Police Often Bungle Missing Child Cases

The search for a missing Florida girl named Caylee Anthony received worldwide attention this year, and recently came to a tragic end.

The 3-year-old was last seen in June, though her mother Casey Anthony inexplicably waited a month before reporting her daughter missing. Police were unable to find Caylee, but in October Anthony was indicted on first-degree murder charges.

Dozens of self-professed "psychic detectives" offered tips, ideas and information to police about where the missing girl was. Unfortunately, as with previous missing persons cases, all the psychics failed: not a single one gave information that led police to recover Caylee Anthony's body. Despite claims to the contrary, the number of missing persons recovered by psychic detectives remains exactly zero.

Incompetent police

In fact, as often happens in protracted missing persons cases, it was not the police who found Caylee but instead a random passerby. A utility worker named Roy Kronk discovered Caylee's remains in a plastic bag this month a few blocks from where she was last seen. It was not the first time Kronk had found the remains; he had contacted the Orange County Sheriff's office in August to report that he had seen "something suspicious, a bag, in the same area."

A police officer was dispatched to the scene but didn't find anything. Kronk called police to the scene a second — then a third — time. Amazingly, on three different occasions, the police officers (and their cadaver-sniffing dogs) missed the remains of a 3-year-old child in a large trash bag not far from a road. If the remains hadn't been seen and reported months ago, the police could claim that the body had been dumped there only after their careful search of the area. But the only explanation for police missing the body three times over the course of four months is incompetence.

In the months that elapsed since police were first notified, the body has decomposed and been eaten by scavengers, maggots and bacteria. With each passing day, there's less remains, and therefore less evidence, making it harder for prosecutors to convince a jury that the death was a homicide. A killer may very well go free because three sets of police didn't thoroughly search for Caylee's remains, and didn't ask Kronk to lead them to the suspicious bag.

America's most bungled

Ironically, the same week that Caylee Anthony was finally recovered, another high-profile missing persons case also highlighted the perils of a bungled police investigation. The victim was Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted." Adam's killer escaped justice for his crime because of police investigators' incompetence. In an interview, Walsh said he realized soon after his son disappeared that the investigation was in trouble: "I sorta got a sinking feeling that nobody knew what they were doing — nobody knew how to look for a missing child," he said. For example, police investigating Adam's disappearance recovered a blood-soaked carpet owned by the suspected killer — then lost that evidence.

Two decades after Adam Walsh died (and one decade after his confessed killer, Ottis Toole, died), Police Chief Chadwick Wagner admitted, and apologized for, many mistakes in the Adam Walsh investigation.

Police do not have an easy job, and should be commended for their good work when they solve crimes and bring criminals to justice. But, more often than the public realizes, poor police work jeopardizes prosecutions and lets killers walk free. Caylee Anthony, Adam Walsh, JonBenet Ramsey, and the rest of America's missing children deserve competent police work.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his Web site. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.