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At Issue: Helping to find missing adults

Published (4/17/2009)
By Mike Cook
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Dale and Sally Zamlen, parents of missing University of St. Thomas freshman Dan Zamlen, testify April 15 before the House Finance Committee in support of a bill that would implement procedures for investigating missing adult cases. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)The last anyone heard from University of St. Thomas freshman Dan Zamlen earlier this month was “Oh God, Oh God” before his phone cut out.

Brandon Swanson’s car got stuck in a ditch near Taunton along the Lincoln and Lyon county line in southwest Minnesota on May 14, 2008. As his parents were on their way to help, the cell phone connection went dead at 3:10 a.m.

Neither young man has been seen or heard from since.

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall), HF1242 may help create a quicker response in future cases. “We have hundreds and hundreds of missing person adult cases in Minnesota. … The No. 1 job of us is to protect public safety.”

Awaiting action on the House floor, the so-called “Brandon’s Law” would expand the state’s missing children’s law to include adults who go missing under dangerous circumstances. A companion, SF1146, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Frederickson (R-New Ulm), awaits action on the Senate floor.

“It makes changes in laws that will make big changes for anguished family members who are missing adult children,” Seifert told the House Finance Committee April 15, noting that he worked with law enforcement representatives to create the bill’s language. There is no fiscal impact on the state budget.

The bill would require law enforcement to take a missing persons report without delay after notification of someone missing under dangerous circumstances, no matter the missing person’s age; immediately conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if the person is missing, and whether the person is endangered; and promptly notify all other law enforcement agencies of the situation.

It also spells out information that must be released to the missing person’s family; clarifies that the agency taking the report be the lead agency in the investigation; and suggests resources law enforcement could put into its policies for missing persons.

“Missing children must be entered into the National Crime Information Center, while reporting missing adults is voluntary,” Brian Swanson told the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee March 12. “This is where ‘Brandon’s Law’ steps in.”

Choking back tears, Annette Swanson said that local authorities were informed of her son’s disappearance three hours after the cell phone connection ended, but because Brandon was 19, no help was immediately provided. Following a one-day search that began later that day, she said authorities told her to go home, and they would call when more was known.

“I was in total shock and disbelief at that moment,” she said.

The Zamlens said the immediate response from St. Paul Police after her son’s April 5 disappearance was not much better.

Sally Zamlen said she and her husband, Dale, sped to the scene from their Iron Range home, and for the first five hours they were at the location Dan was last heard from, the police were not. She said police refused to go down the bluff along the Mississippi River to search for their son, and an officer later stood guard to make sure nobody else did.

It wasn’t until two days later that Sally Zamlen first met with a missing persons investigator and bloodhounds began to search. “They should have been out there Sunday afternoon,” she said.

Noting his son disappeared around 2:30 a.m. and his phone did not go dead until six hours later, Dale Zamlen said if the initiative had been taken right away, the authorities might have gotten a cell phone signal or been able to check his phone records.

“That thing is a key piece of evidence,” he said. “These people that have the opportunity to go out and look and use these resources, their hands are tied. They followed the letter of the law.”

The bill suggests that when an agency updates its missing person policies, it consider the use of subpoenas or search warrants for electronic and wireless communication devices, computers and Web sites.

“It will encourage police departments to seek warrants for cell phones and other electronic devices as soon as possible,” Seifert said. “We have situations where cell phones have pinging devices. … With the battery life on cell phones being rather brief at times, time is of the essence in taking missing persons reports. If we can get law enforcement on the case and expedite the warrant, we potentially can locate people by zone through cell phone devices.”

Sally Zamlen said that even though her son’s phone account was in her name, she was unable to immediately retrieve his phone records. “Here I am, paying the bill, thinking I’m doing my kid a favor by giving him this phone, and I’m told that I have no access to that because he’s 18.”

A working group would be established, under the bill, to create a standardized form for law enforcement to use when taking a missing persons report, and to develop “a model policy that incorporates standard processes, procedures, and information to be provided to interested persons regarding developments in a missing person case.”

The Jon Francis Foundation has agreed to pay the approximate $10,000 cost for the working group.

An avid mountain climber and Stillwater native, Francis, 24, was missing for more than a year in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, before his remains were found on July 24, 2007.

His father, David, also spoke to the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee March 12. He said that “a 29-hour hasty search” was conducted, before the local sheriff told him, “You need to give your son up to the mountain. They packed up and rode out of town.” The Francis family and others continued to search.

For family members and loved ones, Dan Francis said an unsuccessful search results in grief, deep despair, heartache, hopelessness, helplessness and abandonment.

“Good policy generally leads to good outcomes. Good laws encourage the kind of good behavior that we need when it comes to finding missing persons. … ‘Brandon’s Law’ will help relieve human suffering and unresolved loss.”

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