-profile cases like that of 6-year-old Etan Patz, who disappeared on his way to school one May morning in 1979. Maybe you also think of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism, whose disappearance was announced on every subway train until his remains were found months later in January, 2014.
But far more people go missing than you hear in the news. Last year, more than 13,000 people were reported missing in New York City. While the majority of these missing people were found within the first few hours, others disappeared, leaving behind family and friends who might never find out what happened to their loved ones.
The Missing, an investigation by students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, takes an in-depth look at some of New York City’s missing cases, delving into the system that handles these cases as well as the experiences of searching for the lost. Below is one story from their series, which recounts the disappearance earlier this year of a young man named Brian Gewirtz.
On a sunny day in April, Steve Gewirtz, a stout 54-year-old man with silver hair and brown eyes that often squinted behind his glasses, walks the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood with a mission: to make sure that his Marine Park neighbors remembered his son. His tools are few – packing tape, a staple gun and a stack of flyers that read: “Brian Gewirtz. Missing 2/17/15. Has special needs, autistic, diabetic.” At every street pole, he stops, picks up a flyer, staples.
In a makeshift command center nearby, Steve’s wife, Kathy made calls to local shelters, churches and soup kitchens. By 3 p.m., she and a volunteer had already stuffed more than a 100 envelopes with flyers.
It had been more than 40 days since their 20-year-old son, Brian, went missing, but Kathy and Steve believed he was safe somewhere, somehow.
“We haven’t had any bad news,” Kathy said that afternoon. “So since we haven’t had any bad news, we have to hope that he’s still alive and out there.”
According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012, nearly half of all children with autism are prone to wandering. Children will leave a safe environment, such as their homes or schools, to pursue an object or site of fascination. More than half of those prone to wandering, at some point, go missing long enough to cause concern.
Though children often return home safe, others are not as lucky. Because many children with autism have difficulty communicating and understanding danger, wandering can pose serious risks.
“The first few hours are crucial. That’s when the child is still aware of their surroundings, areas that they’ve been before,” said Michael Rosen, executive vice president of communications of Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization. “Once those hours are over, they’re lost or in danger.”
Kathy and Steve describe Brian as mild-mannered and gentle, the kind of boy who, at a birthday party, would notice the kid crying in the corner and offer him a cupcake. He had a booming belly laugh and, like the rest of the men in the Gewirtz family, loved the outdoors. He was an Eagle Scout – the highest rank attainable for a Boy Scout – and often talked about what it would be like to live in the wild. He was studying computer programming at Bramson ORT College, and was hoping to apply for work through Job Corps. Photos of him show a youthful, smiling man, with the hints of a beard growing along his chin.
Brian went missing on Feb. 17, a day when three inches of snow blanketed the streets and temperatures had dropped below freezing. He wore a black coat, a maroon and gray striped sweater, jeans and his winter boots, but had little else – his phone, which had broken the day before, his wallet and his ID all had been left at home.
Kathy and Steve, both pharmacists who work in Manhattan, were used to Brian going out for walks – it was something he did to calm his anxiety. He knew the neighborhood and would leave for hours at a time. But up until then, he had always returned.
When Brian still wasn’t home that evening, Kathy and Steve started worrying.
At around 10 o’clock that night, they called 911.
Last year, the New York City Police Department received more than 13,000 reports of missing people, an average of 35 reports a day.
Unless a missing person fits a certain criteria, police will do little to find the missing person in the first few hours, said Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former NYPD sergeant.
“Most people think that when someone goes missing, the police will do this whole big search, they’ll bring out the dogs and the helicopters. That’s not the case,” said Giacalone. “That’s only for special categories.”
Three types of people fall into the special categories: children under 13, people over 65 and people with a mental or physical condition that limits their ability for self care, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or autism.
In these cases, police are required under state and federal law to immediately investigate.
“You want to get on this thing immediately,” said Giacalone. “They could be in danger. It’s not a 24-hour wait here.”
But for the rest, especially people over 18, police merely take a report.
“Unless we can find some criminality that might have been afoot, there’s nothing we can do about it. We just file paperwork,” said Giacalone. “Because technically, when you’re over the age of 18, you don’t have to go home. The report gets filed, and you check back every now and then.”
Brian Gewirtz was 20. Technically, he wasn’t a child. But he had autism and needed medication to control his diabetes.
This was something that Kathy and Steve tried to emphasize when detectives from the 63rd Precinct, which covers Marine Park, came to take the report.
“I don’t think they realized the extent of my son’s illness because of his age,” said Kathy, 48. “I had to fight with them and say, listen, he has a disability. He’s been proven through Social Security to have a disability.”
The Gewirtzes describe the detective who came to their home as nonchalant and apathetic. “They were in the middle of changing shifts,” said Kathy. “They didn’t seem to care.”
An officer from the 63rd Precinct who requested anonymity said that police did mobilize a search. “We don’t usually do this, but the supervisor on the scene thought that it was warranted,” said the officer.
The NYPD has not responded to requests for comments on the search.
Organizations such as Autism Speaks offer guides for both first responders and parents on how to prevent wandering. In a first-responder toolkit created by the National Autism Association, the organization recommends law enforcement to “treat each case as CRITICAL.” [Ed. note: Emphasis from the National Autism Association.]
Yet many of these provisions come as warnings for children, even though experts have stated that age is often irrelevant in determining a person’s level of functioning. A 15-year-old with autism can have the cognitive function of a younger child, writes the association.
“One of the challenges we’re facing is that cases involving teens and adults [with autism] are not given the same level of attention or sense of urgency because of assumptions that they are better equipped to keep themselves from harm,” said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association.
“Training is needed for law enforcement agencies and first responders to help them understand that missing person cases involving individuals with cognitive disabilities should always be considered critical – regardless of the person’s chronological age.”
How the police responded to Brian’s case over the next few days – the time that is often the most crucial for a missing persons investigation – troubles the Gewirtz family.
“We were surprised by how little was being done in the first few days,” said Chris Gewirtz, Brian’s older brother. “Their policy was to not consider Brian a missing persons case until the eighth day. It felt backwards and insane.”
According to the family, they were assigned a detective from the Missing Persons Squad after the first eight days. The next week, that detective was replaced, said the family. After five and a half weeks, they were on their fourth detective.
While they waited for the police to respond, the Gewirtzes spearheaded their own efforts to find Brian. They relied on friends and neighborhood volunteers for help. They conducted searches of nearby parks, including nearby Marine Park and Floyd Bennett Field.
Even as the days passed, they did not lose hope.
“We won’t give up,” said Chris. “It doesn’t really make sense to give up when there’s still a possibility. It doesn’t make sense to stop when we don’t know where the end is.”
In early March, Kathy and Steve sought the assistance of Donnell Nichols and Marie Delus, members of New York City REACT Search & Rescue, a volunteer organization that assists in organizing searches,
Their temporary command center was former Councilman Lew Fidler’s office, just a few minutes away from their home. Plaques of appreciation and campaign messages lined the walls and a group of magnets spelled “TOYS” on the fridge. The majority of Kathy and Steve’s work lay on the tables: flyers, some translated into Yiddish, Spanish and Russian, with Brian’s photo.
By then, they had explored numerous leads: They had heard of sightings in Bensonhurst. They had searched parks throughout Brooklyn. There was a possibility that Brian was riding the subways or walking the streets.
“It’s just that everything is so unknown. It’s the part of not knowing that is difficult for the family,” said Kathy. “It feels like a funeral without the funeral, and until we get an answer, it’s like your whole life is put on hold.”
“All we have is hope,” she said. “Hope that’s he alive and out there.”
In the early hours of Thursday, April 2, Steve had a dream: He followed Brian into a room, where Brian and a group of men sat in the center, blindfolded. He heard a voice asking: “Are you ready to be anointed?” And Brian, blindfolded, stood up and said, “Yes.”
Steve and Kathy spent that day at home with Delus and Nichols, the volunteer search coordinators. They were planning searches for that weekend. That Saturday, they would go to Staten Island and spend the whole day searching. On Monday, they would go to Yonkers and look for Brian there.
At 4 p.m., Kathy and Steve received a phone call about an unidentified body found in Marine Park.
“Steve just ran out the door, thinking it could be Brian,” said Nichols, who was with the Gewirtzes at the time of the call. “I had to chase him and tell him that he couldn’t go to an active crime scene.”
He and Marie took the Gewirtzes to dinner that evening – to talk, calm their nerves, keep their minds clear. They even laughed a little.
On their way home, Nichols remembers turning the corner and seeing Kathy start to cry.
“Steve and I were behind her and asked ‘What happened?,'” said Nichols. “And then we looked, and we saw the detectives at the door.”
By the following afternoon, Chris, Brian’s brother, had identified the body as Brian. Brian had been found in a creek at the Marine Park Golf Course, just two miles away from the Gewirtz home.
I visited Kathleen and Steve on a clear day in their home in Marine Park, a week after Brian’s funeral. On an end table near the sofa, they had laid out photos of their son: him at his high school graduation, on vacation and at family events. One showed him scuba diving with his brother, Chris. A thick blue folder held letters congratulating on becoming Eagle Scout; at the very end was a signed photograph from President Obama.
Next to the folder was a copy of Flight Training magazine.
“He wanted to fly an airplane,” Steve told me. “We always imagined that he would get in the cockpit and he would fly off. He joked that he’d be the one person who could fly an airplane but wouldn’t know how to drive a car.”
The Gewirtzes will never know the cause of Brian’s death, though Nichols said the family was told there were no signs of foul play. In accordance with their Jewish faith, Kathy and Steve requested that the medical examiner not perform an autopsy.
Kathy and Steve are grieving, but they also have a mission: They want to create a law in Brian’s name, something that would help protect people with autism who go missing. “It wasn’t supposed to happen,” they both said at multiple points. “This could have been prevented.”
They don’t go to Lew Fidler’s office anymore, and there are no more flyers in the neighborhood. They’ve set up meetings with Senator Chuck Schumer to draft a law in Brian’s name. In the afternoons, they attend grief counseling sessions.
They also take bottles of soap bubbles outside and blow bubbles as a tribute to their son and his life. “Now, till the day that my wife and I leave, we’re going to blow bubbles. That was something suggested by the grievance counselors,” said Steve. “So, every night, we go out on the back porch, and we blow bubbles.”
To see more photos and hear audio from this story, go here.
The Missing: Searching for New York’s Lost
How The NYPD Handles Missing Persons Cases
Medical Examiner: After A Missing Person is Found Dead
Clearinghouse: Behind the Scenes Support
Private Investigators: Help Beyond Police
Social Media’s Role in Finding the Missing
Race and Gender: Media Bias in Coverage of Missing Persons?
AMBER Alert: Cure or thin Band-Aid
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