Thousands of Californians vanish, few get media attention
April 18, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — We remember their faces. We know them by first name.
Laci. Chandra. Polly.
For months, their stories dominated the news.
Polly Klaas smiled and romped in family videos. Chandra Levy dated a congressman. Laci Peterson was a few weeks away from giving birth.
But thousands of Californians vanish each year, far from the glare of the media spotlight. As of Dec. 31, 2001, more than 35,000 adults — 19,785 men and 15,357 women — were listed in the state Justice Department’s missing persons database. Of those, more than 4,300, or about 12 percent, disappeared under unknown or suspicious circumstances.
Additionally, 98,588 children statewide were missing. But the vast majority of those, more than 95,000, were runaways.
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In Modesto, Peterson’s hometown, at least 10 other women are missing. Several of those, like Susan Bender, disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
Bender, 33, was last seen getting into a green van at the Greyhound bus station. Ruth Leamon, 37, went to a Modesto store for a Coke and never returned.
Why they failed to became household names is a complicated question, said Marc Klaas, an outspoken child advocate whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.
“Pretty white girls get the attention first,” he said.
Next, you need drama to capture and hold on to media focus. In the Peterson case, “She’s beautiful, he’s beautiful. On the surface, it’s the ideal American nuclear family. Everyone’s an up-and-comer. They’ve got big smiles on their faces. It’s the holidays and evil descends from nowhere and Laci disappears,” Klaas said.
Police and media attention quickly focused on husband Scott Peterson, who said he was fishing when his wife disappeared on Christmas Eve.
It all makes Nancy Ekelund angry.
Her 22-year-old daughter, Lynsie, disappeared from their Placentia home on Feb. 16, 2001. Her story has appeared in the newspaper “maybe three times,” she said.
Ekelund refuses to move or change her phone number. Lynsie’s room is intact — posters on the wall, dirty clothes in the hamper.
She wrote a cookbook and raised $22,000 to “put in the hand of somebody who helps to find her,” Ekelund said. But police have no leads, she said. The detective investigating the case did not return a call seeking comment.
A neighbor invited Ekelund over for Easter dinner this weekend, but she won’t go because she wants to stay near the phone in case her daughter calls. Lynsie doesn’t know her cell phone number.
Ekelund lost her job last year because she was unwilling to relocate to company headquarters out of state.
Last month, when Elizabeth Smart was found in a Salt Lake City suburb, nine months after she was snatched at knifepoint from her bedroom, Ekelund sent the family a congratulatory e-mail. But inside, she seethed.
“My daughter is just as important as any other missing person out there,” she said. “I should’ve been happier for Elizabeth Smart’s family, but in my heart, I asked: ‘Why couldn’t it have been me?”‘ She pauses, choking down tears.
“I want something good to happen to my daughter.”