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Originally published May 19, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified May 20, 2011 at 8:27 AM

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Where is Marizela Perez? Families frustrated when loved ones vanish

Marizela Perez's family believes Seattle police could be doing more to find the missing University of Washington student. But they have also learned what other families in similarly heartbreaking situations face: There are few resources devoted to finding missing adults and limited avenues for law enforcement to pursue when there's no evidence of foul play.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Database on missing adults

IN AN EFFORT TO CREATE a comprehensive national database on missing adults, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is asking people with information about specific missing-person cases to enter it into a free online database, which is accessible to medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement and the general public. In the past, the only national repository of missing-persons' data was the FBI's National Crime Information Center, which can be used only by law-enforcement agencies. For more information, see www.namus.gov

Marizela Perez's family has set up a tip line for information on her whereabouts: 1-855-MARIZEL. Callers will remain anonymous.

quotes To all the people whom say she's an adult, and probably wants some time for herself. I... Read more
quotes I find it disgusting - yet entirely predictable - that some people used this story as... Read more
quotes No offense to the family but I can see how all that doting attention could become... Read more

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Perhaps Marizela Perez is hiding out somewhere, gathering the courage to tell her parents she dropped out of chemistry, switched her major to art and got a tattoo.

At least that's what her parents hope.

The alternatives, say Jasmin and Edgar Perez, are too horrible to accept.

Marizela, an 18-year-old University of Washington freshman, was seen leaving a Safeway store on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast on March 5. She has not been seen since.

Police and her relatives say there was no evidence of an abduction, no note left by Marizela, no indication of what may have happened to the only child, whom her father called "the center of our family."

Her relatives filed a police report and put up hundreds of fliers, held fundraisers, created Facebook pages, hired a private investigator, searched woods and parks with teams of trained dogs and even had the case featured twice on television's "America's Most Wanted." Marizela's cousin, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, has written about the disappearance in her nationally syndicated column and on the website www.findmarizela.com.

Still, nothing.

Their frustration mounting, Marizela's family believes Seattle police could be doing more to find the missing woman. But they have also learned what other families in similarly heartbreaking situations face: There are few resources devoted to finding missing adults and limited avenues for law enforcement to pursue when there's no evidence of foul play.

"It is not a crime for an adult to go missing," said Luci Stewart, manager of the State Patrol's missing and unidentified persons unit.

People over the age of 18 are legal adults and have rights to privacy that often supersede the desire of families to track down information on their whereabouts, said a spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Office.

Moreover, without evidence of a crime, police often cannot obtain a search warrant to compel Internet and cellphone companies to release information on a user's account.

This particular fact has rankled Marizela's family, who believe her email, social media and cellphone accounts could hold vital — and time-sensitive — information on her location.

Malkin says she was shocked to learn that parents lose access to such basic information once a child turns 18. Additionally, she said, she believes there is little coordination, cooperation or consistency among local, state and federal investigative agencies when it comes to investigating missing adults.

"When you have a child missing, you have Amber Alerts and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but there is no public national database for missing adults," Malkin said. "It's a gray area, but as a parent you know that regardless of age, they are still your child."

At the least, Malkin said, she would like to see Washington adopt the Silver and Gold alert programs used in other states that publicize information about missing adults who are vulnerable, elderly, disabled or suicidal.

Seattle police spokesman Mark Jamieson said he understands the family's frustration but said police don't have the resources to investigate every missing-person case as a potential criminal case.

"If we had indications this person was abducted or kidnapped, it would be a higher priority and there would be more resources and coordination, but we don't have that," he said.

Thousands of cases

According to the State Patrol, there are about 20,000 missing-persons cases reported in Washington each year. Seattle police alone receive around 1,700 missing-persons cases a year.

The majority of those cases are teens and young adults who run away from juvenile-rehabilitation centers and foster homes. Most of them go home or get caught, police said. Many others are people with mental-health or addiction issues.

"Their lifestyles can result in more danger, and some do end up as victims of crimes," Stewart said.

Then there are the stories of people who walk away from their old lives to the great disbelief of their families.

Sgt. John Urquhart, King County sheriff's spokesman, cites the case of a SeaTac man who disappeared a few years ago.

Nicholas Francisco was reported missing on February 2008 by his then-wife of seven years, who was expecting the couple's third child. Francisco's car was found abandoned in Federal Way. His wife insisted that her devoutly religious husband would never abandon their family and that she feared foul play. She criticized investigators who, without evidence of a crime, were unable to obtain Francisco's cellphone records.

Less than two years later, Francisco was found living in California under another name.

Retracing steps

There were 18 new cases on his desk when Seattle police Detective David Ogard first learned of Marizela's disappearance on March 7. Over the next three days while he worked on her case exclusively, an additional 30 cases came into the department's two-member missing-persons unit, he said.

An initial check with her bank indicated that no transactions had posted since March 3, two days before her disappearance, he said, and an abduction seemed possible.

Ogard said he spent hours retracing her steps and searching video surveillance of Sound Transit's light rail. He learned that she had purchased items at the U District Safeway. The store's surveillance video shows Marizela, 5-feet-5 and slender with an asymmetrical bob, walking out of the store and heading north. Her parents said police told them that Marizela bought orange juice, trash bags, Tylenol and an over-the-counter sleeping aid from the Safeway at around 2:20 p.m.

Marizela had been diagnosed with depression after her grandfather died and had been prescribed medication to treat it, her parents said. She was far from home, having moved from New Jersey to live with her aunt and uncle and attend college in Seattle. Shortly before her disappearance, Marizela had been distressed about a recent breakup with her boyfriend, they said.

But, her parents said, she had been happier over the first week of March, something they took to mean she had gotten over the worst of her post-breakup blues.

Marizela's parents doted on their daughter. They indulged her talent for shopping and her love of shoes, allowing her to amass a prized collection of 48 pairs of Converse sneakers.

They also guarded her welfare rigorously, keeping her on a toddler's leash until kindergarten, and instilling the virtues of excellence and hard work.

By the time she was in high school, Perez was a regular on the honor roll and president of the Key Club. She was artistic, creative and thoughtful, according to friends and relatives.

According to police, the last time Marizela's cellphone registered contact with her carrier was through a cellphone tower at 47th Avenue Northeast at 2:45 p.m. the same time a text message was sent to her. Among the family's chief frustrations is that they don't know who sent her that text or what it said. Her phone was then turned off.

Her family is disappointed that police have not been able to get information about the text messages from AT&T. They also want police to compel Google to release information about her computer activity before her disappearance.

Marizela had her laptop computer with her when she disappeared.

In an email to Perez' family, Ogard explains that text messages are usually only captured when law-enforcement officers have a warrant in hand at the time of a disappearance or they are able to recover the actual cellphone. He said AT&T told him that in Perez's case, its system did not capture complete information on the texts, perhaps because they were sent from a computer or a handheld device.

The difficulty in obtaining a warrant without evidence of a crime was underscored by Ogard's inability to get prosecutors to sign off on a search warrant he was seeking. He finally did find a judge to sign off on a search warrant to Google for Marizela's Internet activity by citing "community caretaking and emergency welfare," but the judge did so reluctantly, he said.

A private investigator hired by the family has concluded, according to Edgar Perez, that because of her recent breakup, the items she bought at the store and other information that the family did not care to discuss, Marizela most likely committed suicide.

Seattle police spokeswoman Renee Witt said investigators do not have definitive answers, but "it is possible Marizela took her own life."

Her mother rejects that, saying Marizela "would never do that."

"Red flags"

Even if Seattle police had done everything the way Marizela's family wanted, the outcome might not have been different, according to Renton police detective Keith Hansen, who last year investigated the April 18 disappearance of 19-year-old old Kathy Chou.

Unlike Seattle police, Renton police immediately declared Chou's disappearance an "emergent," or immediate, threat to her life and her cellphone and Internet records were preserved and released without the necessity of a search warrant.

Hansen said there are no hard and fast rules or policies about prioritizing missing-persons cases. It's as much an art as science, he said. But investigators who make those calls have usually dealt with hundreds and hundreds of cases and they're alert to the "red flags," he said.

"This kid had never run away, she didn't seem to be into drugs at all, she wasn't sleeping around and she wasn't in trouble," Hansen said. "To me, that sounded like it could be dangerous."

Hansen said Chou's computer netted little information, but her cellphone records were used to interview and polygraph all the males she'd spoken to that day.

Still, there's been no sign of Chou.

"We have absolutely no idea what happened to her," Hansen said.

Chou's father, who asked not to be named, said he and his wife searched for their daughter in Seattle, Oregon, Las Vegas and California.

During his travels and research, her father said he learned that a person disappears in this country every 20 seconds. Many are never found.

"This country is very, very big, and we don't know where to look," he said. "I feel very upset it's not easy."

But he's found a strange sort of solace and peace in remembering her when she was young and thinking of how he treated her through her life.

"I was very, very good to her; very, very nice. I liked to make her happy when she was here. I feel very fortunate I did that before it was too late."

And, as sad as it sounds, he's comforted that others have suffered as he has and understand his loss. "This has happened to thousands and thousands of other people," he said. "Its not just me and my wife."

But, he said, his search is not over.

"We are still looking for her everywhere, anytime, because she is our daughter."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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