May 10, 2016

With One Tragic Exception, All UT Missing Persons Have Been Found Quickly

Reporting Texas



All missing persons reported at the University of Texas at Austin over the past decade have turned up safe and sound.

That was the case, at least, until April 5, when Haruka Weiser, a freshman theater and dance student, was found dead in a campus creek nearly a day after her roommates told the police they were concerned about her whereabouts.

Almost every missing person case on campus involved students who had failed to tell their roommates or friends that they would be staying elsewhere overnight, according to UT Police Department Chief David Carter. Weiser, however, had texted a roommate that she was on her way home the Sunday night she was killed, according to the arrest affidavit.

After her body was found, UT police said that most missing people turn up safe. In fact, over 10 years, university police have investigated 45 official missing persons reports, according to records obtained after Reporting Texas submitted a public information request – and all of the people were found.

“The vast majority of cases involve students who have gone some other place or changed plans,” Carter said. “A lot of times, we’ll be dealing with cases where a student may have gone to party downtown or something along those lines and got separated from their friends.”

Almost all missing persons reports start with concerned calls about a friend or relative, and most involve students who don’t know where their friends are, Carter said. UT police immediately calls hospitals, jails and friends of the reported missing person. Many people think police wait 24 hours before taking action, but Carter said that’s a myth. If the police are still unclear about the person’s location after they’ve made their calls, they report the disappearance to state authorities, and the information is added to a missing persons database.

Weiser was never an official missing person because when the police started looking for her, Carter said, police already had “some indication” that foul play was involved. However, Carter said the department followed all missing persons protocols before handing the case over to Austin police.

Kenna Quinet, associate professor of criminal justice, law and public safety at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said missing persons cases rarely are homicides.

“Missing college students are like lots of other missing person cases,” Quinet said. “Most of them are resolved successfully and happily. It was a miscommunication, a fight, something that turns out well. It’s very rare that a missing persons case turns into a homicide case.”

In typical cases involving missing students, police are usually able to locate the person within 24 hours, according to Carter.

UTPD is trying to determine how it can use social media as a tool when searching for missing persons, he said.

“It’s real important to share information with us if you think you have it,” he said. “In general, we still struggle with the thought that the student community communicates in a modern media world … The police are rapidly trying to get their hands around that.”

Jerrie Dean, founder of Missing Persons of America, which operates a website for people to post information about missing people, said she understands why students might not tell their friends their locations.

“At that point, you’re an adult,” Dean said. “A lot of times you take off, and you don’t think you need to tell anybody anything.”

Since most cases don’t amount to anything serious, police may run into problems when a person is legitimately missing, Quinet said.

“Missing persons cases are very difficult for [police departments] because initially in the first few hours, these cases are similar to cases that are resolved quickly,” she said. “It’s only after a few hours of investigation that we begin to realize there’s foul play.”