The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Chicago, march highlights unsolved cases of missing Black women

Myrna Walker, right, marches in memory of her sister Nancie Walker, whom she last heard from in January 2003 before she disappeared. Nancie Walker's remains were later found, and her death remains unsolved. (Mark Guarino for The Washington Post)
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CHICAGO — In the 100-degree heat late Tuesday, Myrna Walker marched for her sister Nancie Walker, whom she last heard from in January 2003 before she disappeared.

Pausing for shade beneath the trees that line Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Myrna Walker recounted how, two months later, sanitation workers found her sister’s dismembered body in three garbage bags alongside an expressway. More than 20 years later, the case is still unsolved, and still raking her family in pain.

“I want some justice. Our mother is 93. She wants to know something before she dies,” she said.

This is the fifth year in a row that Walker and about 70 other women on Chicago’s South Side have participated in the We Walk for Her march in memory of those they consider the forgotten ones: women and girls, most of whom were Black, whose bodies were either later recovered but their cases never solved or who vanished and have not been found.

For years, activists in Chicago have pressed city leaders and the police to take these disappearances more seriously. The common refrain at this year’s march was that attention from police and the news media is scarce when Black women and girls disappear, as opposed to White women and girls. Regarding the police response to her sister’s case, Walker said, “It has been null and void almost from the time we went to the police station” in 2003 to report the disappearance.

Even when police have evidence, families say, some cases still flounder. Latonya Moore last saw her daughter Shantieya Smith on May 26, 2018. The following month, Smith’s body was found decomposing in a parking garage. DNA samples that police said they sent to the Illinois Crime Lab never arrived, according to the agency. Moore said the police told her that the officer originally handling the case was reassigned to another district.

“There’s been no follow-up with the DNA,” she said. Out of frustration, she stopped calling. She left Chicago for a new home in Kankakee, Ill., where she is raising Shantieya’s daughter. “My grandbaby really doesn’t talk about her anymore,” she said.

Chicago is just part of a larger national problem. More than 260,000 women went missing in 2020, the latest year tracked by the National Crime Information Center. Thirty-five percent of the total, or a little more than 90,000, were Black women, a stark finding considering that Black women account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Statistics show that Black women are at a high risk for multiple factors that could lead to disappearances. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that 45 percent of Black women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Black women and girls are also more likely to become victims of sex trafficking, according to a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation report released in 2020, and nearly 60 percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests are Black children.

Despite obvious vulnerabilities revealed in the data, cases involving the missing women and girls often stall, if they get off the ground in the first place. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said that not enough resources are allocated to cold cases and that mistakes are common because of competing reporting systems among law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions.

“People get callous to it,” he said. “The issue doesn’t nearly get the attention it deserves. Which is a problem when you look at the really evil people out there. Look at [Chicago serial killer] John Wayne Gacy. The missing-person world has not moved since then. Absolutely not.”

Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy killed 33 teenage boys and young men. He received a death sentence and died by lethal injection in 1994.

Last fall, Dart created a special unit of five investigators and one sergeant dedicated to working to solve 150 cold cases of women and girls reported missing in Chicago within the past three years. The move was partly in response to efforts Dart made to use DNA evidence to identify eight sets of remains from the Gacy cases that his office exhumed in 2011. Three victims have been identified so far. In addition, his office solved four cold-case deaths unrelated to Gacy, and discovered five missing people alive. Two missing people had died without their family knowing, his office found.

Dart said the results “opened my eyes” to how easy it is for people to disappear in the modern era despite GPS, video and other technology. Reports sometimes contain inaccuracies, he said, and for most jurisdictions strapped for resources, the cases are not priorities.

Working on the Gacy cases gave him “a deep-seated impression that the whole missing-person world is a disaster,” he said, adding: “There’s very little difference today from 35 years ago.”

Since late last year, Dart’s unit reduced the list of 150 missing women and girls to 138; of the 12 cases solved, two people were found dead and the rest alive. The missing people either had no contact with their families by choice or their statuses were a reporting error. Dart’s office reunited one woman with her family after the woman, who had been placed in a nursing facility for mental health and substance abuse treatment, was transferred to a new center. Her family was never notified.

Fifty-three percent of the unit’s remaining cases involve Black women, Dart said.

He has not ruled out a one-killer theory, and said he would find it “hard to believe” that there isn’t one person responsible for the deaths of at least several people on the list. He said investigators will look for common characteristics once he can reduce the names to only those who are truly missing. “We’re definitely going in that direction,” he said.

Shannon Bennett, a founder of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a group that helped organize Tuesday’s march, said he is convinced that a serial killer has been operating in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. In 2019, the Chicago Police Department assigned a team of detectives to review cases of at least 75 women who had been strangled or smothered between 2001 and 2017 after a Chicago Tribune investigation showed that 51 of the cases had not been solved. Part of the investigation was a trip to the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in southern Indiana to interview Darren Vann, a serial killer sentenced to life in prison in 2018 for killing seven women in northwest Indiana. Vann refused to meet with the detectives but told investigators in Hammond, Ind., years earlier that he had killed “way more” women in Illinois.

Before the We Walk for Her march on Tuesday, activists said the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) shared the blame with the police for not prioritizing the cases of missing women and girls. (A spokesperson for Lightfoot said the mayor’s gender-based violence initiative directed $25 million in support services for sex-trafficking victims and others targeted because of their gender.)

Teresa Smith said the priority of women like her is raising awareness. Her mother, Daisy Hayes, disappeared in May 2008. In April, a Cook County judge issued a not-guilty ruling in the bench trial of Jimmy Jackson, Hayes’s boyfriend.

During the march, the drivers of two cars traveling in the opposite direction slowed down to ask Smith why she was participating. “For the missing women!” she said, and they nodded and rolled away.

“We need to get more of the community out,” she said. “People don’t know what’s going on.”

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