The following is Part 2 in a two-part series about the disappearance and murder of Mary Collins in spring 2020. Part 1 can be read here.
There’s a bit of a discrepancy in what happened to Mary Collins and where it falls in CMPD’s protocol for missing persons reports.
CMPD’s Missing Persons Unit website clearly states, “Being a missing person is not a crime. Adults can go missing if they choose to … They can choose to leave work, ignore friends, even family. Because of this, law enforcement is quite limited in what they can do.”
According to the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons (NCCMP), a missing person is technically defined as any individual 18 years of age or older whose location has not been determined and who has been reported missing to a law enforcement agency. There is no direct information to aid families of individuals with disabilities, nor for those who are certain of the individual’s whereabouts, as Collins’ family was in April 2020.
CMPD’s Safe Outcomes Program, launched in 2020 as a part of broader local efforts around deescalation and “reimagining policing,” is intended to inform how people in “vulnerable populations” — mostly referring to people diagnosed with neurodivergent disorders — may react to police officers during a call.
The program provides a voluntary registry for Mecklenburg County residents who suffer from any variety of neurodivergent disorders ranging from dementia to ADHD, so as to protect those on whom police have been called by informing responding officers what sort of reaction they might be confronted with. In 2020, the program’s inaugural year, 20 Charlotte residents had signed up for the registry.
Project Lifesaver is another CMPD program available for those with Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, traumatic brain injury, etc. who have a history of “wandering off.” A person meeting the criteria — has a medical diagnosis, has a caregiver, has wandered off in the past — is then given an alert bracelet they are required to wear at all times to inform the family of the individual’s whereabouts should they wander.
In 2007, North Carolina implemented the Silver Alert system, intended to assist in missing persons cases involving people who suffer from Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments that make them susceptible to harm. A case only qualifies for a Silver Alert if the subject meets all criteria: the person is believed to be missing; they have dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or a disability that requires them to be protected from potential abuse or other physical harm, neglect, or exploitation; a legal custodian has reported the person missing to local law enforcement; and the local law enforcement agency has then reported the incident to the NCCMP.
NCCMP’s Silver Alert website has a bold-text reminder that the NCCMP is the only agency able to activate a Silver Alert and will do so only at the request of the investigating law enforcement agency. Like Amber Alerts do for missing children, a Silver Alert sends out an alert to the media as well as to electronic highway billboards and other locations.
What were the options?
A Silver Alert was never issued for Mary Collins case, and the family suspects that is a direct result of the inaction of Joshua Gaskin, the lead detective on her case. Though her family reported missing on March 30, CMPD did not issue a missing persons bulletin for Collins until April 3, one day prior to her body being found exactly where her family said it would be.
In 2008, 559 Silver Alert cases were entered and 128 of those were activated. Of the 128, 118 were recovered; all of whom were senior citizens. According to the most recent data available for NCCMP, of the 359 Silver Alerts issued in 2017, only 57 were reported as located or recovered because of the Silver Alert, nine of whom were deceased, leading to questions of the program’s general efficacy.
Inquiries as to whether a Silver Alert would have truly been a benefit in this case are speculative. But what this insinuates regardless, Collins’ family says, is that Gaskin did not take the case seriously.
As the days passed, the family says calls continued to pour in to CMPD begging for Gaskin’s help. There was one call, however, that the family believes superseded the rest.
“Someone called in and told the detective that Mary had done this before, that she runs off with guys all the time,” Alderman says. The family says not only was this allegation not true but was nearly impossible given her disorder, and neither Gaskin nor any other CMPD officials ever called to confirm the claim with them.
Collins’ grandmother Mia Alderman believes Gaskin profiled Collins and took this singular tip as fact. She credits that to implicit bias so clearly stated in the defensive nature of the missing persons protocol, as shown in the repeated reminders on the CMPD website that adults are free to do as they wish.
On March 31, the day after the Alderman filed a report, she says Gaskin called her and said he couldn’t make it out to the apartment that day. He answered her repeated claims that Collins was in immediate danger with a suggestion that she call 911. Alderman asked to see the footage from the apartment complex’s cameras from the 28th through 30th to confirm whether Collins had left. Alderman says Gaskin told her they would need a warrant, though Alderman says she later found that information to be inaccurate.
The family had difficulty contacting management at The Yards. The onset of COVID-19 had caused an office closure, slowing the possibility for accessing security footage. Finally, on April 3, Alderman was given permission by the complex’s corporate office to view the footage. By this time, however, a new month had started. March 28 had been erased.
Doubts lead to inaction
CMPD’s Missing Person Unit consists of five detectives, one investigative technician and one supervisor who collectively handle around 3,500 reports each year. Reports are left up to the discretion of the assigned detective to determine the legitimacy of each case.
In her She Says podcast, which was published by WFAE in 2019, Sarah Delia reported on the case of “Linda,” a sexual assault victim who faced doubts from CMPD investigators after being victim of a sexual assault at the hands of a stranger. The series begged the question: Are detectives overrun with cases?
Inaction and disbelief is a long-standing criticism of law enforcement when it comes to sexual assault as well as missing persons cases. It is not a Charlotte-specific phenomenon.
In 2017, Andrew Devendorf was told, “People go missing and come back all the time … Sometimes they just need a break,” by the man who was supposed to be investigating his brother Andrew’s disappearance. Andrew pleaded with him to take Matt’s depression into consideration, and begged him to take the case seriously. Matt was later found dead, the result of an apparent suicide.
Legal experts led a movement for reform In Mumbai after multiple missing persons reports ended with a high-profile murder in 2012.
According to New York-based nonprofit online journalism project The Missing, NYPD has special categories by which they rank missing persons cases by urgency and importance. Former NYPD sergeant Joseph Giacalone says those who don’t meet the criteria “will not receive as much attention. This is because people over the age of 18 legally do not have to return home.”
“Unless we can prove that there was an involuntary disappearance, we just file paperwork,” said Giacalone.
This shoulder-shrug attitude exists worldwide, due largely to the low number of missing persons reports that are found to involve criminal intent or involuntary disappearance. According to CMPD, of the 3,500 reports the department’s Missing Persons Unit sees each year, only about 10 are found to involve foul play. That hasn’t stopped advocates from calling for missing persons reports to be taken more seriously.
“Why aren’t we treating each of them like one of the 10 [criminal cases] until we know they aren’t?” asks Mary Collins’ aunt, Alex Gallo.
On April 3, five days after the report was filed, Alderman says Gaskin told her he finally searched the apartment. She says it was during this conversation that an exasperated Gaskin asked, “Do you understand she’s not in there?”
Eventually, however, enough tips came in from those who had been in contact with Lavery, Pham and James Salerno, an apparent friend of the couple who now seemed to be involved. Salerno allegedly admitted to a friend that Collins’ body was in the apartment, and the friend reported it to police.
On April 4, more officers entered the apartment and found Collins’ body hidden in a mattress, in the same back bedroom that family members had been denied full access to during previous searches.
Grieving family members become reluctant activists
The family is now systematically seeking justice. Their organization, Mary’s Voice, is meant to fully encapsulate all the issues her case entails. During Mary Collins’ short life, she was often unable to speak up for herself. Now, in response to her death, her family seeks to speak up for her.
Their first call for justice involves Collins’ killers, as the family wants to see all four of those charged in her case sentenced to life in prison.
Beyond that, Mary’s Voice seeks policy change in missing persons investigations, especially when they involve differently abled individuals. Because Collins was never truly missing and was believed to be held against her will for some unknown time, her family wants different protocols put in place that allow those closest to the victims to have more of a say over whether the person reported missing is deemed to be in immediate danger.
“When you go to the police, you just hear them say, ‘Our officers followed policy and procedure,’” Alderman says. “Ok, so your policy and procedure is severely flawed and you need to change it.”
Alderman says the last year has been hell. While the autopsy report has come back, the time of death is undetermined, leaving the family wondering not only if this could have been prevented, but how long Collins’ body may have sat unattended while the family begged for intervention. These concerns also received a nonchalant response from an officer, Alderman says.
“[The officer] said, ‘I guess it doesn’t matter now,’” she recalls.
To the family, though, it will never not matter.
Alderman knows a trial is a long way off. She fears that, given the number of homicides and the backlog created by COVID-19 shutdowns, they may never reach that point. But still, she is putting the energy from this tragedy into work toward justice reform. Meanwhile, Collins’ friends and family continue to collectively mourn and remember the trauma and tragedy they endured during their search for answers.
As for their new roles as community organizers and reform advocates, Alderman says, “We are new to this and never wanted to be here, but we were given no choice. So, in Mary’s name, we will bring light to the darkness, sharing our experiences with the hope of making things better. We will push for and expect change.”
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