There’s no telling what seizes our population’s collective imagination on any given day, what generates news headlines and clicks by the million.
But one topic remains a sure bet: an attractive young white woman gone missing.
The latest such tale, the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, came to the saddest end imaginable Sept. 19, when investigators found her body in Wyoming’s Teton-Bridger National Forest. On Sept. 21, the Teton County coroner ruled Petito’s death a homicide.
The news media’s Petito obsession will likely continue for some time: The deceased’s travel partner and fiancé, Brian Laundrie, is still missing at press time.
Authorities are combing a swampy 25,000-acre nature preserve in west Florida searching for Laundrie, who could hardly look guiltier in Petito’s death. In July the pair went off to explore the American West by van. It was set to be a four-month trip, but Laundrie reportedly came home on Sept. 1, solo and mum about Petito’s whereabouts. The girl’s family reported Gabby missing 10 days later.
A national whodunit erupted that has stretched for weeks. In its wake trail the names we all have heard: JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Caylee Anthony.
All white, all female, all gone, all the subject of intense fascination.
Which leads to my point: I’ve read often about “missing white woman syndrome,” a media reality that has been the subject of academic research. Many who cite it complain that the Gabby Petitos of the world don’t deserve such attention. That sounds small to me, petty.
Instead, I wish that every missing person — skin color, age and gender aside — would receive some level of national attention, with the resources that scrutiny brings.
Because for every Gabby Petito, there’s a Daniel Robinson and a thousand more cases like his.
Robinson, a 24-year-old African American male, went missing in the far West Valley near Buckeye on June 23. Three weeks later, a rancher found the geologist’s Jeep upturned in a ravine. Twelve days after that, searchers found a human skull near the vehicle, but police say those remains are not Daniel.
What happened to Robinson is still a mystery, despite Buckeye police using off-road vehicles, cadaver dogs, a drone and a chopper to search 70 square miles of desert.
For every Gabby Petito, there’s also a Jhessye Shockley.
The 5-year-old Glendale girl with the big smile went missing in October 10 years ago. Police have never found her body, which they believe was forced into a suitcase and abandoned in a Tempe trash bin. A month after the little Black girl vanished, cops named her mother a suspect.
Today, Jerice Hunter is serving life, convicted of murder and child abuse despite no eyewitnesses and no body. The case is closed beyond a reasonable doubt, but I still wonder about Jhessye every year about this time.
I think about Mikelle Biggs, too, every January. The Mesa 11-year-old went missing the day after New Year’s 1999. One minute she was riding her bicycle on El Moro Avenue, the next she was gone. It has been nearly 23 years.
I wonder what becoming a national obsession might have meant for Mikelle, Jhessye and Daniel. I wonder about the 600,000 Americans who go missing yearly and about the 970 Arizonans currently listed in NamUS, the national missing persons database.
Some blame racism for our fascination with Gabby Petito. That’s part of it, but hardly the major felony at hand here. These are kidnappings, trafficking cases, homicides.
We should pay as much attention as we can to as many of the disappeared as we can, for as long as we can. Ignorance is not bliss, not when lives hang in the balance.