A community vigil for Yashawnee Vaughn is Saturday, April 9, from 8 to 11 p.m. at the bowling alley across from Madison High School, 2700 NE 82nd (Julie Keefe photo)
A child goes missing and suddenly the grieving family is approached by an array of do-gooders offering to help: psychics, lawyers, search dog teams and would-be spokespeople.
In the case of local teen Yashawnee Vaughn, this past week family members found themselves with not one but two spokespeople, plus a motorcycle club, a K9 unit and a rapidly growing crew of Facebook supporters, all offering to help in the search.
Who can they trust?
"Anybody who inserts themselves into a situation like this can be a rogue element," says Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was abducted and murdered in 1993.
Klaas has spent recent years trying to bring the issue of missing child exploiters to the attention of law enforcement, but he says there are few ways to do it.
"When we were looking for my daughter the only ones we had to deal with were the psychics, the ambulance-chasing attorneys, and the tabloid journalists -- they were the ones who would try to turn the situation to their own ends," he says.
"Now you have a whole industry that's grown up and goes on social media networks and sets up bogus missing child pages.
Online Communities Can Help, Hurt
If you plug Michelle Bart's name into a computer search engine, it's as if there are two women with the same name. Numerous positive references to her work with the women's advocacy group Soroptimist International pop up. But so do countless vicious blogs flaming her stint as a spokesperson for the grandparents of a Florida girl named Caylee Anthony.
Anthony was 2-years-old when she disappeared in 2008, and as Bart became the family spokesperson in the case during the search, the child's mother became a prime suspect.
Within months that mother, Casey Anthony, was arrested for murder; the toddler's remains were found; and Bart's reputation as a publicist in the case drew derision and anger that endures through the uniquely lasting power of the Internet.
"Up until that Caylee Anthony case you could get, if you searched me on the Internet, there was nothing but good things," Bart said. "But these groups – they can say anything they want. My family and friends finally just said, 'stop reading the blogs.'"
On the other hand, the soon-to-be-renamed RIP Yashawnee Facebook group has distributed more than 6,000 family-approved flyers with the girl's picture, organized vigils and done news interviews about their work.
Vaughn's mother, Shaquita Lewis, posted a heartbreaking thank-you note to the group's page Friday afternoon, haltingly sharing her personal pain and making sure the page's fans knew they were welcomed to a vigil scheduled for Saturday night.
"The vast majority of people who get involved in these cases are doing it for the right reasons – they want nothing more than to assist in the safe recovery of a missing child," Klaas said.
Kyron Horman — Magnet for Rage, Money Appeals
The June, 2010, disappearance of Kyron Horman touched off an avalanche of emotional attachment to his case among people who have no personal tie to his family or friends.
Online networks set up to help in the search for the missing gradeschooler have flourished, including a Facebook page with nearly 86,000 "likes."
While most comments are about praying for his return, a steady stream of rage also runs through the page.
"COME ON, LE (law enforcement) -- DO YOUR JOB," one comment dated April 7, 2011, says. "10 MONTHS, AND STILL NO KYRON?!?! REALLY?? 10 WHOLE MONTHS?? DO YOUR JOB!! DO. YOUR. FRICKIN'. JOB!!!"
Listservs set up on missing child-focused sites often attack Kyron's step-mother and one in particular, the Terri Moulton Horman 'Raw Uncensored Public Opinion News Site,' welcomes abusive threats against her. The site also solicits donations to BringKyronHome.org, the child's official family web page.
Others posting Internet items about the Horman case are also soliciting money for their work, including K9 Search and Rescue business owner Harry Oakes.
Oakes, who has brought his search dogs to Sauvie Island to search for Kyron's remains, has itemized his costs on Kyron searches on his blog.
A Facebook page called "Private Search for Kyron Horman" showcases Oakes' efforts (in faulty spelling and punctuation) – which are not sanctioned by law enforcement or green-lighted by the Horman family.
"Harry Oakes is a professional for profit investigator, and at this time he is donating his time, knowledge, energy, and resources," the page says. "Harry is not wanting this group or any group to promote his business when it comes to finding Kyron. He wants to help the Sherrif who promised with tears in his eyes on T.V. to bring Kyron Horman home.
"Since Harry is not getting paid for this search and he is a for profit' business he can not accept donations. He can however, accept gifts.
"We are setting up a Paypal account for Harry to reimburse him , and his searchers. Paypal is a reputable cmpany for sending and recieving money. Harry will be providing reciepts to show what he has used the money for,and we will post updates to you."
See, these people can do this because they're not held accountable at all," Klaas says. "They're never held accountable for anything they say and do."
When his own daughter was kidnapped from inside their home 18 years ago, Klaas says his family found themselves in such a welter of pain and confusion that they reached out to anyone who offered help – at one point finding themselves in a cattle pasture in the middle of the night with the property owner waving a gun, after a 'forensic psychic' promised to lead them to their daughter's location.
The situation was resolved without harm, but Klaas says it's just one example of how tough it is to sort through the emotional journey touched off by a missing child.
"I've been trying to work on something recently and it's about order in chaos," he says. "When these people go missing chaos seems to rule everything – it seems to rule the family, they don't know where to go or what to do and I say this from experience.
"You have these people that just exploit that chaos for their own ends, people who really have nothing going in their lives but to wait around for something like this to happen.
"I don't know how one addresses that quite frankly," he says. "I don't."
The problem is it's not against the law for opportunists to step into a family's life and insinuate themselves into a tragedy.
"The issue in this case is people who are taking advantage of a vulnerable family and who are sometimes able to get their hooks into a family and drive a wedge in between families and law enforcement," says Portland Police Lt. Pete Simpson. "They tell the families, 'they don't care about you, but I do.
"Then comes the ask – the 'if you can raise some money, I can do some more,'" Simpson says.
Whom to Trust?
Bart, who emerged in media reports in early April as the spokesperson for Vaughn's mother and grandmother, says she is not being paid for writing press releases and arranging media interviews.
She says she has received payment for her services in two out of the 16 missing child cases she has worked on. Her regular career is working as a publicist for her one-person Vancouver-based company, Helping Heroes Productions, Inc.
"What I am able to bring to the table is help the family speak to the media," she says. "Many law enforcement agencies tend not to like families to speak out much because it 'brings in bogus tips and wastes our time,' and that is a direct quote from an FBI agent who we had on CNN."
Bart says she was invited to represent Vaughn's family by a city of Portland employee. Since she stepped up and started making media appearances, another woman – claiming affiliation with a group that has proven impossible to verify – attended the Wednesday morning City Council memorial for Vaughn, claiming to be a family spokeswoman.
"High profile means media rich and there are individuals who will exploit your child's tragedy to cash in their fifteen minutes of fame," Klaas' website says. "You need neither new best friends nor an entourage. Your goal is to find ways to promote your child's case and further the investigation."
A $1,000 reward has been offered by Crimestoppers for information that will help in the investigation of Yashawnee Vaughn's death and disappearance. Contact Crimestoppers at 503-823-HELP.
Keep up with the community-wide leafleting campaign and get a copy of the official flyers for Vaughn at Facebook, Yashawnee Vaughn RIP We want justice (the name may be changed soon).
For more information about Marc Klaas' nonprofit organization go to http://www.klaaskids.org .
Next week, Part II, Missing Child Exploiters: Following the Money