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May 12, 2008

When Libba Phillips learned that her troubled younger sister Ashley had gone missing, she wasn't completely surprised.  Ashley had been addicted to crack and alcohol since her teens and would often disappear for days.  But "the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months", recalls Phillips. "And I knew something was wrong."

She never imagined, though, that the months would turn into years - five years.  Since Ashley, 23 at the time of her 1998 disappearance, was an adult and had a history of drug abuse, police refused to help look for her.  So Phillips took it upon herself, embarking on a cross-country odyssey that took her from her Sacramento home to Tampa's seedy underbelly, questioning prostitutes and coroners for signs of her sister.  "I was so fixated on where the hell is my sister", says Phillips.  "And I was so angry that no one was giving me the time of day."

As she got a crash course in the world of the lost and the homeless, she realized many other families were struggling too.  In 1999 Phillips quit her pharmaceutical sales job and launched the nonprofit Outpost for Hope (, which has helped at least a dozen families reunite and thousands more look for relatives with mental illness or drug problems.

"Each day someone passes a homeless woman on the corner," she says."They're not considering that that could be someone's lost loved one."Working with two other volunteers on a shoestring budget, she advises families on how to register with missing persons organizations, how to contact the FBI and to work effectively with the police.  "When I heard what she was doing, I was almost giddy because there was such a need," says Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department.

Gwyn Robson feared for her daughter Marie's life after the 18-year-oldwent missing from their Maryland home in 2003.  But after Phillips advisedher on how to attract media attention and to make missing posters, the teenwas found after six months.  "I wouldn't have gotten her back without Libba," says Robson.  "I was at my wits' end".   All the while, Phillips often doubted she would ever see her own sister again.

But she continued looking, clinging to precious childhood memories."We were inseparable," she says.  Armed with cigarettes and dollar bills for bribes, she and her stepfather questioned pimps and drug dealers in Tampa, handing out fliers her family had made.  One dealer told them Ashley was likely in a crack house. 

The search consumed her life, taking a toll on her nine-year marriage, which ended last year.  "I wasn't a lot of fun to be around", she says.   Then, on Feb. 7 2003, Phillips' determination paid off.  One of Ashley's acquaintances spotted her poster and urged Ashley to call home.  She was eight months pregnant and living in a rundown apartment in Charlotte, N.C.  Arriving at her sister's side, "I thought I was going to throw up" says Phillips.  Ashley was rail thin, in a state of shock with a broken eye socket.  "She was childlike", she recalls.  "I kept wanting to hug her and she would flinch."  Though Ashley didn't remember many details of her time away, Libba learned that her sister had slept on the streets at times and had been badly beaten.  "A lot of people harmed her," Libba says. 

Ashley soon moved back to Tampa to live with her parents and her baby daughter.  But the homecoming was brief.  In 2004, Ashley resumed drinking and disappeared one night in pajamas only to be found nine months later. Now 33 and the mother of two daughters, Ashley holds down a full time job selling cars and takes medication for her bipolar disorder, which was recently diagnosed.  (Her family says she is too fragile to comment.)  "We don't really discuss the past with her", says her sister Ginny McGee, 24. "But I'm sure she feels grateful to be found".

And Libba is thankful to have her Ashley back again.  "I had come to believe that my sister was dead,"says Phillips, who recently moved to South Carolina to be closer to family."And through my searching, I've come to a certain level of peace, that all of this has helped thousands of others."

By Eileen Finan

Libba Phillips stood on the sidewalk of one of Tampa’s seediest streets and watched a young woman in a red miniskirt saunter toward a car. She had the same mane of auburn hair as Libba’s missing sister, Ashley.

Everyday Heroes: Missing Sister
Photographed by Erik Butler
Libba Phillips turned her five-year odyssey into a road map for others.

As the young woman leaned into the open window of the old Chevy to talk to the driver, Libba moved closer and touched her shoulder.

The woman spun around. She had the face of a total stranger. “I’m sorry,” Libba said, backing away. “I thought you were someone else.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a flyer with a color photo of her sister, lost now for two years.

Like so many of the women on the street, Ashley had suffered abuse as a child. By the time she was 15, she’d become rebellious, depressed and addicted to alcohol and crack. For years, she was in and out of counseling, and, one March day in 1998, she left a rehab center and simply vanished. The family contacted the police and tried to file a missing persons report. But Ashley, 23, was an adult, and there were no signs of foul play. Considering her history of mental illness and drug abuse, the police felt she’d disappeared of her own accord.

“I’m sure she’ll show up soon,” the officer said. “She’s probably just passed out at a friend’s house.” Hearing that, Libba began her relentless search on the streets.

Missing people with mental illness and substance abuse problems are often ignored by law enforcement, and Libba was sure other families were living through losses like hers. Three years after her sister disappeared, she left a good job in pharmaceutical sales to launch Outpost for Hope, a nonprofit organization from which she takes no pay. Its website,, helps families searching for missing loved ones. It outlines a recovery plan and describes psychiatric resources for people who have been found.

A phone call from Gwyn Robson of Maryland is typical. “Can you help me find my daughter, Marie?” Gwyn asks Libba. It’s 2003, and she shares Marie’s heartbreaking story before bursting into tears. “Outpost for Hope made flyers, provided volunteers to post them, contacted the media,” Gwyn says. “And they gave me the emotional support I desperately needed.” Almost five months after her disappearance, Marie returned home, thanks to the organization’s publicity.

On February 7, 2003—nearly five years had gone by with no word of Ashley—Libba got good news. A friend of Ashley’s had seen one of the posters and urged her to call home. Libba flew to North Carolina to find her sister emaciated, beaten and with little memory of the time she’d been lost. Today Libba Phillips and Outpost for Hope have helped some 50 families find their lost loved ones and start them on the road to recovery.

Libba helped train law enforcement and mental health professionals at last fall’s national Crisis Intervention Team conference. Every time she talks to a group, her mind flashes back to Tampa and the faces of the women on the street. Then she thinks of Ashley—safe again at home.

From Reader's Digest - December 2007

All investigators had was a homemade child pornography video of an unknown assailant brutalizing an unknown 2 year old child. The little girl could not be identified as one of the thousands of missing kids officially listed at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. In the first few days of the investigation by Nevada authorities, officials were tasked with the unprecedented decision to release the child's photograph from the video to the public in hopes that someone somewhere knew her identity. Victims of sexual abuse are not normally released to the public but the child’s unknown identity, her whereabouts, and her safety were of the utmost importance to investigators.

It turns out that the investigators decision to appeal to the public for help paid off. The girl has now been found and is said to be safe and living with her mother who told police she knew nothing of the abuse and is cooperating with the investigation.

The rape took place several years ago; the girl was only two years old. The rapist is suspected to be a 37-year old man called Chester Stiles. Stiles' former girlfriend, Tina Allen, told CNN reporters that she believes she put him in contact with the girl. She took Stiles to a crowded apartment where her son and daughter lived. Also living in the apartment were a family friend and her 2-year-old daughter, who allegedly was victimized by Stiles.

If this little girl had been a Kid Off the Grid, the outcome might be very different today. She could have been in the hands of human traffickers and/or she could have been killed and no one would have known about it. Kids who are unaccounted for are in a particularly vulnerable position. The most vulnerable and most hidden population of Kids Off the Grid are unaccounted for infants and children of unreported missing or lost persons.

According to the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute, the majority of sexual abuse to minors is carried out by a family member or a family friend, they also state that 20% of girls an 10% of boys are sexually abused by the end of their 13th year. However, the percentage of children who suffer from sexual abuse in shelters or who live in the street is much higher than those who live in a family setting.

30% of shelter youth and 70% of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Estes & Weiner

Child pornography is a major player in the exploitation of children. Child predators will often film their abuse in order to make money by selling the footage to other child abusers through Internet networks and other means.
Child pornography is a multi billion dollar a year business.

As a society we are doing a lot to stop child predators from abusing children. We educate our kids, and we educate ourselves. And we can do more. By providing an information, education and support system at Outpost For Hope we are working toward a world where there will be no need for charities such as ours. One way we are working towards this end is to empower you in making a difference by taking part in stopping child predators ever getting their hands on our most vulnerable kids; the Kids Off the Grid.


Thanks to the public's help - the toddler who was abused in the sex tape has been located.

LAS VEGAS - A fugitive accused in the videotaped molestation of a 2-year-old girl was arrested quietly during a traffic stop, telling the officer, "I'm tired of running," police said.

Chester "Chet" Arthur Stiles, 37, was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday. He was pulled over late Monday in Henderson for not having a license plate and admitted his identity after police said his license looked suspicious, authorities said.

(c) Outpost For Hope

  • Sheriff says no trace of Adam Herrman found after 1999
  • Parents did not report him missing until recently
  • Police say they don't know if he is dead or alive
  • Adam was 11 or 12 in 1999

(CNN) -- Authorities in Kansas are looking for a boy who disappeared about a decade ago, but was not reported missing until a few weeks ago.

"We don't know what happened to Adam Herrman past '99, when he was last seen," Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy said at a news conference in El Dorado.

"Is he alive, is he dead? That one I can't answer because we don't know," he added.

Adam was 11 or 12 when he was last seen, Murphy said. At the time, he was living in a mobile home park in Towanda, a small town in southern Kansas, with his adoptive parents, Doug and Valerie Herrman. The couple did not report him missing, Murphy said.

A few weeks ago, a person notified Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Children's Unit of a "concern" regarding Adam, Murphy said.

The agency did not immediately return CNN's phone call seeking additional information.

Wichita attorney Warner Eisenbise, who is representing Adam's adoptive parents, said the couple "really rue the fact that they didn't" report the boy missing.

"They feel very guilty" about not doing that, he said in a telephone interview. The couple told him the boy had run away frequently, he said, and they believed him to be either with his biological parents or homeless.

Although the Herrmans did not report him missing, "they were very worried about him," he said.

Authorities have searched the Pine Ridge Mobile Home Park, where the family had lived, and discovered an "answer" to one of their questions, Murphy said, without explaining.

"We did find one of the answers we were looking for, but I am holding that one very tightly," he said.

Eisenbise said authorities also executed a search warrant on December 15 at the Herrmans' home in Derby, a town just outside of Wichita. They took the couple's computer, he said.

Murphy said the couple is cooperating and had not been charged with anything.

Citing a relative, the Wichita Eagle reported the Herrmans had taken Adam into foster care and later adopted him.

Michelle Ponce of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, which oversees adoption and foster care, said she could not release any details regard Adam's case, and could confirm only that he had been in foster care at some point, but was no longer in foster care in 1999.

Adam had been placed in the Herrmans' care when he was about 2, Murphy said in a phone interview. He had been named Irvin Groeninger III when he was born on June 8, 1987, Murphy said, and it was not clear when his name was changed.

His biological parents relinquished their rights as parents about two decades ago, and Adam and his siblings were put in different foster homes, CNN affiliate KWCH reported.

"I thought what I was doing for them was in the best interest of the children and evidently it wasn't," Irvin Groeninger told KWCH. "If he was still in my custody this would have never happened."

Adam's sister, Tiffany Broadfoot, 22, said she last saw her brother about 14 years ago at a birthday party.

A year or two later, he sent her a Christmas card, she said. "And that was the end of my contact with him," she told KWCH.

"He had the cutest little round face, little bitty freckles right up here on the tip of his cheek," she remembered.

"I'm just awestruck as how something like that could actually happen, and how he could be missing as long as he's been and nobody say anything," she said.

Murphy said Adam's name appears on a legal document later than 1999. "We know that he was listed in a legal action as if he was still living at home, and I'm not certain of the date, but it was beyond 1999," he told CNN.

Find this article at:

August 17th, 2008 11:00 AM EDT

Let's talk a little bit about unreported missing persons. Those are individuals who are not placed on the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Who are they and why aren't they represented on NCIC?

These individuals are many times old enough to disappear voluntarily. Think about the guy who has been estranged from his family for decades and has few, if any friends. Or the mentally ill family member who is living homeless in another city and whose relatives have no idea of the person's whereabouts. Or the illegal alien, the person who should not be in this country, and whose relatives are either afraid to report him as missing or are in another country and don't realize he's vanished.

There are other categories, too. Like the missing child that no one knows about; The mother who drifts from town to town, starting with four kids, but moving into the newest place with only three.

What about individuals who work traveling jobs with a subculture of its own? Carnival workers, itinerant workers who follow the jobs and seasonal workers are good examples.

There are also teenage runaways - kids who've made it a habit from their earliest teen years - who are now of age and there's every reason to believe the child left of his or her own accord.

In addition to the ocean of official missing persons - those on NCIC - there are uncounted thousands who have disappeared without a trace, or official report. One good example of such a case is the sad story of a toddler known at first as "Baby Grace."

You may recall that Baby Grace was the name given to a tiny little girl whose body was found on Oct. 29, 2007, by a fisherman. The fisherman found the child in a plastic container, washed ashore on an island in West Galveston Bay in the state of Texas. The little girl was initially described as between 2 and3 years old and dressed in a pink and white outfit.

The child had been dead for months. At the time, investigators did not realize that, in addition to spending two months in the bay, her body has been kept in a shed for at least six weeks. The decomposition made her difficult to identify, but a forensic artist named Lois Gibson (one of the real heroes in the effort to connect unidentified remains to their previous living, breathing lives) captured Baby Grace in a drawing that was distributed on the Internet, in newspapers and magazines, and on television.

Five days after the press received the sketch, police received a lead. Sheryl Sawyers, grandmother of little Riley Ann Sawyers, called the police and tentatively identified the unknown child as her granddaughter.

According to investigators, the child's mother, Kimberly Trenor, violated a custody agreement she had with Riley's biological father - Sheryl Sawyer's son. Trenor apparently moved to Texas and married a man named Royce Ziegler.

After the couple's arrest, investigators learned the truth about Riley's death: Trenor described to police how the child was beaten, sometimes with belts, her head held under water, her small body thrown to the floor.

Riley Ann Sawyer flew under the radar of police because her mother, Trenor, was unknown in Galveston. Although the child was missing in Ohio, no one there knew where Trenor had taken the baby.

The individuals charged in this case will eventually go to trial. Recently Trenor gave birth to a little boy fathered by Ziegler. That child has been placed in temporary custody of other family members.

Riley Sawyers is the perfect - and most tragic - example of a missing unreported person. How many more Rileys are out there? How many missing children or infants have never been reported? It's a haunting question that is usually only brought to the public arena when a high visibility case like this one appears. While one would have to be made of stone not to feel outrage and sorrow at the fate of a small child, there's another group of people who often fall off the radar of both the public and law enforcement: the untreated mentally ill.

Vast portions of the homeless populations in many cities are derived from those who suffer from mental illness or deficiency. I am a living witness to this. My late mother, a victim of vascular dementia (which closely resembles Alzheimer's), was detained by a family friend who spotted her entering the bus station. Mom had no identification on her and just enough money to buy a bus ticket to Savannah, Ga., where she knew not a single soul. Mom had been fixated on Savannah since she read a magazine article about the city and had awakened one day and decided to move there. All she had with her was a small bag containing clothes and toiletries and her purse. Like I said: No ID. No money. My mother was on her way to becoming homeless. She lived with a relative. Saw a doctor regularly for her illness, and yet none of us saw this coming.

We were fortunate the friend caught her. If he hadn't my mother probably would have turned up dead in Savannah at some point and no one would have been able to identify her.

Outpost for Hope is an organization that works to illuminate the problem of unreported missing persons, which include children like Riley Sawyers and vulnerable adults like my mom. They offer assistance to individuals who are searching for a loved one, as well as agencies and the media. And they serve an "invisible" population that has slipped through the cracks for decades.

Since I include a link to a missing person or unidentified remains in each of my blog posts, I've decided to continue the practice here. Take a look at this old case from Sumter, S.C. (linked below) and see if you know either of those individuals.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. // ' ); // ]]> This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it // is a columnist and contributing editor at Law Enforcement Technology. A former criminal investigator, she writes for numerous national publications. She is passionate about the need for better tools in the investigation of missing persons cases and identification of recovered remains.