Queensland’s dedicated Missing Persons Unit has the job of solving the mystery of more than 300 missing persons. Some have been missing for decades and some only months
THEY are the faces of everyday people – your neighbour, an old friend, somebody who you might have gone to school with.
They are someone’s son or daughter. They could have been somebody’s mum or dad.
What they all have in common is that they belong to a unique collection of people in our state – a group of more than 300 long-term missing persons.
Some of these faces have not been seen for decades. For others, it has only been a matter of months since they were reported missing.
Police hold concerns for the safety and welfare of all of these people – as is the case for every missing person.
The task to track them down, to solve the mystery of their disappearance, falls into the hands of Queensland’s dedicated Missing Persons Unit.
The man in charge is Detective Senior Sergeant Damien Powell, a police officer with more than 30 years experience and who has led the unit for eight years. He says there have been some memorable cases, but it would be “unfair” to single one out.
“Because each year there’s about 20 missing persons … that we can’t locate and that’s 20 families who are desperate for answers,” he says.
“I just feel it does them an injustice to focus on one particular case.”
This specialist unit is unique in its operation as it’s the only Missing Persons Unit in the country to offer assistance seven days a week, typically from 7am to 10pm.
They deal with more than 6000 cases every year – about 16 every day – and more than 60 per cent involve children under the age of 16.
“They’re (the children) a large chunk of our business,” Sen-Sgt Powell says.
“Typically, the reason (children under 12) go missing is they have a fight with a sibling, or they do a chore, or they’re forgetful.
“They’re a high risk simply because crossing the road is a danger to them.”
Sen-Sgt Powell says risk assessment is crucial to what his unit does, gauging the potential danger every missing person could be exposed to.
“Obviously some missing persons are low risk, others are high risk,” he says.
“Our office is very focused on risk assessment and ensuring that the service response is appropriate for those missing persons.
“Each and every time somebody goes missing, we assess the risk for that individual occasion because it could be different to the previous time.”
For missing children, this risk assessment can be extended to the consideration of a potential abduction – something Sen-Sgt Powell says is fortunately a rare occurrence in Queensland.
The three main reasons adults go missing, Sen-Sgt Powell says, are health issues, financial pressures and relationship breakdowns.
“A missing person is any person whose whereabouts are unknown and there’s concerns for their safety or wellbeing,” he says. “So, a simple loss of contact doesn’t constitute a missing person.”
The number of people reported missing has been rising steadily over the past 18 months, Sen-Sgt Powell says.
He says the increase is largely due to publicity, but he also points to the potential impact of technology.
“Interestingly, the digital age and mobile phones have heightened people’s sensitivity to not getting hold of someone,” he says.
“Pre-digital age, if you didn’t hear from someone for 24 hours, then it wasn’t an issue because mobile phones didn’t exist.
“Now, people start to become concerned when the mobile phone is not answered because everybody’s got one and everybody’s got one on them …”
The group of people who are reported missing the least are aged 17 to 25 – an age group Sen-Sgt Powell says are more likely to be digitally connected.
“They’re fresh out of school, so they’ve got a lot of friends from school,” he says. “They’re in university or they’re in employment.
“They’re still connected with a circle of friends and we see this disassociation developing in later life.”
Sen-Sgt Powell says it is still important for people to report a person missing as soon as they have concerns for their safety or welfare.
“If it’s under suspicious circumstances, then people’s memory is going to be better the sooner you talk to them,” he says.
“Our access to data and CCTV is going to be better the sooner you report them missing and our chances of recovering them alive are obviously greater.
“We’d rather know sooner than later if there’s concerns for the safety and welfare.”
When it comes to Crime Stoppers’ role with missing persons, Queensland chief executive Trevor O’Hara says the community always responds in “great numbers” when an alert is issued.
“There’s always a great community outpouring of information once someone goes missing,” he says.
“We’re actually getting pieces of information which at the time may seem irrelevant, but they help to build an amazing timeline about things.”
Mr O’Hara says missing children also generate plenty of calls from the community.
“If anything involves kids, we get calls here at Crime Stoppers, the police at Policelink get calls, triple-zero get calls,” he says.
“There’s a real sense of community support around young people especially.
“We actually get a response almost like children when it comes to seniors.”
As well as fielding calls from the community, Mr O’Hara says that Crime Stoppers has also received calls from those who were reported missing.
“We have also taken calls from missing persons themselves and the beauty of that is it is anonymous,” he says. “They’re ringing from somewhere in the country to tell us that they’re OK and obviously we do our best to get that message through to the right person.”
Mr O’Hara says the caller must provide “unique information” to verify their identity.
There are currently more than 300 people on Queensland’s list of long-term missing persons.
One of those is Kathleen O’Shea, a mother of five from Melbourne who visited the state’s far north in December 2005 ahead of the birth of her first grandchild.
On December 29, her son Alan drove Ms O’Shea to a street in Atherton to drop her off.
She told him she was off to play pool at the Atherton Hotel and afterwards she would visit friends in Mareeba.
According to a the findings of a coronial inquest handed down in 2014, Ms O’Shea visited a bottle shop that night at the Atherton Hotel, and left in the company of two men.
That was the last time the 44-year-old was seen.
A coroner ruled in 2014 that Ms O’Shea had died.
Although the cause of her death could not be determined, it was “most likely that an unknown person or persons with whom she came into contact either at the Atherton Hotel or soon after she left there, caused her death and disposed of her body”.
Ms O’Shea’s now 30-year-old daughter, Lily Parmenter, says she had a feeling something was wrong when her mum first disappeared.
“It wasn’t like her to leave and not give any warning as to her whereabouts,” she says.
“We spoke the day before … and she seemed fine.”
Ms Parmenter, who describes her mum as “funny” and “loving”, believes Ms O’Shea was taken by someone.
“I don’t know who and I don’t know why,” she says. “I think that someone did take her and the thing that kills me the most is the fact we haven’t found a body.
“I want to be able to bury my mum with a bit of dignity. It kills me to think what her final moments could have been. It’s been the source of nightmares for me.”
Ms Parmenter says she hopes there is someone who knows what happened to her mum and would be willing to speak out. “If they’re protecting someone, they shouldn’t be protecting anyone.”
“They should be trying to help five kids trying to get some closure. Nothing is too small in terms of details,” she says.
Police have no new information on Ms O’Shea’s disappearance.
Sen-Sgt Powell says police are also appealing for details to track down 63-year-old Toowoomba woman Barbara Troughton who went missing in January last year.
“(She) was operating a small grocery store in Toowoomba and one morning left a note for her partner that she’d had enough,” he says.
“We believe Barbara’s still alive and well, but where she is, we have no idea.”
And each missing person’s disappearance has a major effect on the many people in their lives.
“Australian research has shown that for every missing person there’s 12 people directly affected. It has a significant impact on the community,” Sen-Sgt Powell says.
If you or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline, call 13 11 14
The National Missing Persons Unit Web Site
Do not use email to supply information concerning these matters