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Explainer: How do you search for a missing person?

Where to look first; when to call in a helicopter; and how to find crucial evidence: we look at what authorities do when someone goes missing.

A search team in the Dublin Mountains
A search team in the Dublin Mountains
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THERE ARE CURRENTLY more than 200 missing persons officially registered with the gardaí in Ireland.

Some have been missing for just a few days, or even less. The oldest case is that of Christine Doyle, who was last seen in Rathmines in 1971, more than 40 years ago.

Every time a missing person case is opened, a machine swings into action. With a high-profile disappearance such as that of James Nolan – whose body was sadly found in Bydgoszcz, Poland during Euro 2012 – the search and awareness effort can span international borders.

So how does the search for a missing person actually work? TheJournal.ie spoke to the experts to find out.

What happens first?

A search effort begins when the case is reported to the gardaí. The first thing officers have to do is make sure the person’s loved ones have taken the routine steps.

“We’d ask straight away – who were they with? Have you contacted those people,” a garda spokesperson with knowledge of the area told TheJournal.ie. Lots of cases are solved this way, in the first few minutes.

The next step, with limited resources available to gardaí, is to determine the priority level of the case. How much danger is the person in?

“A young person, or someone heavily dependent on medication” would mean a large deployment of resources, the spokesperson said. And what can they do?

If you have a six or seven-year-old gone missing, that’s a very serious situation. We’d put out port and airport alerts. Or say we had someone known to have suicidal tendencies and their car is found parked at a harbour – we’d bring in air support.

This video shows the Coast Guard helicopter performing a rescue from the water in training:

YouTube/btdolan

What then?

Next, officers start asking questions. They start with the obvious ones. “If people say ‘Well, he was talking about visiting Cork’, obviously you’ll be looking there,” the garda source said. They’ll also question anyone who might have useful information about the person’s plans or mental state – their teachers, for example, if a teenager goes missing.

Gardaí can also alert the media. However, they don’t do this for every case – partially due to privacy concerns – and they try to restrict giving out personal information unless they believe someone’s life is in danger.

But media appeals can be powerful. “Less than a month ago a lady went missing, we put out an appeal, and within an hour or two people gave us a location,” the source said.

How successful is it?

Most people are found, one way or another – and most of those are within a day or two days after being reported missing. But some, of course, are not. “The vast majority of people are located. At the end of the year, there’s very few people outstanding,” the source said.

But there’s a few that are gone years. Then you have to ask whether it is a missing person case, or whether it might be a murder.

What about the big searches we hear about?

Only a very small minority of  cases end up in big, high-profile searches. Often civilian volunteers groups are drafted in, such as mountain rescue teams or diving clubs. Sadly these are the cases which are most likely to conclude with the discovery of  a body.

Joe Blake is the founder of Trace Missing Persons Ireland, a voluntary group which aids in the search for missing persons – often those who have been missing for years. They’ve been involved in searches in high-profile missing persons cases, such as Imelda Keenan in Waterford and Fiona Pender from Tullamore.

“You’d be looking for items of clothing, different things, weapons,” Blake says. They use trained cadaver dogs which are incredibly sensitive to any trace of suspicious activity.

One is a springer spaniel, used to search for human remains and forensic evidence. He can pick up a millilitre of human remains in a ten-acre field. Or body fluid four feet underground.

This video shows a cadaver dog working with a missing persons team in LA:

YouTube/MrVando61

When Trace are given information that suggests a missing body may be in a particular area, they search it methodically, over and over – two, three, up to six or seven times.

The dogs’ handlers must be trained too, as they are so sensitive their signals can be confusing. If a dog ‘indicates’ at a tree and attempts to climb it, for example, it may mean a body is buried underneath.

The body fluids go up through the roots, and out through the leaves of the tree,” Blake says.

But it’s not just down to the dogs; investigators must also try to read the psychology of anyone who may have been trying to conceal evidence.

We found a bone, a slash hook and an old shoe, a foot and a half under a fire hearth in a disused cottage. The dog had indicated in the middle of the floor. You’ve got to take psychology into account – where would somebody bury remains?

Blake founded Trace Missing Persons because he believed that not enough was being done to help their families. The organisation is now trying to raise funds for a machine that ‘reads’ the contours of any objects underground, which Blake says would dramatically speed up searches.

Much of Trace’s work has been around the ‘missing six’ women – Jo Jo Dullard, Deirdre Jacob, Annie McCarrick, Fiona Sinnott, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen.

Blake is hopeful that at least one of the cases will be resolved in the near future. ”I can see a result coming there quite soon,” he says.

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