Francie Latour’s Article “Without A Trace” Wins the NABJ Salute to Excellence Award
Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. is elated to congratulate Francie Latour, whose Ebony Magazine article about Phyllicia Barnes, the African American teen who disappeared in 2010 while visiting her father in Baltimore during Christmas break, and the lack of media attention missing persons of color receive, was awarded the NABJ 2012 Salute to Excellence Award. Her article made more people aware of the Phylicia Barnes case, and it also brought our organization into the limelight, which, in turn, helps us to find more of the missing.
In celebration of Francie, we share her article with you in today’s blog. Please read, enjoy and share with others!
“Without A Trace” by Francie Latour
On Jan 12, 1994, at 9:49 a.m., Phylicia Simone Barnes came into the world making a powerful statement with her tiny fists. Reaching into the air in an Atlanta hospital room, her mother remembers, the newborn latched onto a pair of scissors the doctor held to cut the umbilical cord. And she didn’t let go. “She had her grip right in the holes of those scissors,” says 45-year-old Janice Sallis, who lives in Atlanta. “It’s like she was saying, ‘It’s not time for me to be cut from my mommy right now.’”
This year, on Wednesday, Jan. 12, Phylicia’s birthday passed in torturous silence. The 17-year-old honors student had been missing for two weeks—cut off from everyone who loves her after going missing on Dec. 28, 2010, just three days after Christmas, while visiting he half sister in Baltimore. She was last seen around 1:30 p.m. by her half sister’s ex-boyfriend, who was also living in the apartment and who told police he last saw Phylicia sleeping.
There would be no birthday candles, no celebrations, no knowledge of whether Phylicia was alive and breathing. Instead, in her hometown of Monroe, N.C., and a community of 20,000-plus followers online, loved ones sent birthday wishes into the void on Facebook. They flooded CNN’s Nancy Grace with e-mails and tied purple ribbon after purple ribbon in the office of a high school guidance counselor. And they wept, in groups of prayer or alone with their worst fears.
In Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia, loved ones rang in the new year with fundraisers and vigils. And in the dormlike Reisterstown Square Apartment complex in Baltimore, search dogs were set on Phylicia’s scent. They followed the smell of her unwashed clothes beyond the apartment door and into the parking lot.Then, they stopped. The end of that short trail came with devastating knowledge: The pair of shoes she was least likely to wear outside were the only ones missing from the apartment. She only had these slipper booties on, little boots that [she would] wear at nighttime,” says Russell Barnes, Phylicia’s father, a 47- year-old Army veteran who passed down his love of theater to Phylicia. Barnes’ voice shook as he imagined his daughter being pulled outdoors in the coldest December to hit Baltimore in a decade. “Either she was placed in a car,” Barnes says, “or somebody said, ‘Let’s go!’ And she went.”
The disappearance of Phylicia points to another devastating and invisible reality: Although the face of the missing in America is typically overwhelmingly White and blonde, people of color account for a full 40 percent of all missing-persons cases. And African-Americans make up a staggering share of those non-White cases: According to FBI statistics, 273,985 people of color were reported missing in the United States in 2010. In eight of 10 of those cases, the victims were Black.
Among children, the statistics are even more chilling. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that each year, roughly 58,000 children are the victims of nonfamily abductions. Of those, about 65 percent involved children of color. It’s a reality that doesn’t square with the victims who have attained iconic status among the missing. In 2002, the Salt Lake City kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart riveted a nation, with press conferences carried on prime time and a reward that grew to $250,000 in 48 hours. In 2005, the abduction, rape and gruesome killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford fueled the passage of Florida’s Jessica Lunsford Act, increasing penalties for convicted sex offenders.
But few have heard of 22-year-old Stepha Henry, the honors college grad and law schoolbound New Yorker who vanished at a nightclub in 2007 while visiting relatives in Miami. Her story was drowned out by an onslaught of media coverage of celebrity heiress Paris Hilton, who began a jail sentence for violating the terms of her probation stemming from a DUI charge, which happened four days after Stepha was last seen. Even fewer could name any of the 11 Cleveland women who went missing for months before their bodies were discovered in October 2009 in and around the home of suspected serial killer Anthony Sowell. Charged with the murder of 11 women, Sowell was indicted on 85 counts, which include rape and attempted murder—crimes families contend could have been prevented, at least in part, if law enforcement and the media had taken action when the victims went missing.
With her megawatt smile and all-American girl-next-door story, Phylicia Barnes closely mirrors the profile of Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teenager whose 2005 case captured international attention when she disappeared in Aruba. Like Natalee, Phylicia was on vacation in an unfamiliar environment. Like Natalee, Phylicia was a college-bound honors student in her senior year. Both girls were close to their families.But while Natalee’s story ignited a media firestorm, Phylicia’s disappearance barely registered a blip on network news. Initially, several media outlets declined to tell her story or show her face during prime time. “It really hurts, because I’m a parent and here is a beautiful young girl with a promising future,” says Derrica Wilson, co-founder and CEO of the Black & Missing Foundation, Inc. The Maryland-based agency, which serves as a resource for families of color whose loved ones go missing, has been working to raise awareness about Phylicia. “We’re not trying to dishonor other communities, but [if you give more exposure to] a greater number of those who are missing, the chances of a reunion become greater for everybody.”
The media apathy put Baltimore Police Department’s Director of Public Affairs Anthony Guglielmi in a position he never imagined he would find himself: begging the networks for a few seconds of airtime in the days following Phylicia’s disappearance. Within law enforcement, the investigation was at full throttle, with the FBI, Maryland State Police and a dedicated Baltimore Police homicide unit assigned to the case. A tip line for Phylicia was staffed 24/7, and Baltimore police began blasting e-mail, Web and text message alerts via Facebook, Twitter and other messaging services. Billboards with blown-up photos went up along the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to New York.“You don’t have to be a seasoned law enforcement veteran to know that the first hours into an investigation are vital,” says Guglielmi. “We wanted Phylicia’s face on every milk carton from here to Vegas.” But his calls to national media seemed to fall on deaf ears.”
Knowing a life hung in the balance, Guglielmi went to the local news and asked the question that finally lit the media match: If Phylicia is today’s Natalee Holloway, what could explain the lack of media interest except race?“We’ve never had to literally ask for help like this in a case,” Guglielmi says. “We contacted the national networks. We pleaded with them just to put the picture on for half a second . . and I couldn’t help but ask why.
If the anguish and mystery of Phylicia’s story weren’t enough to trigger a media reaction, the suggestion of racism was. The buildup was slow, but one by one, national outlets began to utter her name: BET News and NBC’s Today show on Jan. 7, ABC’s Good Morning America on Jan. 8, CNN’s Nancy Grace on Jan. 10. Then, on Jan. 22, FOX’s America’s Most Wanted featured a 15-second clip on the case—short but precious airtime for Phylicia on the biggest crime news show on television.
“We don’t live in a perfect society and we know it,” says Phylicia’s father, who has relocated to Baltimore to pursue the case. “I know how the mainstream [media] are . . . if there isn’t anything funky, if you don’t have new leads and things like that, then we’re not newsworthy.” But Barnes says he can’t focus on the negativity. “As a father, as her family, as a man, as somebody looking for my child, regardless of that, I’m going to make sure I do whatever I have to do to keep [her story] out there.”
The biggest challenge now, police and relatives say, is piecing together a timeline of Phylicia’s last known whereabouts based on concrete physical evidence—an enormous hurdle to overcome because the only information police say they have is from personal interviews. So far, none of the more than 30,000 tips called in from across the country has led anywhere. Neither have multiple search and seizure warrants or searches of Baltimore’s hospitals, parks or abandoned homes. Reviews of video from hundreds of cameras yielded nothing. And since the afternoon of Dec. 28, not a single bit of activity from Phylicia’s cell phone or Facebook account. “We’re monitoring everything that the government has the capability to monitor,” says Guglielmi. “And we’re pleading to keep Phylicia’s picture out there, because in the event that this is an abduction, that’s what’s going to break this case open.”
Inevitably, the pressure for that break in the case to come has led some to take on the role of detective themselves, scrutinizing the statements and movements of those last known to have seen Phylicia. So far, that would appear to be Phylicia’s sister’s exboyfriend—but police have not named him as a suspect and say that he is cooperating with authorities through an attorney. The sister was at work at the time of the disappearance.
Phylicia’s disappearance unfolded in a state that ranks near the top in cases of missing Black persons. Some 2,239 African-Americans adults or children were reported missing in the state of Maryland between April 14 and Dec. 31, 2010; a little more than half of them, or 1,265, were children under the age of 18. According to data reported by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Maryland ranks fifth in the number of missing Black persons during that period, behind only by California, the District of Columbia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Some of these missing people, both male and female, may be victims of abduction linked to sex-trafficking rings—another sobering possibility advocates have said may apply to Phylicia Barnes.
“The Barnes family [continues] to have hope, and we know that every day that passes by, the chances of a reunion are decreasing,” says Wilson. “My thought process is, in this day and time, we’re dealing with a lot of sex trafficking. There’s a possibility someone has abducted her and taken her elsewhere, and maybe someone may have recognized her and can come forward with information.” But in order for someone to come forward, Wilson says, her story must be told—broadcast and rebroadcast until she is found. So far, the steady flow of media attention in Phylicia’s case has not come close to the level of attention Holloway’s case would receive for years.
In recent weeks, Barnes’ family, along with police and advocates, have had to work overtime to keep the story alive since the last burst of coverage.No one will ever know what could have happened if a wider, coast-to-coast audience could have seen Barnes’ face and that tip-line number in those initial days. “It would have beengreat if the media could have aired them the first week of her disappearance,” Guglielmi says. “But at the end of the day, we got what we needed. … It doesn’t matter how old she is or what color she is or if she’s a boy or a girl. We need help.”
Despite the obstacles, those closest to her are doing their part. Between organized vigils, daily announcements, a rubber bracelet campaign and a Phylicia Barnes wall, officials at Union Academy, where Phylicia was a popular, high-achieving senior, say there is not a single day that goes by when the young woman is not recognized, remembered, lifted up or called by name.
Union Academy has been the engine behind the $35,000 reward fund for information leading to Phylicia’s whereabouts, and it has spearheaded a separate fund for Phylicia’s mother to cover her expenses as she travels between Atlanta, North Carolina and Baltimore. Chrissie Rape, a guidance counselor at Union, describes Phylicia as a young woman who was not into the “girl drama,” and who mustered up a smile even on a bad day. And one other thing stood out: When it came to her search for the right college, she always looked ahead. “We have no reason to talk in the past tense,” says Rape. “All her classmates know where she used to sit, and she’s notthere. … We are grieving the unknown.”
So are her parents, who still hold out hope the daughter who reached out her arms at birth will find a way to reach out again and find safety. “I ask God to have His strongest angels around her while she is going through whatever she is going through,” says Sallis, her mother. “And if she is dining with you, God, let me know.”
BLACK & MISSING
A Foundation For those needing to be Found her name was Tamika Huston. She was a 24-year-old African-American woman from Spartanburg, S.C., and in the summer of 2004, she went missing. Here was a photogenic, family-oriented young woman who had seemingly vanished into thin air. Her aunt, a publicrelations executive in Miami, had used every media strategy available to focus attention on her niece’s disappearance. But no one was talking about her. Then, months later, the case of Natalee Holloway exploded in the media.
For years, that disparity would haunt Derrica Wilson, a Washington, D.C.-area police officer who was born and raised in Huston’s hometown. “This young woman was just not getting any publicity, and her family was really fighting for her. It just bothered me,” says Derrica, 32, who in 2008 founded the Black & Missing Foundation with her sister-in-law, Natalie Wilson, a PR specialist in D.C. The foundation’s mission statement is “Providing an Equal Opportunity for All Missing.” “With my background in law enforcement and Natalie’s background in PR,” Derrica says, “we put our brains together to see how we could help these families.”
In three short years, and operating on a shoestring budget that comes straight from their own pockets, the two full-time working mothers have helped to find or recover the bodies of victims for 23 families. On their Web site, they have built a comprehensive online resource, including a national database of more than 600 missing people of color, searchable by name, city, state, gender, race, complexion and other physical characteristics. They have organized dozens of public awareness campaigns and safety workshops. And hoping to chip away at the disparity in how cases of the missing are treated, they have forming strategic partnerships with law enforcement and local, national and online media.“We can hold law enforcement accountable. We can have more diversity in the newsrooms,” says Natalie. “They are the gatekeepers to information and with what is shared with the public. We need to be proactive.”
Derrick Butler says that when his sister, 47-year-old computer analyst Pamela Butler, went missing from her home in D.C. in 2009, Black & Missing made itself the bridge between a grief-stricken family and a sprawling network of law enforcement, media and advocates for the missing. “It means the world to us,” says Butler, who recently joined the foundation’s board. Earlier this year, a vigil the foundation organized for his sister drew 200 people, and the story was carried on every local channel. “They make sure the media are covering it, and they put out press releases. They are constantly talking to police to make sure this case does not become a cold case.”
Black & Missing reached a milestone when it recently forged a partnership with AOL’s Black Voices, which agreed to spotlight a missing person of color from the organization’s database weekly. But the founders say there’s more work to be done. “If money were no object, I would like for us to have a television show similar to America’s Most Wanted, on which we can feature missing persons of color,” Natalie says. “If money were no object, I would go to schools and provide our children with ID cards in the event that something happens, so we can readily identify them. I would like to go out into the community more. We’re not as vigilant as we should be.” —FL
Read more of Francie Latour’s writings here.
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