by Sue Ann Rybak
Mt. Airy resident Mark G. Hopkins, chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue (GPSAR) has helped with the investigation of thousands of missing person cases, including that of Shane Montgomery, the 21-year-old West Chester University student whose body was found Jan. 3 in the Schuylkill River.
The Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue, a nonprofit volunteer organization founded in 1979, responds to search requests for missing persons in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
GPSAR volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, engaging in rescue operations in the wilderness or urban areas. Their mission, Hopkins said, is simple: to respond so “that others may live.”
“I have been trying to take advantage of this recent wave of media coverage to educate people about the organization and what to do if someone you love goes missing,” Hopkins said. “If you are in public safety, your job should be to put yourself out of work. It may never happen, but you can narrow the gap.”
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as of December 31, 2014, there were 84,924 active missing person records. At least 60 percent of those cases were adults.
Chestnut Hill residents may recall Dermott Glacken, whose body was found just 10 blocks from his home a month after his disappearance, despite an extensive volunteer search. The 86-year-old man, who had dementia, went missing after wandering from his Ardleigh Street home in Chestnut Hill on Feb. 23, 2004.
“I thought that was going to be the biggest search I ever saw until Shane Montgomery,” said Hopkins, who has been doing this for more than 20 years.
He used to believe that the amount of media attention a particular case received was based on race and socioeconomic status – now, he said, social media is often a driving force.
“Unfortunately, there is no standardized procedure for investigating missing persons in Philadelphia,” Hopkins said. “It used to be if you had blond hair and blue eyes you got top coverage. Now, it’s not about race. It’s about Facebook popularity where likes become currency.”
And, sometimes, people don’t have the best of intentions.
“Now, because of Facebook, people compete for attention,” he said. “Social media can sometimes drive the search in the wrong direction and social media can take the wind out of other missing person investigations.
“While Shane Montgomery went missing, there were dozens of other people who were missing that didn’t get any press,” Hopkins said. “But we were continually updated minute-by-minute on nothing by the press.”
He pointed out that the first three hours are critical in any search – especially those for children.
“The magic number is about three days,” Hopkins said. “A person’s chance of survival significantly decreases after 72 hours.
“Misleading information or the intrusion of unauthorized personnel in a search and rescue operation can steal precious minutes and take the eyes of the rescuers off the main goal – to save lives,” he added. “When a person is lost or endangered, seconds can mean the difference between life and death.”
Hopkins recalled how one woman wrote on Facebook that Heather Tillette, an Upper Merion woman who went missing in February after going to Einstein Medical Center in East Norriton on Feb. 26, knocked on her door the day after they searched the area.
“She posted it on Facebook but didn’t want to give her name,” he said. “No, she didn’t. I didn’t change the search area. You waste time shifting everything based on one comment someone made anonymously on Facebook. I found out later that was inaccurate. I tracked her down, based on a photo of a house she posted on Facebook. I told her, ‘Don’t play around like that because next time it won’t be a friendly visit.’”
He said there was a lot of confusion in that case because two police departments were involved when she went missing. Unfortunately, GPSAR wasn’t contacted until two weeks later.
“Once things got sorted out, we were able to go back on Sunday and find her in about 30 minutes,” Hopkins said. “She had just laid down in a field and died. And, that’s a lot of what we see.”
He said that when Tillette first got lost, she was knocking on residents’ doors, asking to call her mother, but when people said, “I’ll get the police,” she became paranoid and ran away.
“Near the end, she was asking to go back to the hospital,” Hopkins said. So, I don’t think she ever intended to kill herself. She was just very confused.”
He said some people clearly want to kill themselves.
“You have people who run out of the house with a piece of rope and you find them hanging an hour later,” Hopkins said.
He said people go missing for many reasons, including mental health issues, substance abuse issues, financial issues, physical illnesses, accidents and many others.
“The quicker you can wrap up a search the less anxiety the community goes through,” Hopkins said. “I’ve watched it drain a community because everybody feels like they failed the person.
He said K-9 partners play an important role in search and rescue teams.
“The mere presence of a professional looking handler and canine can help to comfort the family of a missing person in many cases,” Hopkins said. “And the animal helps us by dramatically narrowing the search area and covering more area faster.
“I learn something new on every search,” he said. “When Heather Tillette went missing, residents were so resistant. They would not answer their doors or they would yell at you to go away. I couldn’t figure out why, and then my assistant said it was March Madness. People didn’t want to leave their TVs.
“Years ago, I made a commitment that I didn’t want to watch a lot of TV anymore, and it changed my life,” Hopkins added. “I decided I wanted to go out and do something instead of complaining about the world. I would try and make the world a little bit better.”
Unfortunately, most of the people Hopkins finds are dead.
“I can be a bit of a curmudgeon, and you have to be a bit of one to keep doing this and not be a raging alcoholic, but, you can find people,” he said.
Recently, Hopkins aided in the investigation of a missing young teenager. Because the police contacted Hopkins immediately, they were able to recover the youth quickly.
“It’s the stories you never hear on the news that keep us enthusiastic and give us hope,” he said.
Hopkins said if a loved one goes missing, families can improve the odds of their being found alive by calling 911 immediately and treating the area as a crime scene by securing it from spectators and minimizing foot traffic until law enforcement arrives. He said securing the area helps prevent evidence and clues, such as tracks, from being disturbed. He added that any personal items of the missing person should not be handled until the K-9 team arrives.
Hopkins, who is also a volunteer fireman, is passionate about this work. While he knows he can never stop people from going missing, he hopes to decrease the number through education and working closely with other organizations.
“One of the analogies I like to use is putting out fires,” he said. “If you just go around dumping water on fires, it doesn’t solve the problem. One of the questions we have to ask ourselves is ‘Why are these fires starting.’”
He said people need to be more engaged with people around them and in their everyday lives. He said it’s one of the problems of the digital age.
“If you walk down the street on a beautiful day, you will see people walking around with earbuds in their ears or staring at their cell phones,” Hopkins said. “People are so engrossed in texting, reading emails and listening to music that they are completely oblivious of their surroundings.
“I bet you I could walk two or three blocks down Germantown Avenue, acting as crazy as a loon, and you probably wouldn’t be able to get two or three people to identify me correctly,” he said. “We have all this technology, but we are too dependent upon it. People just don’t pay attention enough.”
He said social media creates the illusion that we connecting with people on a personal level.
“Facebook creates the illusion that you are in touch with people, but you’re not,” he added. “You are just watching. People within their own families aren’t engaged anymore. Facebook helps maintain the image that everything is good and everyone is happy. But the reality is, life isn’t supposed to be awesome all the time.”
“Being part of a community means looking out for one another,” Hopkins said. “I am not saying people should endanger themselves,” he said.
He said he simply wants people to be a neighbor to their neighbor. He is currently working with city officials and community organizations to create what he calls “Brother’s Keeper Law.”
“Unfortunately, we see many people vanish after being separated from their group at a club, concert or bar,” Hopkins added. “I’d like to see something that raises some question of accountability for people in groups.”
Besides being on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, Hopkins works with schools, nonprofit organizations and local community groups to educate people about the organization, its programs and resources available to the community, such as SARFAST, a family advocacy group organized through GPSAR to provide personal support and technical assistance to families of lost or missing loved ones, and to law enforcement agencies at no charge. GPSAR’s “Lost in the Woods,” is a survival program that provides tips about what to do if someone gets lost. The short demonstration is presented to students, clubs, parents and other community organizations. There is no charge for any of GPSAR’s services.
Hopkins said the organization is completely funded by donations and other volunteer services. It does not receive any funding from the city. He said while the group is always grateful for monetary donations, it is always struggling to find training facilities or space to store equipment and files.
“I spend so much of my time [and money] worrying about where we are going to store equipment and files,” he said. “If someone has an office space or carriage house that they are not using and want a tax write off – something like that would help us so much more than money right now.”
For more information about Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue (GPSAR) call 877-598-5618 or go to www.gpsar.org/who.html.
This post was recently updated on May 14. An earlier version, erroneously stated that Hopkins was a former volunteer fireman.