Years later, families of missing wait for answers
People disappear every day.
They’re victims of foul play. They go to a remote location and commit suicide. They have psychotic episodes and wander off, confused and disoriented. They leave their families, escaping from some undesirable circumstance, searching for a new life.
Alerts go out, and missing-persons posters get printed. And those people left behind?
They wait. For good news, bad news, any news.
For the friends and family of former Kansas University student Yelekal “Kal” Alemu, 23, of Lawrence, the waiting stretched over three weeks, ending with news Friday that Alemu’s body was discovered in a wooded area in rural Douglas County. Police said they do not suspect foul play, though a cause of death has not been announced.
Alemu disappeared May 12, and his abandoned Toyota Yaris was discovered later that day, after friends and family became concerned when Alemu didn’t show up for a family gathering.
Area missing persons cases
Yelekal “Kal” Alemu case
• Friends and family reported Alemu, 23, missing May 12. He was last seen by a roommate early in the morning.
• Police located Alemu’s car that night, abandoned in southeast Douglas County.
• No one reportedly heard from Alemu since May 12.
• Early on Friday, a Lawrence police officer found Alemu’s body in a wooded area south of the Wakarusa River and near Douglas County Road 1057.
Other local missing-persons cases
• Randy Leach: Leach, then 17, disappeared April 16, 1988, when he left his parents’ Linwood home to attend a graduation party. Three men were arrested in 1993 for the crime but quickly released. The case has been the subject of numerous rumors over the years, but authorities have not had any concrete breaks in the case.
• Alexis Dillard: A 22-year-old KU student, Dillard was last seen at Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence on Dec. 11, 1992. Speculation is that Dillard drowned while trying to swim across the Kansas River, though his body has not been found.
• Jack Shultz: According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, the 37-year-old De Soto man was last seen Nov. 28, 1994, in De Soto. Police said they suspect foul play, though nothing in the years since his disappearance have led to any arrests in the case.
For an interactive map of all Kansas missing-persons cases, visit LJWorld.com.
For the Alemu family, the bad news came. For others, the waiting continues.
16 years, no answers
Overbrook man Everett Crist, 91, remembers it was a Tuesday.
He and his son, Elvin E. Crist, then 40, finished work at the family landscaping business in Lawrence on Dec. 11, 1996.
“He told me he’d see me in the morning,” Everett said. “I haven’t seen him since.”
It’s been nearly 16 years since Elvin vanished. He didn’t have a criminal record, didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol, and didn’t have any reason to kill himself, said his younger brother, Arlin Crist.
“Just a regular guy,” Arlin said.
Elvin is one of 37 active missing-persons cases in Kansas, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Since Elvin’s disappearance, the family has speculated and theorized. Arlin mentions minor details in the case — much discussed since Elvin disappeared — that never led to answers about his brother.
“I never thought you could make someone vanish,” Arlin said.
A store receipt found in his truck later confirmed that after work Elvin went to a J.C. Penney and exchanged a pair of jeans.
No one has reported seeing him since. Weeks later, police discovered Elvin’s truck had been left at a parking lot at KU and eventually towed away.
When the family got the truck back, police had taken inside panels out for evidence testing, Arlin said. Both Arlin and Everett provided DNA samples.
One of the few clues in the case was some of Elvin’s personal checks, which someone tried to cash after his disappearance. The checks bounced, and investigators were unable to find the person who tried to cash them, Arlin said.
The Crist family hired Prairie Village private investigator Gretchen Gerig, who traveled as far as California checking on various leads.
Gerig said she occasionally follows up on the case, even after all these years. She cautiously mentions “persons of interest” but declined to provide more detail, fearing it could hamper the police investigation.
Investigating the missing
There aren’t many possible outcomes for people who disappear, said Thomas Lauth, an investigator with Lauth Missing Persons, who for the past 15 years has been hired by families to find missing loved ones.
There’s murder or suicide. Then there are people who wander off, seemingly victims of some form of medical or psychiatric condition, such as the disappearance of Larry Schnackenberg, 58, of Lenexa, in July 2010.
Schnackenberg was reported missing by his family but was found three weeks later by patrol officers in a Johnson County park. Schnackenberg was dehydrated, shirtless and covered in insect bites when found.
The disappearance hasn’t been explained publicly.
“When I found him, I talked about how happy his family was going to be,” said park officer Rick Reynolds, who discovered Schnackenberg, in a 2010 Shawnee Dispatch article. “What he was doing and what had transpired for the 20 days he was out here, I don’t know.”
Then there’s what Lauth terms “malicious missing-persons” cases, where someone vanishes without notifying friends or family. Lauth cites the disappearance of 19-year-old Aisha Khan, a Johnson County Community College student who disappeared from the KU Edwards campus in December 2011. Khan made a frantic phone call to her sister before her disappearance, indicating she was concerned about an unidentified man who was harassing her. Family members feared the worst.
Khan’s husband of five months went on “Good Morning America” and made a public plea to the kidnappers he believed abducted his wife.
“My message to the kidnapper is, let her go,” Waseem Khan said on the show. “You have the power to let her go, and I will completely forgive you.”
After weeks of national attention, several searches, and the involvement of multiple law enforcement agencies, Khan resurfaced, unharmed. Publicly, little information has been released explaining Khan’s disappearance.
Disappearances like Khan’s and Schnackenberg’s show there’s no uniformity in how missing-persons cases will end, Lauth said.
“There are so many variables that play into missing-persons cases,” he said. “That’s what makes them so fascinating.”
‘We may never know’
The disappearance of Elvin Crist remains an open case, said Lawrence Police Sgt. Trent McKinley, and he encouraged anyone with information to contact police.
“Missing-persons cases are never closed until that person is located,” McKinley said.
Gerig, the private investigator, said she still thinks “something will pop” in the case and provide closure for the Crists.
Arlin and his family, however, are less optimistic about ever getting answers to Elvin’s disappearance.
About a decade after Elvin vanished, the family had him officially declared dead.
“You always remain hopeful something will come up. But as the years go by, it’s less likely,” Arlin said. “We may never know.”