“If a 15-year-old female is sick of mom and dad’s rules and runs away to party or be with her boyfriend and then shows up two or three days later, that’s not something that we’re going to look into,” said deputy Scott Wilson, spokesman for Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office. “They’re not actually missing.”
Wilson said that in 2011, there were approximately 236 cases of teens reported “missing” by their families in Kitsap County, “almost one for every day.”
However, a teen must fall within a five-point criteria to be deemed missing and not just a “runaway” by the Sheriff’s Office and Bremerton Police Department.
Spokesmen for both departments said that they do not put resources into investigating runaways in their jurisdiction.
Parents of teens who have disappeared in the county in the last year are accusing police of using the distinction between missing person and runaway as an “excuse” to not investigate their children’s disappearance.
The criteria to be a missing person are disability, being physically in danger, involuntary “coercion” which could also involve a juvenile and an “overage” adult or disaster victim separated from family, according to Wilson and Lt. Peter Fisher of the Bremerton Police Department.
Star Sierra, mother of 13-year old runaway Rachelle Nopp, said that she spoke with the sheriff’s office about looking for her daughter as a missing person after she ran away on Jan. 3, but was told that her daughter was not considered missing.
“She suffers from depression; she’s a cutter, and she’s 13 years old out on the streets with a 15-year-old boy. How could that not fit criteria for “at risk?” said Sierra.
Sierra said that she was told by Sgt. Jim White, and several other deputies, that since Nopp was classified a runaway, the department did not have the money to look into her case.
“We don’t have resources for runaway cases. They usually resolve themselves in two or three days,” said Wilson. “We have dealt with these many times over by the thousands.”
Nopp’s parents approached the Bremerton police about putting up a flyer in their lobby. The department does not accept or post flyers of runaways.
The U.S. Post Office on National Avenue. also stopped posting flyers of runaways due to “budget cuts,” said Dale Goforth, postmaster. However, the branch said that it is considering putting up flyers again this year.
“It’s truly shocking,” Sierra said. “You can’t even take a picture of her in case you see her around?”
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service eventually intercepted Nopp and Keith Bolstad, her 15-year-old boyfriend in front of Popeye’s Chicken on Wheaton Way. During her weeks away she lived on the streets of Seattle before returning.
The Navy became involved since Bolstad was a military dependent.
Sierra said that NCIS agents responded to their 9-1-1 call at 6 a.m. Jan. 4 within 20 minutes and worked with both families almost every day while the teens were missing, updating them on tips they had received and leads that they were following.
When Bolstad and Nopp were eventually found, NCIS agents were dressed in workout clothes – it was the investigators’ day off, said Angela Goodwin, Nopp’s mother.
“They stopped everything they were doing to help,” Sierra said. “Without the fact that our daughter was with that Navy boy, there’s no telling what would have happened.”
NCIS spokesperson John Salazar confirmed that the Navy did work the Nopp-Bolstad case even though Nopp was not a Navy dependent and that they do not have an investigative team devoted to missing people.
“Good for them, they have the resources to devote to a full-time investigator. Maybe they don’t get too many navy dependents that leave housing on base,” Wilson said.
Fisher said that there are “currently no missing children in the City of Bremerton” according to their definition. The last missing person was in 2006.
Bremerton resident Heather Potter has been searching for her son, David James “DJ” Wellington, 17, for more than a month. Wellington attended Bremerton High School and was last seen Jan. 8.
“The police are supposed to protect and serve but they aren’t doing anything to find our children,” said Potter.
Potter said that Seattle Police Department contacted her a week ago to say that they had her son, but released him before she went to pick him up citing that being a runaway is not a crime.
Wellington was a youth group leader through a foster camp at church, and Potter said that their family had “average hormonal teen problems” but nothing to explain the sudden disappearance.
Miguel Sonny Scott, 19, was last seen at Evergreen Park in Bremerton and has been missing since October 2011. Scott’s family offering a $5600 reward for information that leads to his location, according to their latest flyer.
Scott’s case has been assigned a detective through the sheriff’s office since his disappearance happened soon after a jaw surgery, and the teen might be in danger without his medication.
Cory Brooks, a schoolmate, said that Scott’s family has been asking all of his friends to help post flyers around the neighborhood and talk to people.
“The police aren’t really helping,” Brooks said. “Miguel’s mom is really upset.”
Alexx Michael Lee Ohnemus, 15, was last seen at the Kitsap County Juvenile Detention Center Jan. 24. His family said they are working with Bremerton Police Department since Ohnemus was on parole violation for skipping school while on the state’s juvenile rehabilitation program.
“We haven’t heard anything back from the police,” said Gary Wynn, Ohnemus’ grandfather. “We’re waiting.”
Sierra said that parents who put their faith in the sheriff’s office or police department are “setting themselves up for disappointment.” She and her partner Goodwin are trying to get the community involved in finding runaway children.
Nopp’s parents formed the Facebook group “Missing Kitsap” after Nopp was found so that families will have a place to post their flyers and share tips or organize search events. The group has expanded to 63 members with requests to expand to include all of Washington. This month, they changed the name to “Missing Washington State.”
Potter said that the community has “given her hope,” especially the Bremerton Foodline, where she visited during the snow storm in case her son was there seeking shelter.
“They sat with me for a long time, I couldn’t stop crying,” Potter said. “They took his photograph and are helping me send it to different groups. They took my phone number and said they would call. The director hugged me so tight. It doesn’t seem like very much, but it meant a lot.”
Goodwin said that Coffee Oasis on Burwell Street also helped when they were looking for Nopp. The nonprofit caters to runaways and at-risk kids with drop-in centers for homeless teens.
“But we’re not the police, and we don’t consider ourselves that. That’s their job,” said Dave Frederick, owner of Coffee Oasis.
Frederick adds that even if a parent is looking for the teen, reconciliation might not be the best thing for the runaway depending on the home situation. However, the group has helped parents reunite with their children in the past.
“Unfortunately, it’s becoming totally up to us to find our missing children,” Potter said. “Who is looking for them? Our children are not back.”