County officials said Thursday they will work to strengthen efforts to locate missing people following the discovery of three women who said they were held captive in a home there for about a decade.
Cuyahoga County is launching a website about unresolved cases and plans to hire three people to focus on them, county Executive Ed FitzGerald said.
The announcement came 10 days after 911 calls led police to a home where they found Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight a few miles from where they separately disappeared between 2002 and 2004. Neighbors and relatives have said they were shocked by allegations that the women were taken and held captive by the homeowner, Ariel Castro, who is charged with kidnapping and rape and is expected to plead not guilty.
FitzGerald said the discovery prompted officials to expedite previously determined plans to focus more resources on such cases. The new initiative will address a gap in information-sharing for police, the public and families of the missing, he said.
The county sheriff's department will add two deputies dedicated to missing-person cases and hire a liaison to update the new website, help local law enforcement exchange case information and ensure cases don't fall through the cracks.
"One of the things we've seen in this is a case is kind of a hot case for a while, and then it kind of goes cold after a while," FitzGerald said. "It's important, I think, to have a couple law enforcement officers that are specifically assigned to these cases no matter how hot or cold they may be."
The city of Cleveland has about 110 unresolved cases, or roughly one-tenth of the state total, and it's hard to determine how many people are missing throughout the county because it hasn't had a central location for that information, FitzGerald said. The website under construction is intended to fill that void and will allow the public to look up case information, report tips, get advice on what to do if someone disappears and print posters about those who are missing.
FitzGerald estimated the cost of the initiative, including the dedicated staff, will be about $250,000 annually.
Sheriff Frank Bova emphasized the initiative applies throughout the county, not just in Cleveland.
"As the last few weeks has taught us, the search for a missing person should be a never-ending mission for families, law enforcement and our community partners," Bova said.
An attorney representing the three women found May 6 didn't immediately return a call seeking their reaction to the announcement.
In recent years, the city's police have overhauled how they handle missing-person and sex crime investigations based on recommendations issued after the remains of 11 women were found in 2009 at the home of Anthony Sowell, who is now appealing his death sentence in the women's killings.
Many of the women were missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. Some of their relatives believed police didn't take the disappearances seriously and complained about the handling of the missing-person reports.
In the wake of that case, police created a missing-persons unit and a related website, trained officers in best practices for those investigations and broadened the domestic-violence division of the city prosecutor's office to include sex crimes.
Cuyahoga County Missing Persons site: http://missingpersonscuyahoga.org
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