In her 18-plus years as an advocate, Monica Caison has seen it all: The car stereo store owner who staged his disappearance to avoid creditors. The 9-year-old boy missing four months before being found dead, tucked into a suitcase and stashed behind a drug store. The killer who sent her a map pinpointing the location of his last victim.
All those cases drew a focused response from Caison’s Wilmington-based nonprofit, the CUE Center for Missing Persons, a sprawling network of volunteers whose growth in recent years is underscored by its rapidly expanding reach across the country.
But the organization was not always this big.
The tragedy that lifted CUE from obscurity to mainstream was the disappearance of Peggy Carr, a 32-year-old kidnapped at random by two men in a parking lot outside a city shopping center in April 1998.
Then a nascent and relatively unknown organization, CUE took a leading role in spearheading the quest for Carr in a case that galvanized much of the community. As the search unfolded over seven months, CUE helped feed, house and alleviate the financial and emotional strain on Carr’s family as searchers pursued her whereabouts.
CUE built on the credence and knowledge it gained during that formative time 14 years ago to grow from a blip in the voluminous world of missing persons to a nationally recognized support system. Today, it enjoys a reputation as a nationwide web of volunteers, still headquartered in the Port City, willing to marshal resources for missing persons and their families at a moment’s notice.
Carr’s mother, Penny Carr Britton, grew so close to Caison and CUE as the search for her daughter unfurled that she remains actively involved with the organization to this day. In March, she attended CUE’s eighth annual national conference, a gathering of field experts, families, search and rescue groups and law enforcement officials in Wilmington every year.
“When we got here, we didn’t know a soul. We didn’t know what to do,” Britton recalled about 1998, when she and other members of her family traveled from Ohio to assist in the search. “For seven months, Monica walked me through my life.”
In the years before Carr’s case became a high-profile drama, CUE had established itself as a mainstay for families on the emotional rollercoaster that follows the disappearance of a loved one. But the group had been struggling to define its mission, operating more on the periphery than the center.
Carr’s disappearance marked a turning point. The case swung nationwide attention on this corner of North Carolina. People seemed captivated by first the mystery of why she vanished and then the callousness of her murder. But it also shone a spotlight on CUE as the organization sought to assert itself as a community stalwart and family advocate.
Carr was months away from her wedding when two strangers abducted her outside a shopping center at the corner of Oleander Drive and Dawson Street on April 22, 1998. Held at gunpoint, she was forced to drive about 40 minutes to the edge of a soybean field in rural Bladen County, where the assailants killed her and left her body beneath berry bushes.
For the next seven months, nobody but the killers knew her whereabouts. As the search progressed, Britton and other family members, many of whom uprooted their lives in Ohio to live in North Carolina while the case developed, grasped for answers.
CUE, meanwhile, stepped in to relieve what anxieties it could, Britton said. The group not only nudged the case forward, but covered the family members’ hotel expenses, brought them dinner every night and did other small things to ameliorate their stress. Caison glued herself to Britton’s side, becoming a shoulder to lean on as she walked Britton through the whirlwind of emotion and bureaucracy that confronted them.
“I always tell people, that was our landmark case,” Caison, a stark blonde whose vigor, focus and dynamic personality make her a charismatic figure among victims’ families. “It was a crash course in seven months for every avenue I’d be working with for the rest of my life.”
Caison runs the organization from her home off Gordon Road in an office decorated more like a police station than a nonprofit center: Hanging from the wall are maps of the United States, missing persons posters and framed portraits of murder victims. A row of black file cabinets stand at the back wall. By her desk sit boxes overflowing with papers and manila folders.
From headquarters, Caison can connect with search teams, law enforcement officials, caseworkers and fundraisers from coast to coast. While the group has sought answers in cases ranging from teenage runaways to suicides and murders, the group claims as its token feature the attention it places on cases gone cold, in which the victim vanished years or even decades ago.
“What interested me about Monica is she would take the cases everybody else had given up on,” said Marshia Morton, a CUE volunteer based in Missouri. “She would beat the bushes and rattle some chains until she had a direction to go on.”
Recent developments have further solidified the organization’s status as a national order. Earlier this year, CUE rolled out a state director program in an effort to bolster its presence and streamline resource delivery. The plan envisions installing four outreach coordinators in each state within five years to act as liaisons to raise money, identify needs and assist families. Twenty-seven coordinators are now spread across 12 states, including four in North Carolina.
The directors, for example, are responsible for helping families file missing persons reports, elicit news coverage for their case and spread awareness about their missing loved one online and in the community through websites and billboards, among other things.
Dawn Drexel, one of two coordinators serving in New York, is among many whose participation stems at least in part from personal tragedy.
Drexel’s daughter, Brittanee, has been featured on a series of national television programs, from “Nancy Grace” to “Good Morning America,” since vanishing three years ago. A 17-year-old looking forward to high school graduation, the Rochester, N.Y. teen disappeared in Myrtle Beach in April 2009 during a spring break trip with friends.
In the investigation’s early steps, authorities tracked Brittanee’s cellphone to a swampland in Georgetown County, about 50 miles south of Myrtle Beach. Over the next two weeks, CUE mobilized some 200 searchers to scour the treacherous terrain.
Plump bugs swarmed. Snakes slithered. ATVs had to roll through the woods every few minutes to scare the alligators back into the river. Canine handlers carried six-shooters to protect their dogs, Drexel said.
Though Brittanee’s whereabouts remain unknown, Drexel’s experience put her on a path toward advocating for families undergoing similar heartache.
“She teaches you a lot of things, how to remain strong,” Drexel said about Caison. “She’s built me up to the point where I’m now able to advocate for Brittanee and also help support other families going through the same thing.”
In addition to advocating for missing persons, CUE runs internship programs for university and college students.
Allie Jeffords, a student at Ashley High School, chose CUE as the subject of her senior project. As part of her work, she enlisted family members and friends to assist her in throwing a fundraiser on a recent weekend outside K-Mart on South College Road to collect donations of money and office supplies.
Jeffords has known Caison since she was a child.
“She always instilled in us how important it was for the missing persons to be heard,” Jeffords said. “They do have a family member out there that needs to find them.”
To better coordinate its widespread string of volunteers, the group hopes to launch an online database in coming months to store and aggregate volunteer and resource information in one, centralized location accessible from anywhere in the world.
Christy Davis, a CUE volunteer whose Florida-based company, International Technical Industries, is creating the database, said the Web-based tool is expected to streamline the assembly of search teams and other resources. Also, the program might improve its chances of winning grant money by tracking hours volunteers spend in the field.
Rallying search parties quickly is an important capability in an arena where time may mean the difference between life and death, an open or closed casket.
In interviews, CUE members said the organization exists in part to bridge a gap between families and law enforcement. The latter, constrained by increasingly tight budgets and finite manpower, are sometimes unable to muster resources that families believe their cases deserve.
The volume of missing persons reports filed each year is staggering. In 2010, 85,820 people were reported missing nationwide, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But law enforcement officials say a vast majority of those involve people skipping town voluntarily. Since state and local governments have been forced to shed officers to fill budget gaps, detectives more than ever have to weigh relevant facts before launching a full-fledged investigation.
“You can’t treat everyone like an abduction. You don’t have the resources to do that,” said Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous. “You have to look at each case and look at the merits of it and see if there’s any real indicators” on whether they left of their own volition.
Evangelous has personally witnessed those frustrations expressed among families. In 1991, his cousin in Massachusetts vanished.
The police handling her case failed to treat it seriously, the chief said, despite the family’s assertions that she was an unlikely runaway. As it turns out, the man with whom she was last seen had killed her, stored her body in a plastic bag and left her in his closet. Police visited the man’s home but never searched inside. Officers eventually arrested the culprit, but only after he dumped the body in another location. He is now in prison.
Evangelous said CUE has become involved in various cases being investigated by city detectives over recent years. That includes the disappearances of Allison Jackson-Foy, 34, and Angela Nobles Rothen, 42, whose remains were eventually found in the woods off Carolina Beach Road. Both died at knifepoint. Their killings have not been solved.
Jackson-Foy’s sister, Lisa Valentino, now serves as a state outreach coordinator in New Jersey.
From missing to searching
Caison’s troubled teen life made her an unlikely candidate for matriarch of such a sizable missing persons organization. Through hours of interviews, she chronicled her life’s progression, from the beginning as a poor girl on the southside of St. Petersburg, Fla, to a missing persons advocate whose work brings her to far-flung corners of the country.
Always close to her family, Caison’s rebellious streak kicked off after her parents divorced. She ran away from home multiple times as a teenager, with her parents reporting her missing more than once. She hitchhiked around the country and lied about her age to find work, staying for a while before she circled back home.
“I was definitely a juvenile delinquent,” Caison said. “I was rebellious because I wanted my family back, I wanted my parents back.”
During those influential years, Caison learned about people’s ability for self-realization and change. “I was that person who was very likely to end up in a ditch somewhere,” she recalled. But “look who I became now. Look at what I’ve done with my life and my community. So should we be so quick to judge?”
By 18, she moved to Southeastern North Carolina to live with her mother and siblings. But she found her mother involved in an abusive relationship and, fed up with her stepfather’s rage, moved into her own place. In 1985, Caison, then 22, married her longtime boyfriend, Samuel.
As she grew older, child-rearing and volunteer work came to dominate Caison’s life. Her time revolved around public schools, which her children attended. Over time, she fell into the role of nonprofit volunteer, raising money for various charities and working with troubled youth.
In the early 1990s, Caison’s volunteerism led her to Karen Brown, the founder of the Non-Profit for Public Safety and Awareness. Brown dissolved the organization soon thereafter, but not before convincing Caison to carry the torch with her own nonprofit. Inspired by tragedies in her own life and the disappearances of people she was close to, Caison chose to draw attention toward something she felt needed more: missing persons.
In 1994, CUE was born.
Since its inception, the group has processed more than 9,000 cases of missing people. CUE pours volumes of time and resources into each one, Caison said, printing fliers, buying billboards, creating websites and launching searches.
Families lauded the efforts. But while they work in conjunction with law enforcement on cases, some police officials have expressed concerns that CUE’s assertiveness can pose a risk to the integrity of criminal cases. And some other search and rescue groups have questioned CUE’s reliance on private donations instead of government funding and grants, calling its fundraising tactics over-aggressive.
Despite the criticisms, CUE has worked frequently with law enforcement officials and search and rescue officials in a variety of states to help families home in on missing loved ones.
Lori Roberts, of Wilmington, credited the group with finding her daughter’s 13-year-old friend when she vanished from Killeen, Texas. CUE offered a reward for information about the girl’s whereabouts, generating the tip that led authorities to her location.
“They suspected she was going to be trafficked over the Mexican border,” said Roberts, now a state outreach coordinator for North Carolina. She said Caison stayed in touch with the family throughout the investigation, always answering her phone, even if it rang at 3:30 a.m. “I was so scared and kept begging Monica, ‘You have to find her.’ ”
Since CUE draws solely on volunteers for its manpower, nobody accepts a paycheck. A big “0″ has always appeared beside Caison’s name under the income disclosure portion of the group’s tax forms.
A mother’s path
On the day she vanished, Carr left to run errands, leaving her fiance a note that read, “Be back soon.” While she was inside the store, a white Mazda carrying Curtis Cobbs and Bem Holloway pulled into the parking lot.
As Carr was starting her black Geo Tracker and getting ready to leave the shopping center, Holloway jumped into the passenger seat. He first tried to pay her to drive him somewhere. But when she refused, he brandished a gun and ordered her to follow the Mazda, which was being driven by Cobbs.
The gun didn’t actually work, but Carr could not have known.
The trip took her over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, past rusted barns and dusty convenience stores that border N.C. 87, finally ending in a Bladen County soybean field. Cobbs later testified that Holloway stabbed Carr while he watched.
The men had wanted her car, betting it would make a fine getaway vehicle in a robbery later on. But they eventually decided against using it. Instead, they dumped the GEO about 16 miles away, on the shores of Lake Waccamaw.
Britton still struggles with the knowledge of her daughter’s death. Since her body was found, Carr’s friends and family have turned the scene into a memorial complete with wind chimes, small stone sculptures and day lilies now proliferating beyond the picket fence that surrounds the site. They regularly visit the spot to clear out weeds and lay new mulch.
After killing Carr, Holloway and Cobbs went on a crime spree through Columbus and Robeson counties. They were later imprisoned for their crimes. Holloway was shot to death the next year during an escape attempt at a prison work farm near the Virginia line. Cobbs’ sentence ended earlier this year.
Britton learned about Cobb’s release for the first time on the day she was accompanied by a StarNews reporter and photographer to the murder scene in March. The reporter looked him up in the prison database later that day, and notified her that Cobbs had been let go two months before. Nobody contacted her beforehand. She thought he had more time to serve.
The day after deputies came across Carr’s remains in November 1998, Britton visited the site to lay eyes on the field where her daughter spent her last moments. The sight uncorked her bottled emotions. She wailed so palpably that deputies and search volunteers standing in earshot joined her in crying. Caison, glued to her side, hugged the grieving mother.
The next day’s newspaper ran a photo which captured that scene, showing Britton clasped in an emotional embrace with the blonde-haired woman she’d come to consider part of the family.
Brian Freskos: 343-2327
On Twitter: @BrianFreskos