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For families of missing Wichitans, hope never vanishes (+video)

Mother describes 16 years her daughter has been missing

April Wiss went missing around Pawnee and Broadway in January 2000. Her mother, Gloria "Dee" Clasen, talks about life in the 16 years since.
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April Wiss went missing around Pawnee and Broadway in January 2000. Her mother, Gloria "Dee" Clasen, talks about life in the 16 years since.

John Wilson. April Wiss. Jennifer Wilson. Eryn Gray. Jacquilla Scales. Vivian Botz.

All have gone missing from the Wichita area over the last 20 years, never to be found.

No matter the length of each person’s disappearance, family members left behind all grapple with the same question: Why?

There are 62 active missing persons cases in Kansas, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. The site is operated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Those charged with finding the missing – law enforcement officers – often have difficulty investigating these cases, as trails tend to go cold quickly.

But families and law enforcement alike are driven by the hope that one day the missing may be found.

“There’s always hope,” said Wayne Minckley, Miami County undersheriff. “You should never give up hope that they’re alive somewhere.”

Still ‘part of us’

April Wiss disappeared in 2000 at 16 years old.

She was stubbornly independent, said her mother, Gloria “Dee” Clasen, and as the oldest child, she did what she wanted.

“She was in that category of, ‘I’m 16, I want to do what I want to,’ ” Clasen said. “She just kept on doing things she wasn’t supposed to be doing, like staying out all night. She wouldn’t go by the rules.”

Clasen arranged for Wiss to stay at a friend’s apartment near Pawnee and Broadway for a few months so that she could get a taste of living independently.

Wiss was happy, Clasen said.

Then, on the night of Jan. 11, 2000, she vanished.

She took nothing but her wallet, pager and apartment key.

She left the lights and television on, and left $150 and a freshly baked cake behind.

She was last seen walking toward the Pawnee and Broadway area around 10 or 10:30 that night.

“It was like she was coming back” to the apartment, Clasen said.

April Wiss went missing around Pawnee and Broadway in January 2000. Her mother, Gloria "Dee" Clasen, talks about life in the 16 years since.

Clasen said she thinks Wiss was abducted and possibly could have been trafficked.

Is she in a category that she even knows who she is, or is she even alive? You have to think both ways.

Gloria “Dee” Clasen, April Wiss’ mother

“You’ve got to look at all these people out there that take girls and put them on dope and sell them and stuff like that,” she said. “Is she in a category that she even knows who she is, or is she even alive? You have to think both ways.”

Her disappearance was especially difficult for her 6-year-old sister, Heather, to take.

“Heather just couldn’t imagine it – she cried herself to sleep every night,” Clasen said. “We’d sit down and talk about her.

“She wanted her big sister, she wanted her friend back, and of course Mama couldn’t give that to her.”

Pictures of all of Clasen’s children hang on the wall of her south Wichita living room. Wiss’ old room is now being used as storage space.

A blue ceramic angel Wiss got for Christmas weeks before she disappeared sits in a living-room cabinet.

Clasen is now teaching her 2-year-old granddaughter the names of her aunts and uncles – including Aunt April.

“I will always let my family know who she is,” Clasen said. “She’s still part of us.”

Investigating cold cases

There is a dry-erase board in the basement of the Miami County Sheriff’s Office that features the names and case numbers of all the cold cases in the county.

“They see this every day,” said Minckley, the undersheriff. Miami County is south of Johnson County.

“We can’t forget. We can’t just put it in a box and forget about it, because that’s not doing the family justice.”

The Sheriff’s Office has found two missing people in the past year, including a 54-year-old woman who was reported missing about a day before she was found in a ravine, where her car had driven off the road.

Then last May, a man reported missing for 23 years was found in his car at the bottom of a Miami County lake.

“It’s tough – it’s almost like you’re working an unsolved murder,” Minckley said. “Each second, each minute, each hour, each day that ticks away, you’re getting farther and farther from solving it.”

 

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office has made a push in the past year to find new leads in cold cases, said sheriff’s Lt. Lin Dehning.

Detectives meet once a month to brainstorm any new angles they can investigate on the county’s cold cases.

“It never hurts to put a fresh set of eyes on something and get new ideas,” Dehning said.

‘It’s just not knowing’

When James Wilson lists his family members, one is missing.

“I’ve got my brother Bill, I’ve got a sister here, Carol, got a brother Steve in Arkansas, a brother Frank in Pennsylvania,” he said.

”And I’ve got a brother Johnny. Not sure where he’s at.”

John Wilson, 64, disappeared in December, making him the city’s most recent missing persons case.

He boarded a city bus Dec. 16 and rode to the Mount Vernon and Oliver area. He walked to a Kwik Shop on South Oliver and to a credit union before walking away into the night, never to be seen again.

Wilson’s disappearance inspired weeks of searching in the area, efforts that have proven fruitless thus far.

The family has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to Wilson’s return in an attempt to keep him in the news, James Wilson said.

Perhaps more than anything else, James Wilson is frustrated by his brother’s disappearance.

It’s just not knowing. It does kind of bother you.

James Wilson, John Wilson’s brother

“It’s just not knowing,” he said. “It does kind of bother you.”

His sister, Carol, recently called him in tears, “astonished” that her brother couldn’t be found, James Wilson said.

“(You’ve got) times when you constantly think about it and you’ve got times when you’ve got other things to do,” he said. “You’ve just got to compartmentalize things.

“You can’t sit around and become a basket case about it. You’ve just got to keep on day-to-day.”

Bill Wilson says he thinks it’s now “highly unlikely” his brother will return home alive.

“I’m sure every family’s reaction is different, but we all go through the same emotion – no closure,” he said.

How cases can play out

Investigating when adults go missing is sometimes more complex than when children go missing, law enforcement officials said.

When children are missing, “you automatically assume the worst,” said David Falletti, senior special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

“With adults, you’re in a wondering phase at the beginning,” Falletti said. “Why are they missing? Is it by choice, is it by some kind of mental problem, or is it some kind of foul play?”

62 reported missing people in Kansas as of Sunday

39 years length of longest current missing persons case

Dehning said the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office currently has 13 cold cases, at least one of which is an adult: Jennifer Wilson was 29 when she was reported missing in 2002.

He said missing persons cases “can go different ways.”

“You can find a person – they can just turn up somewhere, they can return to where they were missing from, you can end up finding a body … or it turns out you never know,” Dehning said.

Though it’s not the norm, he said sometimes people simply disappear on their own accord, not wanting to be found.

“Every once in a while we’ll run into that situation,” Dehning said. “If law enforcement finds you and says, ‘Hey, you’ve been reported a missing person,’ you can say, ‘I don’t want to have any contact with that person,’ and we can’t tell them because you’re an adult.”

A step toward closure

Paulette Mattingly has accepted that her adopted daughter, Jennifer Wilson, has likely been dead for the past 14 years.

It was not easy to come to that conclusion, she said.

Wilson, who was 29 at the time, was first reported missing in 2002. She had gotten into an argument with her roommate at the club where she worked and the argument spilled over to their house, Mattingly said.

According to law enforcement narratives, her roommate then left the house. When she returned, Wilson was gone.

For the first two years, Mattingly didn’t report Wilson as missing. Wilson was 29, and her mother said she couldn’t control it if she wanted to leave unexpectedly. But then Wilson never called.

Mattingly said authorities told her in 2004 it was likely “something bad had happened” to her daughter.

“I cried myself to sleep every night,” she said. “I could get along during the daytime, but the minute the lights went out, that’s all I could think about.

“I would sleep two, three hours a night, and I’d wake up with my eyes swollen shut. I’d get up and go to work and, you know, I worked in a funeral home.”

The minute the lights went out, that’s all I could think about.

Paulette Mattingly, Jennifer Wilson’s mother

She had her daughter declared legally dead on June 13, 2013, as the first step toward closure, she said.

“It would have been nice if we had been able to find some evidence of Jennifer, but since there was nothing, it just became less and less possible that she was alive,” Mattingly said.

The hardest part? Knowing that all the facts point to Wilson being dead, but hoping against hope that it’s not true.

“You have this ambivalence,” Mattingly said. “You believe one thing, but at the same time you’re believing something else.”

In recent weeks, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office has further investigated the case, which is being worked as a homicide. Dehning said deputies have re-interviewed people and have put together a more complete timeline of events, which prompted a Crime Stoppers news release last month.

He said deputies have recently searched the area around where Wilson lived – South 143rd Street and East 63rd Street, east of Derby – looking for her remains, but have not found anything.

“We are asking for further help from the public for any information that would aid us in locating Jennifer Wilson’s body,” Dehning said.

Mattingly said she is confident law enforcement is on the cusp of a breakthrough in the case.

Changes in reporting cases

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have become more proactive about filing and publishing information about reported missing persons.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to wait 24 hours to report someone you love is missing,” said Falletti, the KBI agent. “There’s no real time frame. It’s better to have ahead of time, that way we can put out attempt-to-locate types of messages.”

A bill expected to come before the Kansas House soon would require Kansas law enforcement agencies to file a missing persons report within two hours of receiving a minimum amount of information on the case. The bill unanimously passed the Senate Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice last month.

It’s a slight amendment to the 2013 Kansas Missing Persons Act, which requires law enforcement agencies to file a report “as soon as practical.”

Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, whose daughter was abducted and killed in 2007, introduced the bill, as well as the 2013 legislation.

It passed the Senate in “a minute or less,” he said, and he doesn’t expect anything different when it advances to the House.

The legislation brings Kansas up to speed with federal laws, which also include the two-hour time frame, Smith said.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said his deputies already file their reports well within that time frame.

“Years ago when you didn’t have the technology … it wasn’t always done within two hours because you had calls holding and didn’t have a computer to enter it into,” Easter said.

“Now we can do it from our cars and get the information sent in immediately while we’re still on scene. I don’t see that as a problem at all.”

The waiting

In the 16 years April Wiss has been missing, Clasen, her mother, has dreamed of her six times.

In the dreams, Wiss appears the same as she did in 2000.

“It wasn’t like she had aged or anything,” Clasen said. “That was the hardest this year.

“You have to think: She was 16 missing, and it’s been 16 years. That’s half of her life that you have nothing of her.”

That’s half of her life that you have nothing of her.

Gloria “Dee” Clasen, April Wiss’ mother

On the day that Wiss would have turned 18, Clasen sat by the phone all day, anticipating a call from her.

Sixteen years later, that phone call has yet to come, but Clasen believes that one day it will.

“I still have hope,” she said. “Whether she’s alive or gone, either way, if we could just get a word of it, that would give peace to a mother – me.”

Who is missing in Kansas?

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System maintains a database of people who have been reported missing and have not been found, as well as a database of bodies that have been found but not identified. To view a current missing persons database, visit the website at www.findthemissing.org. To see the database of where unidentified bodies have been found, visit www.identifyus.org.

How do I report a missing person?

If you have reason to believe that a loved one has gone missing and could possibly be in danger, call local law enforcement agencies or 911. The Wichita Police Department’s non-emergency line is 316-268-4221.

You can also make a report at one of the four police substations in Wichita from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The stations are at 350 S. Edgemoor, 3015 E. 21st St., 211 E. Pawnee and 661 N. Elder.

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