Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

When adults go missing, only questions remain

Chrissy Metzler's quest to find her sister, Diana, highlights many factors working against loved ones' efforts

Law & Justice

Chrissy Metzler never really knew what happened to her big sister.

Maybe it was because she was just a teenager too when Diana Smith — her smart, feisty 19-year-old sibling who once threw punches at the local Dairy Queen when someone looked at her the wrong way — left home without a word on July 3, 1991. Some people in their hometown of Reynoldsburg — a quiet, middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio — said Diana had run away. They said she was a bad kid, a rebel.

Others said she was living in California, maybe in a rehab facility. Some said she was just living a few towns away and that she had kids of her own.

“I was so young at the time, I didn’t know what was going on,” Metzler said.

Diana Smith before her disappearance.
Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

But today when Metzler thinks about her sister’s sudden disappearance, she questions how hard her parents tried to find their missing daughter.

At 19, Diana was a pretty young woman who looked a lot older than her age. Wavy light brown hair brushed the tops of her shoulders. She had big hazel eyes, pale skin. If she wore the right top, a rose tattoo peeked out from her neckline.

Diana was 13 when she ran away from home the first time. Soon her family realized she wasn’t too scared to jump in the cab of a semi and ride wherever the road took her. By the time she disappeared in 1991, she had run away more than once, but Metzler says Diana always reached out to let the family know she was OK.

“She would always come back. She would always call. But the last time we saw her, we thought we’d hear back from her,” Metzler said. “We never did get that phone call.”

That summer, when the family hadn’t heard from Diana for some time, Metzler said her mother hired a private investigator who reported that her daughter was alive and well. Metzler remembers thinking that Diana had run away for good.

But in January 2012, when her mother died, Metzler learned that wasn’t the full story. On her deathbed, Metzler’s mother begged her to find Diana. And after her death, her father gave Metzler a letter that made her head spin:

The letter that Chrissy Metzler’s mother left for her after her death.
Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

“If our Diana should come back to us, tell her that I love her and I never stopped loving her and praying for her,” her mother had written to Metzler. “I know why she left and why she felt like she could not come home. 

“My arms ached to hold my baby girl. No matter how much of a woman she is or how grown she is. I still love her and always will. I love you, sissy, I always have, I always will. 

“I want to see you in heaven, honey.”

Metzler’s father and brother died shortly thereafter, and she was left with her family’s last request haunting her: Find out what happened to Diana.

Last April, Metzler entered the strange, hazy world of trying to find a missing adult. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), there are an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 individuals listed as missing with law enforcement across the United States. When a child goes missing in America, effective systems like Amber Alert are instantly activated. Some states, like Florida, have also implemented Silver Alert for elderly individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

But in the case of adults in between, it can be nearly impossible for law enforcement to quickly determine if they are missing or if they have simply gotten up and left their life behind.

“If I decided not to come home tonight, it might be suspect, but it isn’t exactly illegal,” said Todd Matthews, communications director for NamUs. “If a child’s gone, there’s already a problem. A child can’t really make a choice to say, ‘I’m not going home tonight … As an adult, I’m responsible for myself.”

“If you just spent two extra hours and went to the hairdresser, would you want the chief of police pulling up?’” he said. “You don’t want to be controlled or watched.”

And yet that’s where families of adults who have truly gone missing face their biggest issue, Matthews said. “If there’s no crime, there’s not going to be a law-enforcement investigation.” 

Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

Families left behind in missing-adult cases are often faced with convoluted policies that vary from state to state. And as in the case of Diana Smith, if proof of a struggle or a crime can’t be found, it can be difficult to get police to file a missing-person report.

“Back in April, I tried to file a police report with the Reynoldsburg police. They told me I could not because she left as an adult and she had been seen afterward,” Metzler said.

To complicate matters, not only was Metzler trying to find an adult without a police report, but she was trying to find an adult who had been gone for more than 20 years.

She reached out to people who might know how to help her, and she connected with Sheila Fritsch through Operation Found Safe. Fritsch, a volunteer based in Cincinnati, Ohio, has aided in tracking down more than 20 people — from teen runaways to missing adults — in the past two years. 

Diana Smith, not long before her disappearance.
Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

Metzler was left with boxes and boxes of her mother’s possessions after she died. Among them were a jewelry box filled with her prized necklaces and a set of encyclopedic diaries that spanned from the late 1970s to the year of her death.

The diaries read like confessionals — and often detailed shocking events and truths that even Metzler had been unaware of. Fritsch and Metzler combed through the diaries to construct a timeline, including when exactly the family last heard from Diana.

“It was like (Diana) was an excellent kid,” Fritsch said. “It was like she was good and she turned bad.”

They learned Diana had been in state custody after running away from home. They learned she started jumping into trucks when she was only 15.

“She ran away from the state custody, and she hooked up, I guess, with a trucker in Columbus at one of the truck stops,” Fritsch said. “She would call her mother and say ‘I’m in New York. I’m in Florida. I’m in Texas. I’m in California.’ She’d be gone for three or four months, and the trucker would bring her home.”

But after July 1991, there was no record of Diana’s calling home. And strangely, it wasn’t until 2000 that Metzler’s mother wrote in her diaries that she unsuccessfully attempted to file a missing-person report with the Reynoldsburg police.

Fritsch said trying to find a woman who had been gone for so long — a woman with such a common name, no less — was difficult enough. And with so many conflicting stories being told over the years, Fritsch and Metzler wondered if Diana really was alive, living her life somewhere far from home.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For nearly 10 years, Jan Smolinski has been searching for her son, Billy. He was 31 when he suddenly disappeared in the summer of 2004 and was last seen at his Waterbury, Conn., home.

“It was extremely hard to get the attention of law enforcement,” she said. “Their thinking was, he was an adult, a fit 6-foot, 200-pound male. Law enforcement’s (way) of thinking he was an adult and would be home when he was ready.”

But Smolinski knew something was wrong.

Still, like Metzler and many other family members of adults who have disappeared, Smolinski ran into the same roadblock: Without a body or evidence of a crime, there was no case. Police are often too overloaded with other cases to prioritize finding people who may have simply left of their own volition. Smolinski said that’s where the first issues arise in missing adults cases.

“The first 24, 48, 72 hours are so important when a person goes missing, and law enforcement usually waits longer to start to investigate,” she said.

Without a police report, she was left to search for Billy on her own.

“There were many disconnects,” she said. “Trying to find a missing person or locate a family member if remains were found was almost like finding a needle in a haystack. It was that difficult.”

Billy Smolinski.
Courtesy of Jan Smolinski

In 2005, though, Smolinski found much-needed aid in NamUs, which was created after a summit of law enforcement, policymakers and coroners defined a clear need for assistance in solving missing-person and unidentified-remains cases. NamUs created databases of information — DNA, fingerprints, dental records — about such cases, giving coroners, investigators and families across the country tools to start solving cases. Smolinski was able to create a profile for her son’s case — accessible to anyone around the world.

“We were excited when NamUs was created and put into full operation,” she said. “Finally there was a centralized database that families could see all information in one place.”

But even with the creation of NamUs, Smolinski wasn’t any closer to finding her son. Even more troubling, she was running into law enforcement that didn’t know how to handle a missing-adult case and who weren’t entering any information into NamUs about their missing-person cases. Knowing that NamUs would be effective only if law enforcement and coroners knew how to use the site, she soon started meeting with members of Congress about drafting a law to provide money for law-enforcement NamUs training and to introduce FBI records into the NamUs system. It was called Billy’s Law. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced it in 2010, but it failed.

In its current iteration, Billy’s Law would allocate $8 million per year to educate law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners about NamUs.

“We are optimistic this time the bill will successfully travel through and be signed into law,” Smolinski said. 

Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

Without a police report for Diana Smith, Fritsch contacted NamUs directly, pleading with staff to let her create a profile for Diana without a police report.

“We couldn’t get Reynoldsburg police to take a police report. So we were stuck,” she said. “It was just me, on my own. And with a name like Smith, it’s really hard.”

In November 2013, NamUs allowed Fritsch to create a profile that detailed what Diana looked like and when she was last seen.

Within one hour, a NamUs staff member called Fritsch and Metzler asking for DNA samples and dental records. Within days, an investigator traveled to Reynoldsburg to take a cheek swab from Metzler. 

A reconstruction sketch drawn of an unidentified white female after her body was discovered Sept. 3, 1991, in Boron, Calif.
Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

Fritsch had also been combing the Doe Network, a website that lists unidentified remains, and the circumstances in which they were found. Todd Matthews said NamUs and the Doe Network track about 40,000 unidentified bodies and remains.

In her search, she found a listing for female remains discovered near a highway in Boron, Calif., in the summer of 1991. It practically jumped off the page at her: Young woman, brown hair, rose tattoo on the chest.

She had been shot multiple times.

“When I looked at the picture on NamUs … I knew that it was her,” Metzler said. “I kept saying, ‘I know that that is her.’”

Around the neck of the dead woman was a delicate yellow serpentine necklace studded with clear crystals that sparkled like diamonds.

“She said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Mom’s necklace,’” Fritsch said, recalling Metzler’s reaction. “‘Mom had a necklace just like that. I have Mom’s jewelry, and that necklace isn’t in there.’”

Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

Bob Hunter is an advocate for the dead.

In his job as a deputy coroner investigator in California’s San Bernardino County — where he has more than 250 John and Jane Does he is tasked with identifying — is where he has found his passion.

“I happened to come to the Coroner’s Office in 2007,” he said. “It’s a wonderful job, very intriguing. I love putting together the puzzles. I speak for the dead and let their families know where they are and what happened to them. I get calls daily from families who say their loved one is missing and do I have anything?”

I would rather know where my loved one is,
even if that means they’re deceased.

Bob Hunter

deputy coroner investigator, San Bernardino County

Hunter said San Bernardino County, the largest county in the United States, is very effective in filing police reports for missing-adult cases, processing unidentified remains and working with NamUs. In his job, he often deals with law-enforcement officials around the country who don’t work with such stringent guidelines.

In his job, Hunter said he helps families find closure — that oftentimes knowing a family member is no longer alive is better than not knowing what happened.

“I’m sure most of the (unidentified) people we find are missing. They haven’t just taken off,” he said. “Even transients are still missing. One of their loved ones typically wants to know where they are.”

From his position, Hunter said it becomes easier for him to connect the dots with unidentified-remains cases if more missing-person reports are filed and entered into systems like NamUs.

“People can leave whenever they want. That’s true. They can leave whenever they want but (law enforcement) should take the missing-person report,” he said. “At least they’re in the system.”

“I would rather know where my loved one is, even if that means they’re deceased.”

Hunter said Diana Smith’s was one of several unidentified-remains cases that may have been held up for more than two decades because there was no missing-person report filed by law enforcement. But once NamUs contacted Hunter about the young woman found in 1991, he was able to quickly match DNA and dental records and prove she was Diana. 

The sketch next to a photo of Diana Smith.
Courtesy of Chrissy Metzler

On Jan. 9, a victims’ advocate and a law-enforcement official showed up on Metzler’s doorstep. They gave her the news her entire family had feared for more than 22 years: The body in California was, in fact, her sister. Diana had been murdered.

A homicide investigation is under way, according to Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department — a department that has a team devoted to working on cold cases.

But even then, “cold cases often take the backseat to cases that are fresh and we have some leads on,” she said. “We have to focus on the recent cases first.”

When it comes to missing-adult cases, Bachman she said that in her position she finds that it can be difficult to draw any media attention to cases that don’t involve children or senior citizens or some public figure. She said reports on TV or in newspapers can be critical in solving missing-adult cases early on.

“It is sometimes difficult to get media attention if there’s nothing sensational that goes along with the story to maybe make it interesting for viewers or readers,” she said. “That can make it difficult to get any public assistance.”

She acknowledged law enforcement’s struggle to determine if people are truly missing or have simply walked away from their lives.

“It’s just a really tough situation,” she said. “There are tons of missing people. Some of them don’t want to be found.”

Today Metzler thinks her sister wanted to leave home back in 1991, but she doesn’t think Diana was looking to disappear.

Even more, Metzler said she fears that her sister’s killer won’t be brought to justice — that the person who murdered Diana when she was just 19 might be out there somewhere. That the killer might know who Metzler is too.

Even after so much time, Metzler still gets upset when she talks about her older sister.

“I think, once they confirmed it, that’s the hard part. Because you know you’re not going to see her again. There were people saying she was married, had a kid — none of that is true,” she said through tears. “I haven’t really dealt with it because I’ve just learned all this stuff, you know? It’s not easy.

“I mean, I shouldn’t say I’m glad that (my parents) passed away. But I know my mom would not have been able to handle hearing that her daughter was murdered.”