DNA and story-swapping offer hope to families of the missing

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Displaying a wrinkled sheet of paper that starts with “MISSING!!!” in big red letters, Denisha Molley nervously struggled to hold it steady while photographs were being snapped.   

The paper included grainy pictures of her brother, Dashand Stokelin, 36, of Atlantic City, and phone numbers to call if someone spots him.

Their grandmother, Nancy Stokelin, accompanied Molley to a May 20 event  sponsored by the New Jersey State Police Missing Persons Unit.  They went to find out what else they might do to find Dashand.  

The Missing Persons Unit held the first-event of-its-kind at Rutgers University in New Brunswick to bring together families in New Jersey whose loved ones have disappeared and to encourage them to provide DNA samples if they have not yet done so.

State Police Det. Sgt. Joseph Trella, the organizer, said in a recent interview that it was a success.  Fourteen of the 30 families who attended agreed to have their cheeks swabbed for DNA that day, potentially bringing those cases closer to resolution.

“I would have been happy if just one family did it,” Trella said.

The DNA will be included in national databases used to identify missing persons.  The samples will then be matched against DNA collected and catalogued from people who are deceased, incarcerated, hospitalized or admitted to nursing homes, he said.  

Trella said many families previously provided these samples, but others fell through the cracks or were reluctant to have their DNA put into a database created by law enforcement.  Trella said the families were assured the DNA they provide is used strictly in the search for their loved ones and is kept separate from other law enforcement databases to protect the privacy of families.

Processing of the DNA takes about six months, he said.   

A similar event in Michigan this year ended up solving about 70 cold cases.  

More than 1,100 people are on New Jersey’s missing person’s list, dating back to 1969, Trella said.  More than 300 bodies or remains are unidentified and are kept at county and regional medical examiner’s offices across the state.

The event in New Jersey also gave families the opportunity to bond and talk about how they cope with the feelings associated with not knowing what happened to their loved ones.  It also gave them access to various support organizations that attended and offered help and advice.

Some of the familes said they have consulted private detectives or psychics. Others turned to their faith, therapy or support groups for families whose loved ones are missing.   

Molley and Nancy Stokelin say they have not given up.  After learning about the importance of providing DNA – which takes less than a minute – they both agreed to have their cheeks swabbed. 

“We want the case to be taken seriously,” Molley said, noting her brother disappeared while he was driving his grandmother’s Blue Subaru Legacy on Nov. 22, 2016.  She said they reported the matter to police but have not yet received any updates on the search.  

Nancy Stokelin, of Atlantic City, said the last time she spoke to her grandson was over the phone late that night.  “He couldn’t form the sentences to tell me where he was… I knew something was definitely wrong,” she said.

For Marlene Hardy, who has been searching for her missing brother, Charles Fletcher, for 42 years, the event was an opportunity to meet others and to publicize his story one more time in the hope that maybe it would jog someone’s memory.

“I heard about the event and wondered if there might be something I might have missed,” said Hardy, of the West Oak Lane neighborhood in Philadelphia. Since she is from Philadelphia, she had not been invited by the New Jersey Missing Persons Unit, but heard about the event through news reports.

“It dawned on me that we never reported it in New Jersey and he sometimes would stay in Glassboro,” she said.  If alive, Hardy’s brother, a World War II veteran from Philadelphia, would be 97 years old this year.

Hardy said Fletcher is on national missing persons lists, but putting him on New Jersey’s list too just might help.  Somehow.      

Fletcher vanished in 1975 after calling his mother on Mother’s Day and telling her he would visit soon.

The missing person’s poster of Fletcher includes renderings of how he looked four decades ago and how he might appear today, with “age enhancement” provided by the FBI.  Due to injuries he suffered in combat, he had “a metal plate inserted into his head” and suffers from blackouts and amnesia, the poster said.

Hardy said she trusts in God and has prayed that one day God will let her know what happened to her brother.  She promised her mother before she died that she would never give up the search.  

Kathleen Jamison, of Sea Isle City, said her family hired two or three private detectives when police could not locate her brother-in-law, William J. Jamison, a Vietnam War veteran and the vice-president of a tool and die company in Kennilworth.  He was 32 when he disappeared in 1981 from Roselle Park.  “There was no trace of him or his car,” she said. 

One of the biggest difficulties, she said, is that “there is no body to grieve over.”  She said that the family “knows nothing for sure, except that that he is missing from the family and was a good man,” she said.  

For Cheryl Jones, listening to others share their stories at the event was comforting.  DNA had already been added to the missing persons file for her daughter, Tomiene Jones, who vanished at age 19.  She was last seen in 2002, in her apartment in Harrison Township, Gloucester County.  

As the event drew to a close, Jones of Woodstown said she was glad she attended.  She wiped away a tear.  

“I loved it,” she said.  “I wanted to meet the other families.  You get some closure knowing there’s a lot more people who are like you.  ”   

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