Police find difficulties in missing adult cases

The disappearance of a 38-year-old Lawrence woman nearly two weeks ago reveals the sorts of difficulties police and families often encounter when adults go missing.

Lesley Smith’s family members say they’re frustrated because they fear people will jump to the conclusion that, because Smith is an adult, she must have gone somewhere willingly.

And police say absent witnesses or a compelling piece of evidence that a missing adult is in immediate danger, there’s only so much they can do.

“Usually we go with the family’s instincts or the loved one’s instincts when they say this is totally out of character,” said Lt. Dan Affalter, who supervises detectives at the Lawrence Police Department. “We take that very seriously, but the question is, if they’re clueless and they know the person, where do we go?”

So far this year, four other adults have been reported missing to the Lawrence Police Department, Affalter said. One was found the same day, one was found three days later, and one turned up the next day in the Johnson County Jail, Affalter said.

Another, 22-year-old Hamidah Nagama of Lee’s Summit, Mo., was reported missing Jan. 22 after she failed to enroll for Kansas University courses. As far as Lawrence and KU police know, she’s still missing.

Often, the reasons someone is missing are simple — and don’t involve foul play.

Some missing adults meet a new person who occupies all of their time, Affalter said. People with substance-abuse problems might check themselves into confidential treatment programs or go on a binge. Other people simply feel the urgent need to take a road trip, he said.

“An awful lot of our missing-person cases shake out to be folks that are just not communicating with their loved ones,” Affalter said.

Smith works as a server at the Bella Lounge, 925 Iowa, and lives with her parents in the 2000 block of Quail Creek Drive. She was last seen watching television at home about 10:30 p.m. Jan. 26.

Marilyn and Gary Anderson, Lawrence, hold a picture of their missing daughter, Lesley Smith, 38, who has been missing since Jan. 27. Police don't know how much danger she might be in.

In the morning, she was gone, along with the family’s 1990 Plymouth Voyager Van.

She left many of her belongings she would need to survive on the road: her purse, driver’s license, credit cards and bank cards. She took a cell phone, but its voice-mail in-box is now full of unanswered messages from her worried relatives.

Smith also left a cryptic note that alluded to medication and said “I love you so much.” She had taken antidepressants in the past, but family members say they’re not convinced that had anything to do with why she’s gone.

“We’ve called everywhere — contacted all of her friends in-state and out-of-state,” said Smith’s mother, Marilyn Anderson. “We have no idea.”

Employees at the Bella Lounge are equally dumbfounded.

“We’re all just very surprised and definitely didn’t anticipate anything like that ever happening,” co-worker Amber Nickel said.

On Jan. 30, the Kansas Highway Patrol spent three hours searching Douglas County by helicopter for Smith’s van. Because the van hasn’t been found, and because Smith left behind so many belongings, her family members fear she’s in danger. They’ve called wrecker companies and distributed her photo to UPS drivers.

Anderson says she hopes conventional wisdom won’t cause police to pursue her daughter’s case less aggressively.

“People just assume that it is their free will: they’re gone, so they chose to go,” Anderson said. “That may not necessarily be the case.”

The department has detectives assigned to both Smith’s and Nagama’s cases, and both women’s names have been entered into a nationwide police database.

Anyone with information about their whereabouts can call the department’s detectives at 830-7430.