So two journalists and a lawyer walk into a police station … and yes, actually this is a joke, a horrible joke, because among the three of us – articulate, well-educated people – we could get absolutely nothing accomplished.
Here’s the story: My best friend, James “Jim” Dugan, is missing … sort of. He’s missing in the sense that we don’t have his body but not in the sense that we don’t know where he is. We know where he is. He is in the Mississippi River. And we can’t seem to get anyone to care.
The official release that the police sent out had his name wrong, his height wrong, his tattoos wrong. But the worst error in the whole release was this (taken from the Times-Picayune): “A friend last saw James Dugan, 42, sitting on a dock near Chartres and Alvar streets about 4 a.m. Tuesday, according to officer Hilal Williams, a New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman.”
The Times-Picayune had to report what was in the release; I get that entirely.
But the official release from the police neglected to mention the very important fact that the dock he was seen sitting on? Collapsed into the Mississippi River with him and his friend on it! The girl he was with made it to shore. She thought he did, too. But he hasn’t been seen since.
Divers from a volunteer search group finally went out today, nearly a week after Jim went missing.
I’m sorry. This is scattered. Let me begin at the beginning.
I got a text message from Jim at 2:41 a.m. on Tuesday morning. I wrote him back the next morning when I woke up, and when I hadn’t heard back from him by the time I got off work, I called a few other friends to see if they’d heard anything from him. They all said his phone was going straight to voicemail. That wasn’t particularly unusual, but my hackles went up anyway, and my friend and coworker, Sarah Ravits, and I decided to drive to his home in Bywater to check on him after we got off work at 5:30. It was eerily silent, although maybe it only seems that way in retrospect. Next we drove to his work – he waited tables at Bistreaux and Le Meritage at Maison Dupuy. And we were told he never showed up for his shift, which was not like him at all. (Jim quit jobs but always in a spectacular and dramatic fashion, not just by flaking out.) We got truly worried at that point and checked some of his favorite hangouts: nothing. We called central lockup and hospitals. Finally, we went by our friend Jeremy’s house because Jeremy had seen Jim the night before at around 9. Jeremy said when he last saw him, Jim was on his way to meet a girl named Kelly. Sarah went to Jim’s Facebook page, searched his friends list and sent a message to the only Kelly on the list asking her to get in touch if she was indeed the Kelly who had been out with Jim the night before.
Early the next morning, after I still hadn’t heard from Jim, I contacted the NOPD and asked that someone do a welfare check to see if he was in his house. I also alerted them to the fact that his dog was inside the house and needed to be let out and fed. I was told someone would call me back; no one ever did.
In the meantime, Sarah and I went back to his house on our lunch break around 12:30 with my boyfriend, Robert. On our way there, we heard from Kelly. She was the right Kelly, and she said she and Jim had been drunk on a pier over the Mississippi when it collapsed, sending them both into the water. At that point, we called 911.
And since then, it has been completely frustrating at every turn. Kelly told the first officer that she thought Jim made it out of the water but was too drunk to be sure. We later heard from a friend, Travis Shuler, that Kelly made a formal written statement that said he had made it out, although on a Facebook group that Shuler started called “Help Find Jim Dugan,” (which now has more than 1,600 members) she told only her original story, that she really wasn’t sure whether he got out or not. I called the police to tell the sergeant in charge of the investigation that I had heard Kelly say – to me and Sarah and the responding officer – that she wasn’t sure whether he got out; I did this only because it seemed that police were treating it as a missing persons investigation when in fact no one could confirm that he had gotten out of the water. I called on Friday night, and I was told that the sergeant was gone for the weekend. As of right now, Monday at 7 p.m., I have heard nothing back.
On Saturday, Jim’s friend Abby Van Deerlin, a lawyer, and Sarah and I, two journalists, went to the Bywater police station with printouts from the Facebook group in which Kelly had stated, again, that she could not be sure he made it out of the water. We just wanted the police to know that there was a very high probability that he did not make it out of the water and that they should be focusing their efforts there.
At that point, the woman behind the desk said that NOPD didn’t handle anything in the water. She told us that she couldn’t even swim and that it was far too dangerous for NOPD to do water searches. She said Coast Guard would help recover a body when it surfaced. She said Harbor Police could possibly help search for a body. She said we could call the coroner. She did not seem to sense our urgency.
We asked when we could expect anyone to look at our printouts, and she said nothing could happen until the only copy machine in the office was fixed because she’d need to make copies for every person involved in the case. When will it be fixed? we asked. She didn’t know exactly but assured us that it wouldn’t stay broken for days.
Feeling defeated, we left. Abby made the copies herself and delivered them back to the police station. No one has contacted any of us about them.
Jim’s mom and brother, in town from his native New York, have been getting the runaround from everyone. Jim’s brother and friends searched the wooded area around where the dock collapsed and even waded into the water themselves to search. His brother said on Facebook on Saturday night: “As far as I can tell no one has searched the wooded area where Kelly got out of the river. I will tomorrow. If you want to join me meet me at Jim’s place at 8:30. I will be at the bottom of Pauline St. at 9:00 AM. I have seen the area and it is thick and full of thorn bushes. I understand that going in to the area is trespassing. I know NOPD did not go into the area to look for my brother. I doubt they will come in to find me… and if they do at least they are finally in the area he was last seen (in or out of the water).”
A volunteer dive team from Texas, EquuSearch, was finally called in by the police yesterday. They have known since Wednesday that he had fallen into the river and not been seen since.
Another friend, Molly, called both NOPD and Harbor Police and had this to say on the Facebook group: “I called NOPD just to ask why Harbor Police or Coast Guard haven’t resumed a boat search to supplement the dive team search, and mostly just to let them know that the public cares about this. So I was surprised when neither the NOPD public information officer nor the Harbor Police shift lieutenant could give me accurate information about the search. NOPD sent me to Harbor Police, saying they would be the ones to decide to resume a boat search. But when I called Harbor Police, they said NOPD’s the lead and they’re waiting on instructions from them. So I called NOPD back, got in touch with Officer Williams, the public information officer on duty at the dive search site. She repeated what the other PIO had said, that Harbor Police is responsible for deciding whether to resume a search. I told her what HP had told me, that NOPD is the lead, and that it looks pretty bad that neither of them knows what the other is doing or supposed to be doing. So all I said was, if NOPD has not yet coordinated a resumed downriver search with Harbor Police, Coast Guard and downriver parish emergency operations, then that should be done, because obviously you can’t rely on this dive team searching one spot on the river. She said she would look into it.”
Molly later reported back that the Coast Guard wasn’t involved because they only look for living people and the detective and the Coast Guard had determined that it was impossible for him to have survived in the river. We all knew that. We weren’t living in a fantasy world where he’d be found alive in the river clinging to a piece of driftwood. But we were never told – by anyone – why dive teams weren’t called in sooner, and it’s been nothing but a jurisdictional nightmare since this all began. I know resources are scarce everywhere, but, you know, they found Douglas Schantz. They found Brian Reed. Jim wasn’t a big shot, and his brother doesn’t play pro-football. But Jim was still better-connected in terms of friends and resources than many other people, and we all should be worth looking for. As Jim’s friend Margaret Davidson said on the Facebook group: “What about people who fall into the water who don’t have 1,600 friends with computers and connections? This whole thing is heartbreaking, and the idea of the countless others that it’s happened to without so much as a whisper just makes it that much more despicable.”
Sarah and I went today to search surveillance footage from Turn Services, a private business located near where Jim went into the river. We found nothing, but it was good to be able to cross that off the list. “Have the police contacted you?” Sarah asked. They said no, no one from the police had been in touch.
I watch a lot of horrible crime TV shows. I know that Law & Order is fiction, but even so, I never thought that the response from the police would be this lackluster. I have constantly defended the NOPD and their efforts. I’ve said what a hard job it is that they have to do, hard and dangerous and heroic. I know that they are spread thin in terms of manpower and resources. But the way this case has been handled leaves me shaken and scared and absolutely lacking in confidence at their ability to serve and protect me and my friends.
Folks, this man wasn’t a millionaire, but he wasn’t a nobody – and that shouldn’t matter anyway. Jim was one of the smartest, funniest, most charismatic people I have ever known, as well as one of the most loyal. He was the former executive director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society. He was passionate about New Orleans and its people. Most important, he had a 7-year-old daughter. He is worth looking for.
I love this city as much as anyone, and I try to laugh off so many of its flaws. Maddening City Hall bureaucracy, potholes that don’t get filled, the fact that some of the school zone flashers and speed cameras haven’t been automatically reset to Daylight Savings Time: I just shrug and say, “Eh, it’s New Orleans” and drink a Bloody Mary at brunch with the sun on my shoulders and feel privileged to live here. But not right now. I’m sorry, but the way this is being handled is absolute bullshit.
One of Jim’s neighbors, Elizabeth Underwood, posted this on the Facebook group: “The whole Bywater neighborhood, where I live, is on 100 percent alert and 100 percent supportive and sending love and prayers to Jim’s family. We will do what our cops and government will not – that’s how it is after every disaster we survive. I’m in awe of everyone connected to Jim and this search – the honor and dignity being expressed here is a sign of what an incredible man Jim is. We’re seeing search and rescue teams finally being deployed and news crews from all channels down here – kudos to everyone involved in this effort for making this happen. Onward, friends. This is the saddest yet most beautiful example of ‘social networking’ we have ever seen.”
I agree. But I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I want Facebook to show me which of my high school rivals got fat and whether my ex-boyfriends have gotten married and how cute my friends’ babies are. I want the police to help find missing people and recover bodies.
If anyone wants more information, please go here.