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Shattered: After public moves on, families of missing left wondering about what happened to their loved ones

SHARE Shattered: After public moves on, families of missing left wondering about what happened to their loved ones

When a news report says a body has been found, Suzanne Tate finds herself back 45 years, in the kitchen cooking dinner and watching her teenage brother, Reed, walk outside to feed his dogs.

It was such an ordinary moment in their loving, boisterous family. She would give anything for a do-over.

What would she have done differently had she known it would be the last time she'd see her strapping 15-year-old brother? And where is he? she wonders.

It's a question Wanda Schmitt often asks herself about her brother, Jeff. So do Ed and Mary Sorensen of their daughter, Sheree. And Stephanie Cook has spent a lifetime wondering what happened to her mom.

They are among so many others who, like them, have a person-shaped hole in their family where someone belongs. And they don't know what happened to that person.

Reed Jeppson, Sheree Warren, Jeff Nichols and Bobbi Ann Campbell are all missing, now question marks whose answers have not yet been found.

"We are like the body that cries in the Bible," says family practice physician Taylor Jeppson, who was 24 years old when his little brother, Reed, disappeared. "Can the arm say there's no need for the leg? The ear for the eye?"

The FBI and the National Crime Information Center receive more than 800,000 missing persons reports each year. Some are quickly resolved, but about 105,000 remain missing.

Kelly Jolkowski, founder of Project Jason, a nonprofit that helps families of missing people, believes it's a serious undercount. Because of their lifestyles or associations, some people have been placed in a dismal "throwaway" category that doesn't get much outside attention, though their families still search and long to know.

And most missing person cases don't get advertised, don't have a website, don't hit the news, she says.

"It's not like TV. There are not 20 cops out looking and a resolution in 20 minutes," Jolkowski says. "Because we see a story or two occasionally on the news, we think that a person or two goes missing. No, no. It's many more than that."

Jeff Nichols was just days shy of his 41st birthday when he disappeared in Salt Lake City on June 8, 2004.

Nichols was supposed to meet his ex-wife, with whom he shared custody, and their little boy, Sam. After breakfast, she was going to show him some golf clubs a friend wanted to sell. He loved golf and thought he'd probably buy them, says Nichols' sister, who lives in Madison, Wis.

A police report says he never showed up at the eatery, although his family later learned his vehicle was towed from an area a few miles away more than a month after he disappeared. His bank accounts and credit cards have not been used since.

Virtually everyone asked says Nichols loved his job as an air traffic controller and his life in general — that he was close to his parents, his siblings, his friends. It's inconceivable, they say, that no one has heard a peep from him, if he's alive somewhere.

Mary Sorensen says the chance that her daughter, Sheree Warren, disappeared willingly is zilch as well, because she left behind her son, Adam, who was only 3, and "he was her whole world."

"If she had taken him, it could maybe have been voluntary. I don't think so," Sorensen says. "But she left him here, and there's just no way she'd have done that."

Warren, then 25, worked for a credit union and had gone from their Roy home to Salt Lake City for training to become a branch manager. She walked to the parking lot with another trainee that day in 1985, and they headed to their cars. She vanished. Warren's car was later found in a parking lot in Las Vegas, where it had sat at least long enough for the tires to sink into the asphalt. Her parents, brother and sisters never heard from her again.

Within hours, her dad was sure something awful had happened. But what? A quarter-century later, they're still wondering.

Campbell was 24 when she dropped her toddler, Stephanie, off at a friend's house on Dec. 27, 1994, so she could get her paycheck and go grocery shopping. She didn't shop, didn't get the check, didn't come back.

"I remember everything about her. I can still hear her laugh, her voice. I have her voice, and my grandpa calls me Bobbi sometimes because I look like her," says Stephanie Cook, who is now 21.

The little girl fell asleep by the window, waiting for the mom with whom she did everything, the mom she is certain did not leave her willingly. The next day, her great-grandparents came to get her when Campbell didn't show up. They ended up raising her in their Draper home.

The car was found nearly a year later, abandoned, clothes still in it from the trip to the laundromat early in the morning of the day she disappeared.

"Here we go again," Schmitt wrote when the sixth anniversary of her brother's disappearance recently passed. "It's like a roller-coaster ride filled with emotions, only you just can't seem to get off the ride. We want to find Jeff desperately. We want to know the truth. If Jeff were alive, we'd all be so happy. I want him to be alive. If he is not, I want to bring him home for all of us."

While life levels out for stretches at a time, "it doesn't take much to get the ride going again."

Jolkowski has been on that roller coaster. Her son, Jason, disappeared nine years ago from their driveway in Omaha, Neb. He was 19. His car remained in the repair shop, his bank account was untouched, and he never picked up his paycheck.

Most days, she says, she's doing OK, bolstered by a strong marriage, supportive family and friends and work that matters to her. But "I could shatter into a million pieces tomorrow. I don't think I will. But I could," she says. Various triggers lead her to tears and periods of intense grief, she notes.

But she harnessed her energy and much of that emotion to build her nonprofit group to support the families of the missing as they embark on this unwanted journey. Projectjason.org offers tips, private community boards, access to counseling, even retreats that are not about solving the case, but surviving it mostly intact. It is "about giving you tools to help you live the best life you can, whether this continues for one more day or 10 more years," she says.

What they don't offer is a forum for ill-formed comments or half-baked theories from wannabe sleuths who hardly or never knew the missing person but are sure they've figured out what happened.

That's something families deal with a lot.

Reed Jeppson's family searched for him. His brother, Edward, a pilot, searched from the air. His sister, Sally, came home from BYU to search. The family ranged from sister Patricia, 29 and married with kids of her own, to baby Keith, who was only 7 when Reed disappeared.

Reed's parents, Dr. Edward and Elizabeth Taylor Jeppson, and his brothers and sisters combed the foothills and ravines nearest their home and then beyond, with help from hundreds of volunteers. Nothing.

Then came the veiled accusations, the sly glances, the innuendo. Even friends asked questions like, "What was going on in your family that was so bad he had to run away?" A half-century later, they are still occasionally zinged by thoughtless remarks. Shortly after Salt Lake police said last month that the department will re-examine Reed’s cold case, Tate ran into an acquaintance. "Maybe now your brother will decide to come home," the individual said.

That stings. The family has never believed he left on his own, Patricia Menlove says of her brother. Nothing supports the suggestion. He left the money he'd been earning with a paper route. And it defies belief that in the 45 years he's been gone he wouldn't have contacted at least one of his 10 remaining siblings, says another sister, Sally Mace.

"It's awful what people say. We were always a close-knit family," Mace says. "We're still that way."

"It's very harmful," Jolkowski says bluntly of such talk. "My thought is the investigation needs to be done by professionals, and if it isn't going to help find Johnny, it doesn't need to be said. What is needed is to encourage the family and do the best we can for them. If you really think you know what happened, tell the police. Leave the family alone when it comes to your theories."

That advice also applies to people who believe they have psychic insight into a case.

Jolkowski and volunteer Denise Harrison know hundreds of people with missing loved ones. And they're still stunned at the things people say and do.

Among the "don'ts" Harrison has posted at projectjason.org: Don't tell someone who's pining that "he's probably in Mexico having margaritas with his friends," or that "she'll be found when she wants to be found."

Other real-life examples of bad things to say: "It's time to get on with your life." "At least you have other kids." And "everything happens for a reason."

Silence is brutal, too.

"There were people in my life I thought were my friends," Jolkowski says. "When it happened, I did not hear a word from them. Those searching for someone who is missing need to know their friends and family support them."

It's fairly easy, particularly in Utah, to get volunteers to turn up for a search. And physically finding someone is a first and important goal. But attention spans wane and resources are limited. The public moves on, and the families of the missing often find themselves abandoned emotionally, Jolkowski says.

"It's easy for people in these situations to feel hopeless and that nobody cares," she says. "And it's hard to get others to understand and know how to help."

There is a vocabulary unique to the missing, and it's very unlike that used when comforting those who have lost someone to death, says Duane Bowers, who is a national expert on families where someone has vanished.

You speak in terms of "grief" and "loss" at your peril, says the trauma loss expert. The families of the missing will reject you. It's "missing" and "separated." Hope may be all they have. They don't want "closure," although they pine for "resolution."

Individuals decide when, if ever, they believe the person is dead. That's a big and painful transition. Until then, they must plan a two-pronged future: "At Christmas, we'll do this if he isn't back. And this if he is." It's not good from a traditional mental health point of view, "but you have to understand, this is the only way one can move forward" when someone is missing, he says.

Interestingly, adds Bowers, the police are often pegged by the families of the missing as the bad guys — at least until a real "bad guy" is found.

They have no one else in particular to blame. And the police, doing their jobs, routinely focus first on family members. Often enough, that turns out to be the right approach. But if you're innocent and hurting, desperate to find your loved one, it's infuriating that they're wasting time on you, Bowers says. Ditto when you give them what you think is a hot lead and they don't jump on it.

Some families fall apart when someone remains missing. Separation and divorce are not uncommon. Perhaps against the odds, Ed and Mary Sorensen, Wanda Schmitt and her husband, Tim, and Jeppson's many brothers and sisters have all become stronger and more committed in their loss.

"You never really accept it," Mary Sorensen says. "But I think it's brought us closer together."

"Very often parents will say while one child was missing, they know they abandoned their other children. They were so focused on finding the missing child," Bowers says.

Extended family must step in for the children. Bowers notes that animal shows on TV repeatedly document the natural instinct of mammal parents to search for the missing child. The rest of the animal family instinctively crowds around the others to care for and nurture them. People should do that, too.

Absent that, a number of studies document self-destructive behaviors — drugs, alcohol, petty crime — in adults who as children had siblings who were missing, found or not. They also find those adults, not surprisingly, tend to overprotect their own children.

If there's no resolution, those who love the missing person eventually begin to believe different things, often out of synch, creating rifts, Bowers says. If dad believes Arnie is dead, but mom always responds, "How dare you say that?" it drives a wedge.

That's one reason families shatter after a disappearance. When children aren't allowed to explore what they think happened, they tend to hang out with other families. They have to find ways, Bowers says, of letting each other speak, in spite of differing views.

Schmitt says her family fell into a depression that has been hard to shake. Their stepfather, who adopted and raised them, spearheaded search efforts. Jeff's natural dad has not golfed since his son disappeared.

Schmitt is on an endless search. She can lose herself online looking for leads and realize that hours have passed. It's hard not to let the sorrow and the search detract from the joy of her children, her husband, her life that does go on.

Each of Reed Jeppson's siblings and Jeff Nichols' siblings and parents have provided blood samples that can be used to help identify his remains, should he be found. It's a donation both grim and promising, and it's often asked of those left behind. With word that a body has been found, hope and dread battle.

"My hope is skewed because I want remains to be Reed, but I don't want him to have been harmed," Tate says. "I don't want him to have experienced a living nightmare, yet I want to know every detail of what happened."

Americans have rituals of acceptance. When there's a body, we hold funerals or memorials. We mark spots where someone died with flowers or crosses or, for children, teddy bears and toys. For a long time, typically, the only spot for a missing person is that hole in a family's heart.

Eventually, Ed and Mary Sorensen bought a headstone for their daughter near where theirs will be in a South Ogden cemetery. Reed Jeppson's siblings placed a headstone by that of his parents. This week Cook and her great-grandparents placed a marker for Bobbi Ann Campbell in the Larkin cemetery in Sandy.

On Memorial Day, eight of Reed's remaining siblings and their spouses, children and grandchildren gathered at the Sunset Larkin Cemetery in Salt Lake City. Although it is one place where they know his remains do not rest, his sisters fuss over the stone, clearing away the grass that has encroached.

Some say they've seen him in dreams, while others have daydreamed about who he might have become.

Over the years, they have searched for him, longed for him, mourned him. On this day, they are celebrating him, laughing and telling stories as the grandkids run among the gravestones.

"We mustn't be so filled with our own grief that we can't share the sunshine and joy and goodness all around us," Tate says.

He is missing. But never unloved.

Balloon release today

Bobbi Ann Campbell's daughter and grandparents, as well as advocates for families of the missing, will release balloons at her just-placed headstone today to remind the community about those who have disappeared and are missed. The public is invited to a short ceremony at 3:30 p.m. at Larkin Cemetery, 1950 E. 10600 South, Sandy. The marker is on the west side.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com