Dennis Shepherd was an energetic personal assistant living with his girlfriend in Port Washington until he fell into a spiral of paranoia, suspecting everyone of conspiring with the FBI to investigate him—an imaginary probe that, like the real one to find him when he later went missing, may have ended with his demise.
A year ago May 18, the 47-year-old athletic jack of all trades took off running the moment he stepped out of a vehicle from Stony Brook University Hospital’s psych unit, where he was involuntarily committed for a month. He vanished on the sprawling grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, where it was a good sprint across fields surrounding the complex into the neighboring woods before he was gone.
Despite a Suffolk County police investigation, a search party combing the nearby 813-acre Oak Brush Plains State Preserve at Edgewood and his picture being distributed to the local news media, he’s still missing. He was delusional, repeatedly put on suicide watch and showed signs of schizophrenia shortly before he vanished, according to his medical records.
A Lake Ronkonkoma resident had reported him to police after Shepherd went door-to-door asking to call the United Nations to report the “conspiracy,” which he later believed involved his neighbor, the officers who hospitalized him, the lawyer he hired to get him out and 75 percent of the hospital staff.
“I want to see how I do without medications,” Shepherd told doctors who decided he needed treatment over his objections—a decision he originally planned to fight when he arrived at Pilgrim for a mental health court hearing, according to court records that show he told doctors he planned “jumping off of a bridge, jumping out of a window, and hanging himself to escape from his paranoid ideation.”
Attorneys hired by his mother recently filed a notice of claim, their first step in a $5-million negligence lawsuit against Stony Brook Hospital, Shepherd’s doctors and the security staffers who oversaw his transfer. His ex-girlfriend blames Suffolk County police, saying detectives in the Missing Person’s Section—a unit that was recently redeployed among the seven precinct squads—did not request a “Golden Alert,” a newly enacted investigative tool similar to the Amber Alert signaled for missing children. The case illustrates the complexity of such searches despite advances designed to find missing persons more quickly.
Shepherd’s case is one of more than 85,000 that the National Crime Information Center is tracking. The trail went cold on some of them four decades ago. Last year, more than 22,000 people were reported missing in New York State, according the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
“The belief was that he’d come to my house because I had his car,” says Joanne Villani, 49, Shepherd’s grief-stricken ex-girlfriend of eight years, recalling how police had checked her home for signs of his return but to no avail. Villani says she picked up the car from where Shepherd had told her he hid it in Westchester when he thought the FBI was closing in, and later she returned it to his family.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly at this time because I was so distraught,” she says. “I was going to work and crying every five minutes.”
Shepherd’s mother, Joan Kiesow of upstate New York, referred a request for comment to Vesselin Mitev, her attorney with Miller Place-based John Ray & Associates, the firm that also represents the family of Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance from Oak Beach in 2010 led to the discovery of 10 sets of human remains along Ocean Parkway—some of whom police believe to be victims of a serial killer.
“The benefit of hindsight always means to put in sharp relief that which could’ve been done and wasn’t,” says Mitev. “I believe everybody in this case could have done more, from Stony Brook University [Hospital] on down to the chain of people who are responsible for finding those who go missing.”
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is defending the hospital since it is a state facility. “We cannot comment on pending litigation,” says Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the office.
Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon, the chief Suffolk police spokesman, maintains that the department did all it could to find Shepherd—same as the rest of the nearly 2,000 missing persons cases they handled last year.
“I understand that it’s a very difficult situation for a family or loved ones of someone who’s missing that they feel that there’s always more that the police department can be doing,” Fallon says. “Any missing case we take very seriously because we always realize that not only the person could injure themselves, but a person may in fact be a victim of some kind of crime and we always approach it that way.”
As the manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects showed last month, if law enforcement focuses all of its resources on finding someone, it’s only a matter of time. Or, as in the case of Raymond Roth, who authorities searched for by land, sea and air after he was falsely reported drowned at Jones Beach last summer, sometimes the case is a hoax.
Fugitives and faked-death plots aside, there are generally three types of missing persons: those with cognitive disorders, runaways and crime victims. Aside from adults and seniors with mental disabilities who walk—or in Shepherd’s case, run—off, police more often field reports of missing children, mostly runaways that don’t get much public attention. Amber Alerts—a nationwide program capable of blasting data on missing kids via email, text, TV, radio, highway signs and even Lottery terminals—are typically reserved for child abduction cases.
In late 2011, New York State launched the Missing Vulnerable Adult (MVA) system with nearly identical capabilities, similar to others like it that have been rolled out in most states nationwide. It was touted at the time as the Golden Alert system, a version of Amber Alerts for grown-ups. The MVA system also covers elderly missing people, who had been covered by Silver Alerts.
But, just like teens who runaway from home tend not to be good candidates for Amber Alerts, adults with a mental disability who go missing may wind up in fliers posted on the state’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse website while investigators opt for only alerting local police and hospitals, not using the all-out, statewide MVA alert.
DCJS says there have been 33 MVA alerts statewide since it was enacted, four at the request of Suffolk police, none from Nassau. Det. Sgt. Mark Pulaski, who’s currently assigned Shepherd’s case, says Missing Persons investigators only submitted names to the system and didn’t request alerts. DCJS maintains it issued alerts at the department’s request for Volden Chung, 72, on March 9, 2012; Kurt Werner, 78, on Dec. 26, 2012; Marie Imbis [age unknown] on Jan. 10; and Fredrick Ellis, 90, on Feb. 28. All were found.
“We did extensive searches there utilizing ourselves as well as other groups that had agreed to help, and to this date, obviously we haven’t found him,” Pulaski says, adding that the reason why no Golden Alert was sent out for Shepherd was because the case’s original investigators believed he was still in the area. “Some people are missing, some people are hiding from the police. Dennis Shepherd, by everybody’s account, was hiding from the police.”
There hasn’t been any activity in Shepherd’s bank account since around the time he ran off, Pulaski adds. The family’s lawsuit suggests that he is presumed dead.
“Adults, they’re just not taken as seriously,” says Todd Matthews, a system administrator for NaMus, short for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a national repository that includes records for thousands of missing persons and unidentified remains that is open to law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, coroners and the public.
“When a child’s gone, you know something’s wrong,” he says. “And I think maybe there’s reasonable hesitation on law enforcement to start a manhunt for somebody that might just not be missing, not appreciate the search. You really have to give the local process time.”
It’s not for lack of trying. Nassau and Suffolk counties in recent years have been taking preventative measures to mitigate cases of missing people who are mentally ill.
Nassau has the REACH program—short for Return Every Adult and Child Home—in which the public pre-registers loved ones who suffer from a cognitive disorder such Alzheimer’s disease, Dementia or Autism. Should that person go missing, their information and photo can be shared with police and the media even faster, since it’s already on file. Suffolk does the same, minus the acronym.
Nassau police have alerted the media to more than 130 missing people through REACH since January 2011, although the department lumps them in with Silver Alerts. That’s a misnomer since the missing sometimes include children as young as 14 and adults younger than 65—all of whom are described as having mental issues. More than three dozen of those appear to still be missing and about 10 have been reported missing more than once.
For the same time period, Suffolk County police have alerted the media to 44 Silver Alerts while sticking strictly to missing persons who were of retirement age, a handful of whom are also still missing. Shepherd is the only missing person Suffolk police alerted the media to in recent memory who wasn’t over the age of 64.
But outside the Suffolk police district on the East End, when 16-year-old Ashley Murray left a note threatening suicide before she left her Peconic home earlier this year, Southold Town Police publicized it immediately. The media spared no resources covering the case, reporting in excruciating detail her personal issues as friends harnessed the publicity to organize search parties.
Twelve days later when she walked into a police station safe and sound, her story ended on a positive note. For others in her shoes, it doesn’t always wind up that way.
Back at Pilgrim, life has moved on since Shepherd’s disappearance. The same could be said for the new approach to investigating missing persons cases in Suffolk.
Deputy Chief Fallon, the Suffolk police spokesman, says the shift from a specialized unit based at headquarters in Yaphank to detectives working in the seven precincts alongside investigators handling general cases is similar to last year’s redeployment of the gang unit.
“If you have somebody missing say from the First Precinct…it will be the detectives from the First Precinct who will be responsible for the case,” he says. “They know the locations, sometimes they’ll know the person involved, or they’ll know people in the neighborhood involved. And they’re in a much better position, generally speaking, to do that type of investigation than, say, calling up the headquarters where you can speak to specialized detectives out here who aren’t familiar with the players involved.”
Nassau County First Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter says his department has shifted its approach too, but hasn’t gone as far as Suffolk.
“We use a hybrid approach,” he says. “We have dedicated missing persons people that work out of a detective squad out of headquarters…then we have…our precinct detectives take some ownership and some involvement.
“Do they get more return on their investment by putting those missing persons detectives in precinct squads where they’re decentralized?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve found that we have a hybrid and that’s what works for Nassau County.”
Mitev, the attorney for Shepherd’s mother, says the family’s anguish drags on, nevertheless.
“With each passing day the possibility that he would return unharmed diminishes exponentially,” he says. “They lose hope every single day that they’ll get him back.”
Those interested in registering a loved one to the REACH Program should call the NCPD’s Asset Forfeiture Unit at 516-573-5775, Monday through Friday 9 am.-4 p.m. to set up an appointment.
To register with the Suffolk County police, contact the Community Outreach Bureau at 631-852-6983.
For more information about the state Missing Persons Clearinghouse, visit www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/missing