Learning from Terrilynn Monette

The police diver has changed into dry clothes; his hair is still wet.

A few hours earlier, Slidell policeman Mark Michaud found the apparent remains of Terrilynn Monette inside her car at the bottom of Bayou St. John, ending a three-month search for the missing New Orleans schoolteacher.

Michaud now wades into a crowd of reporters and onlookers gathered on the opposite bank, near the corner Wisner Boulevard and Harrison Avenue, across from City Park. He says he’s looking for Toni Enclade, the teacher’s mother.

“I wanted to bring some peace to the family,” says Michaud, who volunteered his police diving skills to the New Orleans Police Department. The coroner’s office said Monette died by drowning, adding that no evidence of trauma was found. The New Orleans Police Department continued to investigate the high-profile case to determine if any foul play led to her death.

Monette disappeared at approximately 5:13 a.m. March 2, after capping a nightlong celebration with friends of a teacher of the year nomination at Parlay’s, a Lakeview bar. The NOPD, other law enforcement agencies and everyday citizens devoted hundreds of hours to the search, which made national news.

By mid-June, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas still had not addressed the wider issue of other missing person investigations – like Cleveland is doing.

In Cleveland, the May 6 liberation of three women from the home of a man who abducted them 10 years ago has awakened the city’s resolve to find other missing persons.

In a special edition, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published pictures of the rescued women – Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus – over the headline: “THREE ARE FOUND; 102 STILL MISSING.”

The report featured pictures and information of dozens of other missing Clevelanders and a map of their last known whereabouts.
Cleveland police, who came under fire for failing to find the three women (they were rescued by neighbors), rebounded with an outreach effort: “Night Out for Missing Persons.” Other initiatives are planned.

Such efforts should help “replace the faceless and unfeeling police bureaucracy that rape survivors described in the trial” of a convicted serial killer, sentenced to die in 2011 for raping and murdering 11 women in a house, the Plain Dealer said in a May 31 editorial.

Unlike the NOPD, the Cleveland Police Department has a missing persons database on its website.

The NOPD diligently cranks out press releases on individual cases, including runaway juveniles, elderly people with dementia and folks last seen at one of the city’s many bars or nightclubs.

Yet, the department couldn’t say which of those cases have been solved – or not.

After a direct appeal to the chief, a police spokeswoman told us that NOPD responded to calls for help concerning 974 juvenile “runaways” and 564 missing adults in 2012. Police reports on each case would cost upwards of $30,000, we were told. The unpaid review of those records (under the state public records laws) would require the “shut down” of police units.

Darlene Cusanza, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Crimestoppers Inc., which offered a $20,000 reward in the Monette case, says missing persons cases generally aren’t a top law enforcement priority in the eight-parish metro area.

“We don’t get that many requests for help with missing persons cases,” Cusanza says. “We get asked to help with other things, like cold-case homicides.”

Louisiana State University forensic dentist Robert Barsley, who confirmed Monette’s identity using her dental records, says the state-authorized Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons (IdentifyLa.lsu.edu) offers a “pretty comprehensive” database for law enforcement and citizens statewide.

In mid-June, the website featured several dozen unsolved cases in Orleans Parish dating back years. They include: Ylenia Maria Carrisi, the “Italian Vanna White” and granddaughter of American movie legend, Tyrone Power, last seen in New Orleans Jan. 6, 1994. (NOPD Item No. A-36564-94).

Even if the number of New Orleans cases is promulgated regularly, a website alone doesn’t suffice.

Missing persons cases are “complex and time-consuming” and “many agencies are challenged to deploy the manpower and resources required,” according to Missing Persons, a 2010 project of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice. (Serpas is a vice president of the IACP.)

The study offers a number of ways both organized groups and “spontaneous” volunteers can help law enforcement look for lost children, senior citizens with dementia and young adults who suddenly drop out of sight.

 “Missing adults tend to draw less attention, making it difficult for loved ones to get the assistance they need in locating them,” according to the IACP study, which noted the availability of “Alzheimer’s grants” to help elderly with dementia who go missing: “Of those who are reported missing and lost more than 24 hours, only 33 percent survive. Of those lost more than 72 hours, only 20 percent survive.”

In May, as the search for Terrilynn Monette entered its third month, NOPD officers working the case continued to draw praise from Monette’s fellow teachers and staff. “They’ve been phenomenal” said Amy Hoyle, principal of Woodlands Elementary School.

Third District Police Capt. John D. Thomas said the public was engaged in the case, adding that volunteers passed out scores of fliers featuring Monette’s black 2012 Honda Accord with Louisiana license plate number WUN-494. Anyone who saw the car was urged to call police.

As a result, Thomas said, police learned there is a man in eastern New Orleans who owns a black Honda Civic with the same plate – except for one number. “We stopped him numerous times,” Thomas said.

New Orleans needs that kind of actively engaged public and police force to pursue its other missing person cases. That would be a tribute to the teaching legacy of Terrilynn Monette.