Fresno, Calif. - Every year thousands of people are reported missing from the Fresno area. We wanted to know how these cases are handled and if the strategies are working to bring lost loved ones home? Right now about 80% of the missing persons cases in Fresno County are in the hands of detectives at the Fresno Police Department. The three investigators working in the FPD missing persons unit give us a look at how they close many of those cases and the challenges they face.
"There's really no boundaries. You're not sure what direction to go in. We don't have crime scene tape, we don't have a suspect, we don't have a victim. We have a person that like the old cliché just vanished into thin air," said Sgt. George Wilson of the Fresno Police Department's Missing Persons Unit.
Sergeant Wilson and his detectives face one of the biggest challenges in law enforcement, tracking down roughly 3,000 people who are reported missing in Fresno every year.
"From watching TV people think we have the capability to just put in a name and it gives us a spot on the map and that's just not the way it is," said Detective Paul Hill.
The workload for this trio is staggering. State law enforcement numbers show there are currently 20,000 active missing persons cases in the State of California. One thousand of those cases are based in Fresno County, 800 of them are currently in the hands of the Fresno Police Department.
"I think success is defined as one case at a time, granted we get a high volume of cases, but each time a person is located and we're able to close out a case that's a success," said Sgt. Wilson.
So far this year 4,200 missing persons cases have been reported in Fresno County. Fresno Police Department detectives report they've solved 3,200 of those.
One of those cases involved at risk adult Eustacia Gonzalez who went missing after escaping a dental appointment near Cedar and Shields. Her sister Esther describes the chaos when Eustacia went missing.
"My brain is going 100 miles an hour, what am I gonna do? I know the cops are going to do their part, the detectives are going to do their part, but what am I going to do? That's my sister and nobody is going care the way I do and the way the family cares," said Ester Leifsson about the case.
Esther took to social media and passed out flyers as police activated their code red alert system sending messages via text, phone call, and email to area residents.
"It's a very valuable tool because the word really got around. Everybody, everybody saw it," said Leifsson.
Eventually construction workers led officers to an abandoned apartment where Eustacia was found inside unharmed, putting an end to an emotional four hour search.
"I didn't know how to react. I was mad, I was happy, my emotions were mixed," said Leifsson.
This all unfolded in the City of Fresno, but sometimes the locations can make cases more complicated. Last week a Fresno woman in her 70's Vickie Cortez crashed her vehicle into a wooded area near Oakhurst. A silver alert was issued, notifying everyone in the area that an at risk senior was missing.
"Up until today I had never heard of a silver alert and I think that's what's important," said Karen Cortez the sister in-law of Vickie.
Multiple law enforcement agencies worked for 12 hours to find her, needing help from an eye in the sky. Eventually Vickie's vehicle was pulled out of the ravine. Her family is thankful she's now home recovering.
"We weren't sure how this was going to end," said Rene Cortez, another sister in-law of Vickie's. "Thank God for the Helicopter because they were able to see the crash site."
While these two cases were solved in a matter of hours, there are still dozens of open missing persons cases at Fresno Police Department that could take years, but detectives won't give up.
"We're always doing some type of follow up to find this person," said Sgt. Wilson.
Stranger abductions are very rare in Fresno. Detectives say most cases that are suspicious involve someone the victim knows. A large number of cases police handle are runaways, but investigators still dedicate resources to these cases because they can't assume anyone is a runaway until they contact the missing person themselves.