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A Grieving Family Calls for Missing Persons Reform After Pleas Ignored

Missing or murdered?

missing persons
Signs hang at Davis Flohr Neighborhood Park in NoDa during an April 4 vigil for Mary Collins. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

According to CMPD, more than 3,500 people are reported missing in Charlotte annually. On the department’s website, the protocol for missing persons reports is laid out relatively clearly, with stats that emphasize how rarely a missing persons report is the result of violent crime: 70% are teenagers, mostly runaways, while the other 30% are adults, and on average, less than 10 per year end up being the result of foul play.

Read next: Part 2: Doubts and Delays Hindered Mary Collins Murder Investigation

According to the website, “Being a missing person is not a crime. Adults can go missing if they choose to.”

The family of Mary Collins, who at 20 years old was murdered in the heart of the NoDa neighborhood but not found until nearly a week later, believes it is this mindset, woven together with implicit bias, that kept detectives from taking their pleas for help seriously.

At 2:30 p.m. on March 28, 2020, Collins got into an Uber headed for the Yards at NoDa apartment complex. Two days later, after Collins did not respond to calls or texts, her grandmother, Mia Alderman, went to pick her up.

According to Alderman, upon arrival she was met by Kelly Lavery and Lavi Pham, whom Collins had originally set out to visit, and who told Alderman that Collins had already left.

Alderman was certain this could not be true — Collins had a cognitive disability that made it highly unlikely she would have left on her own, and it appeared her phone, which she needed to navigate her way around town, had been inactive since her arrival at the apartment.

When Alderman called the police with this information, she was told to go home and file a missing person’s report. There was one problem with that order: Collins was never actually missing.

missing persons
When Mary Collins’ family contacted police with her whereabouts they were told to file a missing persons report. (Photo courtesy of Mary’s Voice)

Being directed to the Missing Persons Unit didn’t make sense. Alderman and her family knew Collins was still in the apartment and worked diligently to explain to the detective assigned to the case that she was in dire danger.

On April 4, after five days of what the family describes as a negligent unwillingness to actively search for Collins, police found her body in the Rollerton Road apartment that family members insisted all along she had never left.

Lavery, 24; Pham, 21; and James Salerno, 20, were charged with kidnapping and murder. In May, 18-year-old America Diehl turned herself in to Colorado authorities as well shortly after warrants were issued for her arrest. Diehl was charged with felony accessory after the fact and concealing a death.

Now, a year later, the family is calling for justice and reform for local missing persons’ procedure, which they are seeking through their newly formed grassroots organization, Mary’s Voice.

Remembering Mary Collins

A 20-year-old woman with a keen fashion sense and a love for makeup, Collins was eager for friendship and connection. She had poor eyesight and wore glasses but would often forgo them when dressed up.

Her disability, 22q11 Deletion Syndrome (22q), previously known as Velocardiofacialsyndrome (VCFS) or DiGeorge Syndrome, can have multiple effects on a fetus during development, leading to myriad complications during a person’s life. The condition caused Collins to be born with an internal cleft palate, resulting in a significant speech impediment that ate away at her confidence, leading to timidity when speaking with anyone outside her family.

Around her loved ones, however, she often discussed her interests and deep ideas with a quirky sense of humor. Alderman says her connection with Collins was symbiotic.

“Mary would try to say things and get them backwards but we understood each other,” she recalls. “It was like I always just knew what she meant.”

“It was like when you have a young child and you as the family are the ones who can understand,” adds Collins’ aunt, Alex Gallo.

In addition to her shyness, she was quick to forgive and a bit naïve (also a result of her disability), something her family worried about but worked to give her space to work through as a young adult. Though 20 years old, Collins had the maturity of a 15-year-old and sometimes younger, according to Gallo. Her family did their best to ensure Collins was always in the company of others she trusted.

missing persons
Mary Collins was quirky and fun around her family but could be painfully shy and vulnerable in public. (Photo courtesy of Mary’s Voice)

For most women in their early twenties, a few nights away with no family contact is commonplace. For Collins, though, this was far outside the norm. Alderman admittedly was an overprotective grandmother, but strove to protect Collins in light of her vulnerabilities.

Alderman had access to Collins’ bank account and had been working with her on managing money. They had a running joke about keeping a watchful eye on spending.

“I’d tell her, ‘Alright, Mary, pinch the buffalo,’” Alderman says. She’d sometimes text her a hand emoji alongside a buffalo in the same vein.

The family also shared a cellphone plan, allowing them to track a person’s location and activity. Alderman found it odd that Collins’ phone showed nothing during those few days away from home, though she told herself that Collins’ phone had died — she’d left the charger behind. The family now believes it was one of the killers who had broken Collins’ phone upon her arrival, keeping her from having contact with her family.

A Twitter post by Pham, Lavery’s boyfriend, posted late on March 28 showed a happy Collins walking down a hallway, sans glasses, to pick up a sushi delivery.

Collins’ last social media post to her own account was prior to her weekend away: “I broke my glasses and can’t get them fixed until Friday” she posted, with a broken heart emoji.

Though Collins had neither responded to family nor posted on her own social media (both of which were out of character), the post showed her happy and well and Alderman allowed herself to hope for the best.

“They’d posted the video to make us think everything was fine with Mary,” Alderman says. “It worked.”

About 60 people showed up to the vigil, held a year after Collins’ body was found. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

During this time, hearing of increasing COVID-19 restrictions, Alderman knew it was in Collins’ best interest to quarantine once she got home. She became preoccupied with cleaning and grocery shopping, making sure she and Collins were set for a few weeks at home. But after a few days, the lack of contact began to concern Alderman.

On March 30, she followed the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach to Collins’ last known location.

Following their instincts

The Yards at NoDa Apartments is not unlike other complexes lining the light rail corridor. Social media shows photos of 20-somethings lounging by the pool, balconies overlooking a growing skyline. Security cameras keep a watchful eye on the parking lot, which is protected by a locked gate. Promotional material boasts a sense of community with serenity and relaxation.

It was this same security that kept worried family members out while Collins’ alleged killers sat protected inside.

Upon arriving at Yards, Alderman looked around for some direction as to where Collins may be. She found a mailbox with Lavery’s name and apartment number, then went to buzz herself in. When no one answered, Alderman stood outside, waiting until another resident let her in the building.

Once in, she rushed to the third floor and knocked on the door, screaming Mary’s name. Lavery and Pham answered the door and told her Collins had left hours ago. With neither her phone nor glasses, Alderman knew Collins would not be able to get around on her own.

There’s a spectrum of 22q conditions that Collins landed somewhere in the middle of. Finding her way around town was not a strong suit of hers.

“Mary could take care of herself to an extent but there was no way in hell she could navigate anything or go out into the world and know where she was going,” explains Gallo.

In light of her disabilities, Collins had been practicing getting around on her own with the help of her family. In her south Charlotte neighborhood, she’d use her phone’s GPS to navigate her way on walks. She would Uber to friends’ houses but was by and large dependent on whomever she was with to get her back home. Even with her glasses and her phone, she wouldn’t have made it far leaving the apartment on her own.

When the car, sent by Lavery, originally arrived that Saturday, Alderman says she asked the driver not to take her. She says the driver replied “She’s grown. I’m taking her,” and the car drove off. She didn’t want Collins to go with Lavery in the first place, though it wasn’t about the lone trip across town.

According to the family, there had been a history of cruelty and bullying. Lavery had reportedly called Collins disgusting, going as far as to tell her she should kill herself.

Mary Collins was bullied by the same people who were later arrested for her murder. (Photo courtesy of Mary’s Voice)

After these events, Lavery would ensure Collins they’d made up, that all was well. There was an element of emotional manipulation to their relationship and Collins, eager for friends, would tolerate it to keep from being alone, despite her family’s best wishes.

Though they’d watched this past cruelty unfold, they never suspected Lavery and Pham may pose a physical threat to Collins.

It was this insight into the inner workings of their complex relationship and, moreover, the knowledge that Collins was not capable of leaving on her own, that led Alderman to call the police. Being told to file a missing persons report made no logical sense to Alderman.

“She wasn’t missing,” Alderman says. “I knew where she was and who had her.”

Not knowing what else to do, Alderman followed CMPD protocol and went home to file the report, believing the police would then go inside to get Collins.

“The officer who responded to my call goes to the apartment and knocks on the door,” Alderman says. “There was no response and so she left.”

CMPD refused to discuss the specifics of the Collins case, as it is an ongoing investigation that has not yet gone to trial. The department was not able to provide a member of the department to discuss the broader aspects of missing persons protocol by the time of this paper’s publication.

Aware of the lack of real action on CMPD’s part, Alderman kept a rotation going at the apartment complex, with at least one family member or friend always watching what was coming in and out of the apartment. They hoped for signs of Collins — still alive.

At one point Pham let Alderman and Mary’s mother, Kasei Delpezzo, into the apartment to look for Collins. Alderman says she was not allowed in the back bedroom, but Delpezzo was quickly guided through by an agitated Pham.

The detective told the family to stop harassing Lavery and Pham, that the couple was feeling threatened. The family refused to ease up. They knew something was horribly wrong.

You can read Part 2 of this story here.

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