Old information hurts missing kids efforts

April 17, 2000|By Barnaby J. Feder | Barnaby J. Feder,New York Times News Service

Twenty-month-old Krystava Schmidt was reunited with her frightened mother, Christine Schmidt, on July 13, 1998, two days after she disappeared from the family home in the Minneapolis suburb of Mounds View. Police officers quickly located and arrested the housemate who had driven Krystava to an unsuspecting relative's house in nearby Mora, Minn., after squabbling with Schmidt's brother.

In cyberspace, however, Krystava is still missing. Numerous sites on the World Wide Web feature the child's picture and the plea published by her mother the day she disappeared that any information about her be relayed to the Mounds View police. And chain e-mail messages continue to slosh around the globe.

"This is serious," say the messages, which typically have 50 recipients or more. "Please look at the picture at the bottom and pass it on to as many people as possible."

Unfortunately for the Mounds View police, this clash between history and virtual reality shows no sign of ending. "We're getting 100 calls a week," said William A. Clark, the town's police chief. "In a resurgence this week, we also learned that someone had e-mailed the plea to every police department in New Jersey after adding information that the car had been seen there."

Clark said the department often gets 30 or more e-mail messages a week. "They often are sent around midnight and tell us they will forward the plea unless they get an immediate response saying it's not true," he said. "By the time we get in and see them, it's too late."

Clark said the inquiries, which come from as far away as China, are costing his small force $96 a month in payments to the county for extra phone services.

Krystava's case is the most virulent dandelion in the Internet's missing persons landscape, but there are others. The Marion County sheriff's office in Ocala, Fla., continues to get calls almost daily about Aaron Steinmetz, a toddler abducted from a family wedding by his father in December 1998 and returned to his mother two months later.

Outdated missing persons reports are, of course, just one example of the difficulty of controlling the spread of misinformation on the Internet. But even the people burdened by them are reluctant to criticize those passing them on too harshly.

"It's a good sign that citizens are concerned," said James Pogue, a Marion County sheriff's spokesman. Any such reports can be checked with the local police or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids (www.missingkids.com or 800-THELOST).

Does Schmidt have any regrets about the long life of her gripping plea? "She's moved away, and we don't know where," Clark said. Thankfully for his department, there is a big difference between gone and missing.

"They tell us they will forward the plea unless they get an immediate response."

William Clark, police chief

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