The Stolen Child in print: Leads not followed, steps not taken

Misty Copsey: Missing child case allowed to turn cold

May 17, 2009 

Interviewing the last people known to have contact with a missing 14-year-old girl is one way to start an investigation.

Puyallup police didn’t do it for more than five months, and they can’t say why. Nor can they explain an apparent trail of missed opportunities and wrong turns in the investigation of Misty Copsey’s disappearance.

She went missing after a visit to the Puyallup Fair on Sept. 17, 1992. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since, and her remains have never been found.

A News Tribune series, “The Stolen Child,” took a detailed look at the Police Department’s handling of the case, using records obtained via public disclosure. Published online for three days starting last Monday and appearing in a condensed print form today, the series raised questions about the quality of police investigation over the years.

Witnesses were overlooked for months, potential evidence was lost, and some paths of inquiry went unexplored, the series found.

Though Misty initially was classified as a runaway and her case assigned to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, she shortly became Puyallup’s responsibility. Her mother had filed a missing-person report with Puyallup police, and Misty was designated a missing person 39 days after the disappearance.

During a May 6 interview with The News Tribune, police said the case is still open and they don’t want to tip their hand.

They said they couldn’t second-guess the decisions that drove the initial investigation 17 years ago. They declined to answer questions about what police did then or what they’re doing now to tackle the cold case – though they said, as they’ve always said, that they want to solve it.

“Our goal is to solve this case,” assistant police chief Bryan Jeter said. “That’s always been the goal.”

Police conceded one point: While Misty is formally listed as a missing person, they agree she is probably dead.

“We believe she’s dead,” said Lt. Dave McDonald, the department’s public information officer. “That’s how we’ve investigated this – as a possible homicide.”

To Diana Smith, Misty’s mother, the concession is cold comfort. For years, police insisted her daughter was a runaway.

“I think that the only reason they’re willing to say that is because of the pressure on them right now,” Smith said. “I think they wouldn’t be admitting to anything if the article hadn’t come out. It’d be the same story: The mom’s whacked out.”

THE FINDINGS

The News Tribune’s investigation revealed the following:

• For more than five months after Misty’s disappearance, police didn’t interview the three witnesses who had the last known contacts with the teen. At the time, police publicly said they’d “run down every lead” in the case.

• Police presumed Misty was a runaway. In the early stage of the investigation, they pursued that line of inquiry and no other, citing standard procedure. They discounted the possibility she was abducted and killed, though colleagues from neighboring law enforcement agencies believed she was probably dead.

• Rather than speaking to witnesses, police interviewed two eighth-grade girls who didn’t know Misty well and hadn’t been at the fair with her. One thought she had heard from Misty after the disappearance. The other thought she saw her in a crowd.

Based on that information, police temporarily closed the case, told the media Misty had been found and made no more inquiries for months.

• Though police spoke to Diana Smith regularly during the investigation, records indicate they never took a formal statement from her – a moment-by-moment walkthrough of her actions before and after the disappearance that could have been used as a reference point.

After 17 years, they still haven’t.

• Police surveyed Diana Smith’s background, found it shaky and labeled her a dishonest drunk.

On Feb. 7, 1993, five months after Misty’s disappearance, volunteers found a pair of jeans along a rural road near Enumclaw. Diana Smith identified them as the clothes Misty had been wearing the night of the disappearance.

Police accused Misty’s mother of planting the evidence. She denied it repeatedly. For more than a year, police continued to suggest she planted the jeans.

• Police eventually interviewed witnesses they’d overlooked at first, which led them to two suspects.

One was examined closely, and eliminated by forensics and a polygraph test.

A second suspect – one of the overlooked witnesses – received less scrutiny, though he spoke to Misty the night of the disappearance. She’d called and asked for a ride home. The suspect told police he didn’t pick her up because he didn’t have enough gas in his car.

• The second suspect later was overheard claiming he knew where Misty was buried. He couldn’t explain his whereabouts that evening. That suspect took two polygraph tests. Both times he said he had blacked out and couldn’t remember anything. The first test was inconclusive. The second, he passed. Police took no further action.

• Police learned that Misty had told the second suspect how to break into her house and get gas money. They never told Smith this.

• The car that the second suspect had been driving was never subjected to forensic tests. Police knew of the car’s existence for months, but they did not pursue opportunities to examine it.

By the time they realized its potential value, it had been destroyed.

• A third potential suspect, a convicted abduction rapist, kidnapped and raped a 15-year-old girl in Puyallup in January 1993, four months after Misty disappeared. The abduction site was five blocks from the last known sighting of Misty.

Police didn’t question the man about Misty and still haven’t.

• The jeans recovered in 1993 included six hairs deemed suitable for DNA testing by the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory. Puyallup police have known of that possibility since May 2007. They have not requested the test.

• Forensic technicians also recovered red paint chips from the jeans, which were tested in 2003 against evidence gathered in the investigation of Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer.

The test found no match with Ridgway, according to Puyallup police records – but the paint chips were found to be missing when the state crime lab wanted to perform a different test in 2007.

The King County Sheriff’s Office had custody of the paint chip evidence. Officials from that agency declined to comment on the apparent loss of evidence.

POLICE RESPONSE

On May 6, Puyallup police leaders accepted The News Tribune’s invitation to read and review the series before online publication, offer comments and fact-check the text.

Chief Jim Collyer attended the meeting, as well as assistant chief Jeter and other personnel. The police did not dispute details in the story. They spotted two errors: a misspelling of a police officer’s last name and an incorrect attribution of an e-mail. Both were corrected.

Asked about how Puyallup’s investigation was conducted, police leaders demurred.

“We can’t speak to what previous administrations did,” Jeter said. Collyer said that he assigned two detectives to review the case in 2007. He did not say what actions were undertaken by detectives. (In the course of reporting for its series, The News Tribune learned that the detectives interviewed at least two people with ties to the case. Neither was a suspect.)

Police leaders also noted that procedures have changed since 1992. In 2005, the department adopted a missing-person checklist to guide investigations, said McDonald, the police spokesman.

The checklist, obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure, sets 20 guidelines for missing-person investigations. By its standards, the Misty investigation was a failure.

Ten of the 20 points on the checklist were overlooked by police in the early stages of their inquiry. Some elements, such as witness interviews, were covered only after months of delay.

A few, such as examination of all suspect vehicles, a thorough interview of Smith and a search of her residence, were never done.

During the May 6 interview with police, Chief Collyer asked The News Tribune to submit questions in writing. The newspaper agreed and submitted questions to the department the next day via e-mail. Police indicated they would respond by May 11.

On that day, the department backtracked. A statement sent to The News Tribune said the questions would not be answered because the investigation of Misty’s disappearance was still open.

“It does not help us to solve this case to second-guess the investigators that worked this case seventeen years ago,” the statement read, in part. “The current status of the case is that it is an open and active investigation. As such, it is not appropriate for law enforcement to engage in a public discussion of the details or theories involved. … Solving this case remains a priority for the Puyallup Police Department.”

Sean Robinson; 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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