Thelma Butler remembers well planning a quaint Valentine’s Day dinner with her daughter, Pamela, in February 2009. The 79-year-old Washington, D.C., native spoke to Pamela by phone just two days before the big day, to make sure she had all the details exactly right.
“She wasn’t married, but I knew she may have other plans anyway,’’ says Butler. “I told her that I sure wanted to have dinner with her if it were all right and she said, 'OK, Mom, I’ll pick you up at 5.'’’
That phone call was the last time Thelma Butler spoke to her daughter, then 47, and nearly three years later, she still wonders why. Tomorrow night the TV One network tackles Butler’s case in the first installment of the docudrama Find Our Missing, a show dedicated to telling the stories of missing persons of color. Hosted by Law & Order veteran actress S. Epatha Merkerson, the show will feature accounts of two people who have gone missing without a trace in each hourlong episode.
African-Americans, both men and women, make up one third of all missing-person cases but seldom appear as the topic of choice on the national news or as the focus of popular mystery cable shows such as Disappeared or 48 Hours. Africa-Americans make up roughly less than 12 percent of the total population.
“It’s hard not to question the reasons why people of color aren’t quite treated the same,’’ says Derrick Butler, Pamela’s brother and a board member of the foundation Black and Missing. “The pain of not knowing what happened to someone you love is overwhelming no matter your age, your town, or skin color. It is a hurt that doesn’t get any better when you never get answers.”
In the last decade Lacey Peterson, Natalie Holloway, and Chandra Levy have all become household names in the wake of their tragic disappearances and subsequent assumed murders. Magazines, cable news shows, and made-for-television movies all featured the painful events surrounding each of those women’s disappearances, police investigations, and family reactions. In sharp contrast, the names of missing women of color such as Stacy Nicole English, Phoenix Coldon, and Phylicia Barnes remain mostly unknown to the masses, and uninteresting to major networks.
“Nearly one third of the missing in this country are black, yet their stories are rarely told,’’ says Wonya Lucas, TV One president and CEO. “We hope our TV One efforts will be dramatic television, but also hope these profiles will help trigger the memory of someone who might have seen something and feel compelled to come forward and help these families."
TV One will complement the on-air series with social media and online content on tvone.com, which also will share important information on what to do if someone is missing, tips on preventing abductions, and the names and links of organizations that welcome electronic tips on cases.
Some believe the lack of focus on missing minorities allowed the likes of Anthony Sowell to kidnap and kill more than 11 women of color in a working-class, east-side neighborhood in Cleveland in 2009. Sowell was charged in an 83-count indictment, which included counts of aggravated murder, kidnapping, and abuse of a corpse. Several families of the murdered women filed a $42 million lawsuit against the city of Cleveland last year, claiming racial discrimination. They alleged that police did not monitor Sowell, a registered sex offender, largely because he lived in a black community.
“A lot of the women he killed were minorities, and some had drug problems or other issues,’’ says Donnita Carmichael, whose mother was among the 11 women found dead in Sowell’s home. “When you put race and possible drug use or some other offense in there—you know no one is going to care. That’s what happened with the women here, and that’s what happened with my mother.’’
According to the Butler family, Pamela had a history devoid of drug use or run-ins with the law. In fact, she was a well-respected, longtime program analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency when she disappeared from inside her Washington, D.C., home. Her boyfriend was the last to see her, and her family continues to suspect his involvement.
“From the time she went missing to today, he’s never called me to say a thing,’’ says Thelma Butler. “We found a note in the house that he had written to her saying he’d been looking for her but couldn’t find her. But he never called her family to ask about her. What does that say?”
For Merkerson, an Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning actress, the opportunity to host Find Our Missing was something she didn’t have to think very hard about before accepting.
“You want to be a part of the community and give back to the community,’’ says Merkerson, who for 16 years portrayed police Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC’s Law & Order. “There used to be a time when we looked out for each other and spoke up when something was wrong. We have to get back to those days where we care about the fate of our neighbor. That’s what I hope this show will cause people to do. Look around and tell someone if something isn’t right.’’
It all may be too late for the Butler family, as the third anniversary of Pamela’s disappearance nears. “I used to think I’d hear from her again,’’ says her mother. “Even after the first year, I thought I’d hear from her. I don’t feel that way now. I don’t think that anymore.’’