This is the story of a family living with the disappearance of their 24 year old daughter, Ashley Phillips, from the streets of Tampa, FL in March of 1999, and the limitations placed on their agonizing search for her. The family of Ashley Phillips has not seen or heard from their daughter in four years. Ashley’s family has continually been denied the right to file a Missing Person Report, or to have it recorded by local authorities, with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
The Missing Person File is the only database that can be cross-matched with the Unidentified Person File, also maintained by NCIC, which hosts a comprehensive listing of crucial forensic records that can be used to identify the deceased, whose families have obtained an official filing with NCIC. It’s a closed loop system and if you are not in, you belong to a different unofficial missing category – the *”missing” missing adult. In other words, you are really, really lost.
In 2001, NCIC reported that 840,279 Missing Person Reports were recorded in the United States. Some career law enforcement authorities speculate, off the record, that the ratio of unofficial missing to official missing is anywhere from 2 to 10 times that number. Ashley Phillips’ family is certain that this policy of denial, is affecting other families with unofficial missing loved ones, who are the most vulnerable victims of violent crimes, particularly the subgroup of women in this category.
The reasons for being denied the right to file a Missing Person Report on an adult will vary from state to state because every jurisdiction has its own legal interpretation for the guidelines distributed by the FBI. There are states where, Ashley’s family would have had immediate permission to file such a report. In California, for example, she would have, immediately been considered a “high risk” endangered adult.
In the days following Ashley’s disappearance from her home in March 1999, her mother, Michelle, immediately requested that the local police department file a Missing Person Report. The authorities considered Ashley an adult who left of her own free will and was exercising her right to privacy, so they refused to file the report.
It was true that Ashley was only days out a drug rehab center when she went missing. She had most likely relapsed, so the family was at a loss about how to persuade anyone to act on their fears for her safety. Her family knew that her compulsive behavior could quite literally put her into an environment of serious personal danger.
The social stigma, resulting from Ashley’s history of drug use, attached itself to her case for years. Her record shows that she had one drug offense for which she served some months in Cobb County Georgia. At the time of her disappearance she was in violation of her probation, which resulted in an automatic warrant with extradition to Georgia, if she were arrested for any offense in the future. Her mother hoped that she would be picked up on some minor offense that would activate the warrant. She felt this might in fact save her daughter’s life by placing Ashley in a mandatory treatment program.
Ashley was labeled a drug addict and a prostitute, even though she was not arrested for these activities during this time. In fact, she was never arrested for prostitution, although the Tampa Police Department (TPD) claimed to have definite knowledge of her illegal activities. It seemed she had somehow ceased being a person worthy of protection because of the stigma associated with drug addiction and living as a woman on the streets.
Ashley’s mother, Michelle, was not successful in persuading the Tampa Police Department to reconsider their initial assessment of Ashley’s case for four years. Michelle met some dedicated police officers that were sympathetic but this did not translate into a formal declaration of her daughter’s obvious endangerment. They were following a policy and they were steadfast in their refusal to file this vital report.
Every few months, Michelle would attempt to file a missing person report and Ashley’s case was always denied this status. Michelle felt after a point that nobody was really listening. This was particularly true after discovering during such a visit in November 2001 that the police department had picked up Ashley twice for open container violations; once in August 1999 and again in April 2000, her only known arrests in four years. The last time was 19 months prior to Michelle’s knowledge of the event. At this point, when she pointed out the time lapse, since that last official sighting, and the fact that there had still been no documented evidence of Ashley’s existence, she was again denied the right to file the report.
So why was Ashley not arrested and extradited to Georgia on her outstanding warrant while she was being held overnight on both of these occasions? Her mother was told that the time lapse for notifying local authorities on an outstanding warrant is 48 hours. Ashley was released in 24 hours.
In 2002, NCIC processed a daily average of 2.8 million transactions with an average response time of 16 hundredths of a second (the time required for answering requests by law enforcement on routine criminal background checks, including pertinent warrant data) 24 hours a day over 365 days. So was there some unexplained delay by TPD’s system check? Does this happen with other more dangerous offenders apprehended for minor offenses? This was just another variation of the cracks through which, Ashley kept falling and the growing list of questions in the wake of her disappearance.
It didn’t matter, to the authorities, that Ashley was suffering from clinical depression complicated by drug addiction or that Ashley’s trail was getting colder and colder. She was not considered an endangered adult by any interpretation of Florida law, as long as she was addicted to drugs and surviving by whatever means on the street. In their view, she was choosing not to contact her family, and was not a high-risk adult, by definition.
During these most difficult years, Ashley’s older sister, Libba Phillips, was learning as much as possible on the subject of the undocumented missing adult population. She started an educational nonprofit resource to bring attention to her sister Ashley and to become a voice for families sharing the same difficult search for answers on their missing loved ones. During this time she regularly reviewed coroner websites to track information on unidentified remains of women for clues on Ashley, who might have become another statistic somewhere. Very early on, she called and wrote to state and federal officials to find out what they might know about the undocumented missing population or at least gain some insight into the actual number of this population but it was not a category that could be defined by anyone or any agency. This was a frightening fact, once she comprehended the implications of it and what this unknown statistic might mean, for her sister’s chances of survival and rehabilitation. It meant that no one was trying to define the problem, let alone create solutions for resolving these difficult scenarios. Her non-profit organization is the only organization addressing the needs of the undocumented missing population, surviving on the will of a woman desperately seeking her little sister and helping others in the process.
Ashley’s mother, Michelle was raising her two teenage daughters and working a full time job during this time. She managed, with the support of her husband and children, to visit morgues, missions and churches in her area, armed with missing flyers on Ashley. She tried to keep her expectations realistic and at the same time dared to hope of saving Ashley from the dangers of the streets.
Sadly, Ashley’s disappearance is a not so unusual reality of our American life. In fact, her disappearance is a consequence of our American freedoms, apparently, as some authorities use this to define the circumstances of some missing adults, as acts of freedom protected by the right to privacy.
This family’s story is also a consequence of our eroding sense of community and compassion for our fellow human beings. Ashley’s four-year disappearance is a result of a system that does not value the lives of women who are mentally ill with a drug addiction. They fall below the radar of community care and attention.
This indifference can be tallied in the number of nameless female homicide victims that abound in this country and the countless families who never find closure for their missing loved ones. It is frightening to think that Ashley’s case may represent the “average” case of a missing adult.
In November 2002, I composed a letter to Columba Bush (Florida’s First Lady) and Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush explaining the tragedy of Ashley Phillips and her family’s frustrating search. The letter was referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for official review. They passed it on to the Tampa Police Department for review by Chief of Police, Bernie Holder. The Tampa Police Department (TPD) was the legal jurisdiction, for matters concerning how to categorize Ashley’s missing status, because as her luck would have it, this was the city where she was last seen.
I wrote a personal letter to the Chief two weeks later, finally prompting a phone call from an assistant to the Chief who reiterated the categorical denial for filing a missing person report, on Ashley’s case, to my disbelieving ears.
The official denial was to protect Ashley’s right to privacy and this denial was prefaced with the unsolicited information that Ashley was a drug addicted prostitute. (So much talk for so little privacy.) I addressed the stigma that kept being repeated to me regarding Ashley’s drug addiction and presumed lifestyle as a prostitute. I carefully reminded the Sergeant that she did not have any documented arrests for these activities in the past four years. Additionally, the last documented sighting of her was in April 2000, close to three years ago. I asked the Sergeant to honor my request for a formal response, regarding the reasons for denying the family a right to file a Missing Person Report – in writing. He advised me, after pausing for a time, that he would call me back in two days, after he had a chance to talk to “legal”.
The Sergeant called two days later, as promised, to inform me that TPD would file a the report with Ashley’s mother the following morning, one month following my first letter. I was told this was totally against policy and that someone was really sticking his neck out to authorize this action. Ashley’s own family could not raise an ounce of official acknowledgment for four years.
It is an outrage that the Tampa authorities would listen to my argument supporting the filing of the vital Missing Person Report on Ashley’s case and completely ignore the pleas of her own mother for four years. If they could file a report based on my fifteen minute phone conversation, then they could have done the same for Ashley’s family at the beginning of her disappearance. Any good detective will tell you that the colder a trail becomes, the less likely it will be resolved, particularly if the investigation begins four years after the event. There is no excuse for policy that results in irreversible harm to an endangered woman and her family, who were simply doing everything possible to protect their daughter’s life.
Unidentified remains are discovered every day in this country. If Ashley is not alive and her unidentified remains are discovered somewhere, the likelihood of a successful match being drawn at NCIC depends on many separate factors being in place. Of tremendous importance, are the quality and accuracy of information recorded by the Tampa Police Department in her official Missing Person Report.
The thoroughness of a physical description, tattoos, surgical history and dental records are crucial for any match to be made and without this information the record is of little value to law enforcement or the family. The accuracy of this record is also important if she is alive somewhere but for whatever reason, may be suffering from amnesia or in an unconscious state, not just for the purposes of identifying a Jane Doe.
It is not uncommon for medical examiners to have little with which to establish an identification, namely the absence of tissue from which to make a set of fingerprints or other physical marks for matching in the database. From there the next level of clues are dental records. Less than 4% of the total numbers of Missing Person records at NCIC have supplemental dental records attached to their files. This means that when an Unidentified Deceased record is entered into the system with dental information attached, it is only matched against 4 % of the total possible Missing Person records.
In 2002, Florida had approximately 2,000 unidentified deceased, and approximately 30 percent of those had actually been entered in the Unidentified Person file at NCIC. It is not a reflection of the many dedicated coroners and medical examiners in Florida who do their jobs with integrity.
Ashley Phillips’ case punctuates and reveals why it is time to change our ideas on what “missing” actually means, in a way that is equal to every person in every state. Is it possible that many of the thousands of Unidentified Persons in this country are buried without names because their families are not permitted to file Missing Person Reports? One thing is certain, unless we wrap our arms around this nameless population both figuratively and literally, we will see the children of the nameless undocumented missing population become what life long victims become-tragic faces of neglect with shortened life spans. This is not a sustainable outcome for us as a thriving society, unless thriving on the suffering of others is part of that definition.
If we continue to keep our current flawed policy, which demonstrates how stigma affects the interpretation of rational and compassionate guidelines for documenting all missing adults, we will result in building bigger morgues as the solution. A family should have the right to file a Missing Person Report which triggers an official investigation, without question or harassment by any state or local authority. Issues of personal privacy rights can be protected with a little creative programming.
As of December 13, 2002, Ashley was finally listed as a “missing and endangered person” under Florida law. The family confirmed that she is also listed with NCIC’s Missing Person File. The physical investigation led by the detective appointed to her case, began December 18, 2002, Ashley’s 28th birthday. It is possible that someone will come forward with information but unlikely after all this time. The family is unsure what this new missing status may mean. However they are expecting a thorough and exhaustive investigation into the whereabouts of their daughter, dead or alive.
The official filing of the missing person report, by the Tampa Police Department, is an acknowledgment on some level that Ashley Phillips is a human being who deserves to be counted along with the rest of us and that she is a cherished daughter and sister to her family. She is a young woman, who is now considered officially missing, who is no less lost today than she was four years ago. The difference now, is that she is finally counted, and with this and a few more miracles, she may finally be found.
Authors note: Ashley Phillips surfaced in Charlotte, NC on Feb. 7, 2003 after placing a phone call to her mother and then to her sister, Libba, on the same date, four years previous to their last conversation – Libba’s birthday. Ashley had little memory of her four-year experience and because of her state of mind and physical health and for reasons concerning her personal safety and security, the family requested this story not be published six years ago. Today, she is missing again and the details of her tragic life continue to be told by her family for the purpose of creating awareness and change for the undocumented population of “missing” missing adults. The courage to put Ashley’s story out there is a testament to the personal will it has taken for this family to push through this tragedy in the hope of finding a solution for Ashley’s missing predicament and her ongoing well-being.
*If the reader is interested in learning more on the subject of the “missing” missing adult, a term coined by Libba Phillips, visit http://www.outpostforhope.org and become an advocate in your community for this vulnerable population. Donations may be made online as well.
Article By Marquita Plomer 12/31/02 (c) 2002- 10