The Search For Hope
Throughout all stages of a missing persons investigation, up to the point of its positive or negative resolution, there is only one verifiable victim: the family of that missing person. The missing person might have been abducted, or worse, but from the moment that someone considers the absence of a loved one to necessitate a 911 call, the family that makes that call is going to be caught in a whirlpool of fear, panic and helplessness that most people dont understand and law enforcement officials rarely have the resources to address in any sustained way.
In Wilmington, however, these families have an advocate, a fierce, hands-on assistant in the search for missing loved ones. Her name is Monica Caison, and shes the founder and director of the Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons, a nonprofit organization based in Wilmington, which, since 1994, has been aggressive in its attempts to keep missing person cases from going “cold” or “inactive.” By marshalling nationwide resources that include law enforcement personnel and an army of volunteers, the CUE Center has been instrumental in returning loved ones to their families, creating a sort of template for families confronted by such a loss, a blueprint for action that combines elements of the actual search process with a powerful family support tool hope.
“Shes tops, as far as Im concerned,” says Marc Benson, a private investigator, former detective in the New Hanover County Sheriffs Department, recent candidate for the sheriffs job and the host of Blue Line Radio on The Big Talker (106.3 FM). “I first ran into her 16 or 17 years ago, when I was a detective sergeant in the Sheriffs Department.”
Bensons first impression of Caison left him thinking she was just a “soccer mom,” doing what she could to find people whod gone missing thinking, too, “Good for her, but were the professionals here, so dont call us, well call you.”
In the spring of 1998, Benson found himself re-assessing his original impressions of Caison and her organization. In April of that year, 32-year-old bride-to-be Peggy Carr was abducted from a mall parking lot in Wilmington. One day, she was here; the next day, she was not. Shed disappeared quickly and completely, and lacking evidence to the contrary, law enforcement officials considered the possibility that her disappearance, in spite of her impending marriage, was voluntary. Without a clue to work on, the investigation languished. Displeased with this sort of response from law enforcement officials, Peggys mother called Monica Caison, whose private phone remains the direct line to what was then the fledgling and relatively unknown CUE Center for Missing Persons. Seven months after Peggys disappearance, Caison and her volunteer army were instrumental in discovering the whereabouts of Carrs remains in Bladen County.
“It became a multi-state investigation, a national media case,” says Caison, “and it taught us everything. We worked side by side with law enforcement, set up a 24-hour tip line. The FBI would pick up our logs. We were learning, too. It was the first time, really, that the full weight of the resources (we had) came to bear. We kept (the case) in the public eye, just kept plugging and plugging, constantly searching. It was our landmark case.”
More important than Caisons literal presence beating the bushes, actually searching was the support she gave to the family.
“Monica would just sit for hours and comfort me,” said Peggy Carrs mother in an interview for People magazine in March 2009, months after her daughters body had been discovered.
“My respect for her increased because of the presence she had with that family,” says Benson, who, at the time, was looking on from the Sheriff Departments sidelines, because it was a Wilmington PD case. “She went up there (to Bladen County) with volunteers and canvassed the area with pictures. She made sure that everybody up there looked at every little detail (coming out of the investigation). I was quite impressed with the resources she was able to pull together.”
What is so striking about Monica Caisons work with the CUE Center is the individual, up-close-and-personal effort she invests in countless, physical searches for these people, and the tireless campaign she wages to keep families in the loop of any ongoing investigation. Law enforcement agencies, from the local to the national, may falter during an investigation, due to a lack of either resources or will, but from the moment the CUE Center and, specifically, Monica Caison steps aboard, families are assured that their missing loved one will not, in Monicas lifetime, be forgotten until theyre found. In most cases (though not all), the outcome is not good. Caison is more often than not searching for a body, and she is known for a stubborn, relentless and often un-appreciated approach to any obstacles in her way.