Michelle Joe of Yakima holds a photo of her son, Cody Turner, while posing for a portrait in Yakima, Wash. on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. Turner, 24, has been missing since July 2015, and his mother has been leading efforts to keep his disappearance in the public eye.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- When a loved one goes missing, families must navigate a process they likely have never experienced — let alone know much about — as they try to find a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend.

Who to call

  • Yakama Nation Police Department: 509-865-2933
  • Yakima County Sheriff’s Office: 509-574-2500
  • Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit: There’s a toll-free, 24-hour number to report missing persons. If you have reported a missing child and need assistance in locating the child, call 1-800-543-5678 or email MUPU@wsp.wa.gov. Note that local law enforcement must be notified before MUPU can become involved.
  • FBI Seattle Field Office: 206-622-0460
  • Rape Abuse Incest National Network: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
  • Strong Hearts Native Helpline: 1-844-762-8483

It’s an education they receive under heartbreaking circumstances that can stretch into years with few answers and no resolution.

“I still learn a lot every day,” said Michelle Joe of Yakima, whose son, Cody Turner, went missing in July 2015. “I wish there was a pamphlet that the police department could hand out.”

Joe was among nearly 300 people who attended a meeting in Yakima on Oct. 29 about missing Native women in Washington state. Several women spoke about lost loved ones or relatives who had been murdered and how they hope for resolution and justice. Some recounted being assaulted or barely escaping dangerous situations.

For those with missing loved ones, reliable information is crucial but often scant. They must sift the truth from a stream of rumors, hearsay or outright lies — a stream that slows to a trickle or stops with the passage of time.

Among those at the Oct. 29 meeting was Carri Gordon, program manager/Washington State AMBER coordinator for the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit of Washington State Patrol.

Mathew Tomaskin, the legislative liason for the Yakama Nation who conducted the meeting with the Washington State Patrol and the Governor’s Office on Indian Affairs, asked Gordon to explain the process of reporting a missing loved one.

WSP’s missing persons unit maintains lists of missing children and adults. Children are classified as age 20 and younger, Gordon noted. Local law enforcement must be notified first before the State Patrol unit can get involved.

One of the most common misconceptions is that families must wait a certain amount of time to report someone missing, anywhere from 24 to 48 or even 72 hours. That’s not the case, and reporting someone missing earlier rather than later could yield vital clues that are lost with the passage of time.

“From the federal level, there is no waiting period,” Gordon said. “We’re hearing from you that local law enforcement has a waiting period. There is no waiting period to enter someone into the national system.”

She was talking about the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer, which is the national law enforcement database that is automatically checked by law enforcement when someone is contacted by police.

“It contains all ‘hot’ file records for individuals, vehicles and property to include missing persons, wanted persons, stolen vehicles etc.,” said Gordon, who stressed that this is where all these records are required to be entered by law enforcement and there is no waiting period.

And though it’s not required of law enforcement, nor is it automatically checked by authorities, some agencies also enter information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which is a free web-based tool to assist in solving of missing and unidentified persons cases in the United States.

A key aspect of NamUS is the fact that family members may enter information there.

“There’s still a lot of people who don’t know about it,” Joe said of NamUS. “NamUS is the best for bringing everything together for cross-referencing.”

Families should report missing loved ones as soon as they know something’s not right, when something is out of character for that person, Joe said. For her, that was in late July 2015.

“The last time I talked to Cody was (July 25),” she said. On July 27, “I just had this feeling. His dad came over on the 28th” and they realized something was amiss.

Turner, 24, was last seen when he left his grandmother’s Yakima home, where he lived with her and his father.

That same month in 2015, another Yakima man, Chad Stotz-Gomez, also disappeared. The two knew each other, Joe said. Authorities don’t think Cody walked away on his own, and neither does she.

“They need to investigate them as homicides from the start,” she said.

Joe manages a Facebook page centered on her son’s disappearance, Find Cody Turner, and is an administrator on the Yakima Scan Missing Persons Facebook page, both created in August 2015. She helps others whose loved ones are missing and speaks about the issue before the Yakima City Council, which has designated May as missing persons month.

Families often feel like they must also investigate the disappearance, and maintain that effort or lose authorities’ attention, Joe said. It’s important to take notes during the investigation.

“If the family doesn’t keep up on it, nobody does,” she said.

Along with knowing loved one’s routines and habits — “pay attention to everything,” Joe said — family should also have current photos, even fingerprints and dental records, in case someone goes missing.

Gordon noted that family members may submit dental records to MUPU for comparison.

“Our office has a retention of 99 years. We keep those dental records for 99 years,” she said.

She also mentioned the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Initiative, created to establish and expand child recovery practices, capacity and resources.

“I’m going to be very involved with an AMBER Alert initiative in Indian Country,” Gordon said. “If we were to receive a request ... if it went through the proper channels, it could be activated.

“This new initiative will reach out to tribes in every state. That will be happening in the coming weeks.”

Finding a missing loved one takes its toll in many ways if resolution remains elusive. Joe has had to educate herself about how human bodies decay, she said.

Nothing has been found of Turner or Stotz-Gomez, but someone knows something. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody besides God and Cody knows what happened to Cody,” Joe said.

While Joe never stops hoping that her son is alive, she believes that he is probably dead. She just wants to know where he is in either case.

“That’s all I want for any of these families ... where they are,” she said.

Joe takes every missing person report she posts on Facebook personally.

“Everybody is somebody’s child,” she said. “They all deserve to be looked for.”

Features/The Vanished Editor

Tammy Ayer has worked at the Yakima Herald-Republic since 2015. This is her fourth newspaper gig. Alongside general assignment reporting and profiles, she writes about the centuries-long crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, focusing on those who have gone missing, been murdered and have died mysteriously on and around the Yakama Reservation. Ayer grew up in Indiana, lived in Florida for 13 years and has a master’s degree in history.

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