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‘They did nothing’: When people of color go missing in Massachusetts, who looks for them?

  • News

Heather Morrison
October 11, 2021

Donald Sampson was the kind of guy who you could ask for a favor. He would start each morning at his home in Randolph getting his child ready for school. Then he’d spend the day doing things for others, like washing a family member’s car, his sister, Veda Sampson, told MassLive.

Then, on Dec. 12, 2010, Donald went missing. Veda reported her brother’s disappearance to police, who she believes couldn’t see beyond his skin color.

She was told officers believed her brother was on the run, she later recounted to MassLive.

After insisting he was missing, Veda said she was told to seek help elsewhere, at a cost she could not afford. “They did nothing. They told me I had to hire a private investigator.”

Donald has been missing for 11 years.

When Gabby Petito was reported missing in August, her disappearance sparked a nationwide conversation. Advocates and family members of other missing persons question the racial disparities in treatment of such cases.

Such treatment is apparent in news coverage according to Zach Sommers, a criminologist and associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. His research suggests about half of all missing persons news coverage is focused on white women, a significant oversampling of the national population.

About 40% of missing persons cases involve people of color, according to The Black and Missing Foundation. However, this number is likely higher as the FBI classifies some Latino populations as white, the foundation said.

Donald’s story is familiar for other Massachusetts families who also believe race played a factor in the search for their loved one by authorities.

In the 11 years since his disappearance, has anything changed?


The Black and Missing Foundation’s co-founder Derrica Wilson said people of color sometimes get misclassified when they go missing.

For example, adults might be labeled or associated with criminal activity.

“We’ve had cases where families will provide a picture of their missing loved one and police have decided to use a mug shot from that person’s past that has nothing to do with the fact that they’re missing,” she said.

Veda believes that had an impact on her brother’s case too.

He had a previous criminal history, she said, adding that he would not hide from his family. The police thought differently.

“I felt the utmost disrespect,” she said. “Just because you have a criminal background doesn’t mean that your life is worthless.”

In more recent years, the Randolph Police Department has used cadaver dogs, searched various areas and re-interviewed people that knew Donald. Randolph Police Department’s Det. Sgt. Jason Fisher was not there in 2010 when Donald was first reported missing, however, he said it’s policy to start investigating missing persons right away, and that he does not see any connection to his previous criminal history and why Donald went missing.

But Veda wishes they had done more early on.

Children are sometimes misclassified as runaways, which means no Amber Alert is issued.

“We’ve had so many cases that were actually initially classified as runaways and the kids were not runaways,” Wilson said. “And some of those cases, the kids were found to be deceased. Some of the kids were victims of human trafficking.”

The family of 16-year-old Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino accused police of not doing enough when they first reported him missing.

“We are poor. We are Hispanic. They considered this a normal runaway case. I told them from Day One that it wasn’t,” the teen’s grandmother Ivelisse Cornielle said in 2016, after his body was found.

The 16-year-old was beheaded by his Lawrence High School classmate, Mathew Borges, who was found guilty in 2019.

Lawrence Chief James Fitzpatrick told the Associated Press that police did label Viloria-Paulino as a runaway but said the case was still a priority.

“Our interactions with families show otherwise,” Wilson said of families working with The Black and Missing Foundation. “When a minor is classified as a runaway, the case is not considered a priority and there’s no sense of urgency from law enforcement and the media.”

Sommers noted that it likely has families facing an “uphill climb” in seeking public awareness.

In the hours following Viloria-Paulino’s disappearance, postings made on social media by the 16-year-old’s family cried out for help. Their Facebook posts were among the few sharing his name online. In the hours after his body was found, massive media attention began.

Missing persons cases in Massachusetts also aren’t all required to be recorded in one database, creating a difficulty among communication for law enforcement and the public. The missing person page on the Massachusetts government website only lists two people missing, both of whom are white.

In 2016, then-Mayor Dan Rivera said he believed the department followed the proper procedures.

There were also two bills filed since Viloria-Paulino went missing, known as the “Lee Manuel’s Law,” but they were never passed.

“To every police officer, detective in our police department, if it was their kid … would they have waited two weeks to look for him?” said Katiuska Paulino, Viloria-Paulino’s mother.

Recommended Changes

The Massachusetts Missing Persons Task Force recommended changes to how the state handles missing persons in a report released last year.

The changes are in three areas — legislative, training and resources. But it mostly comes back to one theme: communication.

“Information sharing amongst the appropriate government and private agencies when it involves missing, endangered, or exploited children is paramount to solving those cases,” the report states. “Agencies must have the ability to communicate fully to protect children from harm or vanishing.”

However, one area that’s still lacking is including conversations regarding these racial disparities.

Until recently, however, there wasn’t much conversation on it, experts told MassLive.

“There were pockets here and there of folks talking about it, whether in academia or in the news media, but the scope and the tenor of the conversation has changed in the last two or three weeks,” said Criminologist Sommers.

Heather Bish, task force member and sister of Molly Bish, who went missing in 2000, said she didn’t know many people talking about the racial disparities but she’s seen it.

“I recognize that I have privilege,” she said. “I talk about a woman by the name of Patty Gonyea, who was murdered in her senior year of high school. And Patty’s special to me because she was the same age as Molly.”

Yet, Bish said, because Gonyea was a person of color, her case wasn’t originally taken seriously.

“They didn’t take it seriously,” she said. “Her body was found by family, not by law enforcement, not by forensic anthropologists like my sister.”

Gonyea is listed as white on the Worcester Police Department’s website. But Bish said she can see the differences between the two cases.

Amid a national conversation about police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a former police officer, Massachusetts state lawmakers passed sweeping police reforms in 2020.

Through this legislation, the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission was formed.

The POST Commission will create a mandatory certification process for police officers, as well as processes for decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand in the event of certain misconduct.

The commission began meeting this year, however, it did not say if missing persons cases were part of these conversations.

‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

At a 2004 journalism conference, Gwen Ifill introduced the phrase “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

“If it’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that, every day,” the Guardian reported.

17 years later, this critique has yet to be addressed.

“I think another way that we can combat this problem is more diversity in the newsroom,” Wilson said. “Normally, the decision-makers don’t look like us.”

Notable cases in Massachusetts that get media coverage range from Molly Bish to Joan Risch. The disappearance of Jennifer Fay was recently the topic of a Barstool podcast. And media outlets extensively covered Petito.

They were all white women.

What about Jelani Day, Daniel Robinson, Deidre Reid and Keeshae Jacobs? Wilson asked.

“It’s that media obsession,” Wilson said. “Think about how their families are feeling when they turn on their local channel and they turn on their national channel and they see this young girl that all these resources are being dedicated to? Yet they don’t know if their loved one is hungry, cold, being mistreated or if they would ever even walk through the front door again.”

After 11 years, the Sampson family is wishing someone could give them answers.

“We miss him,” Veda said. “He has a son that he’s been away from for 11 years. And he has a mother that’s in her late 70s that needs closure before she leaves this Earth. He has a sister who tremendously loves him and misses him.”

Veda fears she might never that closure.

“I think that if they would have jumped on this from the time that I went and reported, we might have had some answers by now,” she said. “I think because he was an African American adult with some history of some trouble that they let it slip under the rug and they refused to help me.”

Photo credit: MassLive

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