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Published: Wednesday, 6/19/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Tot’s case focuses on other lost children

Technology assists investigations, but cooperation is key

BY DANIELLE TRUBOW AND MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

A Coast Guard boat searches the Maumee River for 18-month-old Elaina Steinfurth on Tuesday. She went missing from her east side home on June 2. A Coast Guard boat searches the Maumee River for 18-month-old Elaina Steinfurth on Tuesday. She went missing from her east side home on June 2.
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An ongoing search for an 18-month-old East Toledo girl is similar to that of toddler Jamel Williams, who disappeared from outside his mother’s apartment on May 25, 1994.

Although the 3-year-old Jamel, also from East Toledo, was older than Elaina Steinfurth, who has been missing since June 2, his parents also were in the midst of a divorce when he vanished.

The last people to see both children were family members.

Vacant homes, wooded areas, and trash bins have been examined in both cases. In the search for Elaina, the FBI on Tuesday completed their second day of diving in the Maumee River while seeking clues into the little girl’s disappearance.

RELATED CONTENT: Follow the story from the beginning with Storify

Two days into the search for Jamel, FBI agents joined Toledo police and combed through the Weiler Homes public housing complex where the Williams family lived.

Police showed photographs of the boy to anyone they met on their patrols and dug through the Hoffman Road landfill after receiving hundreds of tips.

And with no known witnesses, no apparent motive, no body, and no communication with Jamel’s family, the unsolved case went cold.

It has been 19 years since Jamel went missing. His fate remains a mystery.

After the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children generated an age-progression photo of Jamel when he would have been 18 years old, Sgt. Joe Heffernan said Toledo Police contacted Jamel’s mother, Kelly Thomas, to ask if she would provide DNA.

According to John Bischoff, director of emergency communications at the center, advancements in forensics have made it possible for local police departments to collect and store parental DNA and match records with unidentified remains.

He said the center and local police are working to catch up with science and use DNA collection to resolve cases more quickly and provide closure for families.

But police only ask to collect DNA if the child has been missing for more than six months and can do so only if the family is willing to cooperate.

In the case of Jamel Williams, Sergeant Heffernan said police have received no new tips. When police last made contact with the now-divorced Ms. Thomas shortly after the center released Jamel’s age-progression photo, Ms. Thomas did not want to cooperate, refusing to give police her DNA sample.

The Missing Children Clearinghouse, a data-base maintained by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, documented 19,219, reports of missing children in Ohio in 2012.

Attorney General Mike Dewine said 18,990, or 98.8 percent, were returned safely.

The return rate was higher and more successful than the national average. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 97.8 percent of missing children cases are resolved each year, but the recovery rate reflects fortunate and unfortunate outcomes for the child.

There were 1,065 reports in 2012 of missing children in Lucas County. Wood County reported 44 cases.

However, not everyone is truly missing.

Some kids may have run away from home or foster care or escaped a juvenile detention center. Despite the motive, they are labeled as missing.

Of the children reported missing in Ohio during 2012, 11,721 were classified as runaways.

FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson said local police departments are the primary agency for missing children cases. Although the bureau does not get involved in every missing-child case, it communicates and collaborates with local police at their request.

“When we hear a child has gone missing, we’ll offer assistance if they need us. If they’re capable of conducting the case on their own and have their own resources, then they may not ask us for help,” Ms. Anderson said.

But once the FBI opens a missing-child case and assists local police, Ms. Anderson said the case remains open until there is closure.

According to the state attorney general’s report, which was released in May, 72 of the missing-children cases stem from family abductions. In 12 instances, children were taken out of the country by a nonfamily member.

Such is the case of Mohamed Jaafar. The Toledo boy is listed on the attorney general’s Web site as missing from an abduction in 2006 when he was 3 years old. Mohamed, who turned 10 in October, is believed to be with his father, Hilal Hasan Ali Jaafar, 45, in Muscat, the capital of Oman, in the Middle East.

The FBI is looking for Mohamed and has a felony warrant for his father’s arrest.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 800,000 children are reported missing each year, and only a handful — about 115 — are victims of kidnapping by a stranger.

In Michigan, Alexander, Andrew, and Tanner Skelton vanished in November, 2010, from Morenci, Mich., a town on the Ohio border. The boys, who were ages 9, 7, and 5 when they disappeared, were last seen on Thanksgiving Day while they were in the custody of their father, John Skelton.

Skelton pleaded no contest to charges of unlawful imprisonment in Lenawee County and was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison.

The disappearance of the children will be profiled tonight in a segment of John Walsh Investigates on the Lifetime network. The hour-long program begins at 9 p.m.

Their mother, Tanya Zuvers, refuses to give up hope.

“I am hoping that the one person who can break this case wide open sees the program and we will be able to have the boys back home,” Ms. Zuvers said.

Mr. Walsh has a successful history of partnering with law enforcement and profiling cases on his show America’s Most Wanted.

Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks, who was interviewed by Mr. Walsh for the episode, said national exposure on the missing boys could provide closure to the case. In addition to the boys, Mr. Walsh interviewed members of John Skelton's family for the show.

“This hopefully can help in our efforts to further the investigation along,” Chief Weeks said. “We certainly have not given up our attempts to close the case out.”

Emily Michele Sawyer is listed on the attorney general Web site as lost, injured, or otherwise missing. She was allegedly taken from her home Toledo by her mother, Carol Sawyer, on April 1, 1988, just four days before she turned 5 years old. The girl’s parents were nearing the end of a contentious custody battle.

Also listed as lost, injured, or missing is Elizabeth Franks.

Mrs. Franks, who lived in South Toledo, was a 17-year-old mother. She was last seen before Easter in April, 1965. Toledo Police detectives have said they believe she was killed.

Brett, Bryan, and Brent Wurm are listed on the Web site as missing because they were allegedly abducted by their mother Michelle Miller-Wurm, 46, in September, 2007, from Seneca County.

However, their father, Norman Wurm, said his daughter, Brittany Wurm, 16, and another son, Brandon Wurm, 22, were also taken. Mr. Wurm said his former wife fled with their daughter and sons while they were involved in a nasty divorce that included allegations of abuse of the children. He said a private investigator he hired believes the siblings may have been living the Dayton area.

“There have been a lot of missed moments that you cannot replace. That is the worst thing about it. You can’t make up lost time,” said Mr. Wurm of Republic, Ohio.

Mr. Bischoff said the private, nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s average annual success rate has risen from 67 percent in 1984 to 97.8 percent today.

Mr. Bischoff said the organization handles more than 3,000 national long-term missing-children cases, and advancements in the technology of forensics, social media, and age-progression photos have made it possible to get more information out to communities.

Sergeant Heffernan said cases such as Elaina’s help bring attention to the older cases too.

“In these cases, we go back and try to bring light into them. But from an investigative standpoint, at some point you reach a dead-end,” the sergeant said.

Contact Danielle Trubow at:

dtrubow@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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