(Introduction to show begins)
TODD MATTHEWS (Missing Pieces Host): I’m Todd Matthews. This is Missing Pieces. Tonight we have Sofia Santana. Welcome, Sofia.
SOFIA SANTANA (Guest): Hi Todd. Thanks for having me.
TODD: You’re a professional at this, I think.
SOFIA: Getting there.
TODD: Sofia is with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and she’s a crime reporter, and what else do you do? How long have you been there?
SOFIA: I started at the Sun-Sentinel about a year and a half ago.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: Before that, I covered crime at the Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, which are 2 neighboring papers.
TODD: I think I’ve dealt you at both papers actually.
SOFIA: Actually, I think so, it’s been a long time; it’s more than 5 years that I’ve been doing this, writing about crime.
TODD: Wow. So I get to turn the tables on you tonight. Usually you’re doing the interview of me, now I get to interview you.
SOFIA: Yeah, should be fun, hopefully.
TODD: Well, we recently did an article, well you did an article, I tried to help you out with it, and we actually did a facial reconstruction, and it said, “Artist’s drawing may help ID woman who died in 1984” and she was pulled from a canal. Can you tell me a little more about that lady?
SOFIA: Well, her case was particularly interesting in that it’s pretty certain that she was murdered; she may have been a victim of a serial killer, Christopher Wilder, but investigators may not be able to nail that down because so much time has passed, but really, right after she was murdered, even though her case was stunning, police couldn’t get an accurate sketch of her face to distribute to the media and TV stations, and what a lot of people don’t realize is, a lot of these photos of dead people, while it might just be easier to put that photo on TV and newspapers, a lot of media outlets have a policy where they don’t want those gory photos on TV and in the newspapers. They will get all these phone calls from readers complaining, you know, people are reading the newspaper while they’re eating breakfast and they don’t want to see that, so the police departments have to get a sketch or a facial reconstruction, and that was just never done to the fullest extent in this case until a couple weeks ago with the help of Project EDAN, thank goodness.
TODD: Well, but you’re behind this a little more. Now, you interviewed some of us for this article, but a lot of it was left out and now it’s time to flip it over; you were the one that brought this forward.
SOFIA: Yeah, and actually that had to do with a little bit of guilt on my part.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: Yeah, unfortunately the article that came out in the newspaper…let me backtrack a little...quite honestly, it’s really hard to write about missing persons and unidentified bodies in newspapers. I will go to an editor and I will pitch a front-page story, or a story that I think will be on the front page, but then an editor will cut it in half and shove it in the paper and that’s what happened the first time I wrote about this case, and the photos and the sketches that were supposed to run with article, didn’t run. So, in hoping to really try again to publicize the case, you know, I contacted the Doe Network and Project EDAN, but mainly just to see if they would be able to get the photo on the website of the Doe Network at least, and you turned around and brought in Project EDAN and got the ball rolling, which was pretty amazing.
TODD: So you were happy with the results?
SOFIA: Oh, absolutely.
TODD: Now tell me about when you first found…now the artist, Barbara Martin, did the sketches and she is very, very talented, obviously, and I thought she would be the person for that job, what did you think when you…because, you’ve got a passion for this…I get interviewed by a lot of reporters, a lot of them, and you can tell when it’s just a story and when it’s a little more than a story.
TODD: And you stayed with me for a long time, so we’ve got to be pretty good friends. How did you feel when you saw that?
SOFIA: Um…relief was the first emotion. Just that, finally, people will be able to look at this woman’s face and say, “Maybe this is my sister, maybe this is my cousin, or maybe this is my neighbor who ran away at about the same time as this woman was found dead.” You know, it was just relief. I think if you’re not familiar with missing persons cases and unidentified bodies, it’s very easy to see these victims as, you know, just people who were tossed aside, or not even as people, just cases; faceless, nameless cases, but the more you start to look at these cases, the more you realize that they are people, that there are families who are out there looking, and when I saw the sketch that Barbara Martin did, it was just this relief of, you know, now this victim has a shot at that.
TODD: You know, you’re just describing some of the same emotions I’ve heard family members describe.
SOFIA: Yeah, that’s it.
TODD: It takes a strong connection for that.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah, and I felt like so many of these families, particularly in the last year and it’s just, you know that’s definitely a big part of why I’m so into these cases, because it’s really hard for me to talk to them and tell them, you know, “You just have to sit and wait.” I wouldn’t be able to do that.
TODD: Well, you’ve been there for people when they really have no place to turn and that’s a good thing about the media and forensic art, they can kind of play off each other and you can create a lead in a case where there’s no lead. I mean, how else would this story have wound up front and center; we have an image.
SOFIA: Exactly. And it actually did run in a good spot in the newspaper. I was very pleased with that and the editors were onboard with it, more so this time because we had the sketches and because it was such a unique story in that, basically for more than 20 years, this victim didn’t have a face out there in the public.
TODD: You know when we do a story like this; I always hold my breath because I’m hoping that that surge of energy that goes out there all of a sudden, I’m thinking maybe the call will come. How do you feel about things like that? Did you think that this is a possibility that this could have been almost instant, that we would have heard back from somebody?
SOFIA: That’s a tough one.
TODD: I don’t know the answer so I’m asking you.
SOFIA: I mean, because I always want to think that, that an article like that will come out in the paper, and by the afternoon somebody will call me or they’ll call the cops and say, “That’s my sister, or my cousin.” But my brain tells me that it’s not going to be that way, it may be several months, or even years, before the right person comes across that photo, only because it seems apparent that this young woman was not from South Florida. So, you know, her family might not have read the article but, luckily, it’s still floating around in Cyberspace on the Internet, and on the Doe Network, so hopefully somebody will eventually see it and come forward and help close it out.
TODD: Now, we’re always worried about this, and now that you’re a reporter, you know, I’m also the media director for the Doe Network and this stems from something to do with that because of doing the radio show because I was meeting so many family members that had zero exposure, I couldn’t even get a reporter, there’s not…all of them are not so sensitive, I’ll say that. And I know you’ve got to pitch process, you have to please your editor first.
TODD: And I feel like, well maybe my job could be, how can I help that reporter make this an easy pitch. You have to do that so, this case seemed like it just kind of flowed through after we had the forensic art.
SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely, and it reminded me of a case you told me about a while back of a person who was found dead, with a shopping bag?
SOFIA: And you dubbed the John Doe, like the…
TODD: The Madison Man. It was the Madison Man, and his sister-in-law did see it.
SOFIA: And it’s something like that that an editor will see and will say, “Okay that makes that case different. We’ll get it in the paper.” And, unfortunately, yeah, I hate that it works that way, we should be writing about all of these cases but, you know with the media so competitive and especially in South Florida, it’s like every little inch of newsprint is so precious and valuable that it’s really hard to get everything in there.
TODD: But you are not only writing to the public, because you were trying to broadcast, you were writing to that particular individual that has that possible answer out there. And so, where do we publish it; you know she’s probably not from Florida, but yet that’s the market that we had to go to with it, that’s your place. But now, with the Internet, there’s so much hope. Like you said, they’re floating around on the Internet, floating around in Cyberspace, so there’s an opportunity that it’s going to go far and wide, and it does happen, and we can use this as a tool if there’s a possibility that, hmm, that little piece evidence here looks like it might have come from this area and maybe we can forward this article to a reporter there and ask them, “Hey, maybe you can rerun this” or work with this reporter and see if you can put something else out. And it works that way often; it worked with Madison Man.
TODD: Now what about copyright; we talked a lot about copyright issues? Often non-profit organizations like Doe Network and Project EDAN, a lot of times will save the actual article in the archives; I’ve heard positive and negative about this.
SOFIA: Oh really?
SOFIA: Well I would only see positive.
TODD: If you credit the source…
SOFIA: Yeah. Exactly, and it’s my understand with the Internet, I mean, anybody can just pull something off a website and post it on their own, of course, but it’s my understanding that as long as you give credit to the source. For example, if it was my article, as long as you say that is came from the Sun-Sentinel and that I wrote it, you know there shouldn’t be a problem with that.
TODD: Hmm, well we can definitely…and it’s such a positive because it’s going to stay alive a lot longer. If I write something, I definitely want it to stay as active as possible; I wouldn’t want it to be out there for just a short period of time and then snatched back away.
SOFIA: Exactly, and I think the only time it becomes a problem is, say if a magazine restructured one of my articles, put a different writer’s name on it and then put it in their publication that they’re selling for money, I think that’s when it would be a serious problem.
TODD: That’s usually not a problem with a non-profit organization.
SOFIA: Well, it depends. I mean if it’s on the Internet that usually hasn’t been a problem for us because people are going to see it any way and it’s so hard to control, just as long as it’s not in a print format that people are somehow profiting from.
TODD: Yeah, resale, and I’m sure that happens.
SOFIA: Yeah, it does, unfortunately.
TODD: Now, you work with police a lot, and you’re really, I know you’re really young…I think you’re really young; I can’t ask a lady her age, but…
SOFIA: Yeah, I’m somewhat young.
TODD: I think you’re younger than I am and I’m 37, so I’m quite sure of that. Now how do you…a number of years now, you work with law enforcement very often with these cases.
SOFIA: uh huh
TODD: How do they accept you? You’re young…girl. Do they see you as a little girl?
SOFIA: Sometimes, and most of the time that’s a good thing.
SOFIA: Especially when…well, one thing that gets me in the door, I don’t mean it that way…
TODD: But, you know, I mean, you’re not intimidating.
SOFIA: No, not at all. Actually I come from a police family and every detective and police officer I approach, that’s one of the first things I tell them, that way they know that we have an unwritten understanding that they can trust me, and I know every reporter will go up to them and say that but I really mean it. I come from a police family. I don’t enjoy writing negative articles about police unless something positive will come out of it. You know I’m just…how do I say this…you know I just tell them about my background, I studied criminology at the university instead of journalism, so I try to tell them that I’m more like them than the average reporter that they deal with and it’s usually a successful approach.
TODD: And that’s one of the things you told me, I think, when we first started working on a few things together.
SOFIA: Yeah, I did actually.
TODD: I got that really quickly from you, and I’ll be honest, now what I usually do when I hear from a reporter and it sounds like the want to do something pretty intense, or maybe more than one, which I got that impression from you that you were a crime writer that knew there were a lot of bodies and a lot of missing persons; I looked back at some of your work and it was pretty obvious that this is one of those people that I can really be open with and it worked out really good. I think this particular article has been something in the making for a long time.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah, and I’m actually glad you feel that way. Thanks for saying that.
TODD: Well it’s the truth. I mean, there are a few special ones like you.
SOFIA: Thank you.
TODD: And they’re few and far between, unfortunately, and I think people…I like to think that the articles that you do, if they’re not focused on a particular case, it seems like you always put enough information in there that somebody else can possibly benefit although they’re not directly related to it.
SOFIA: Exactly. For example, with the latest article that you’re talking about, the 1984 victim, I actually got 3 phone calls from families who are looking for a missing loved one; they think their relative was murdered and that their body may be among the unidentified dead and stored at the Broward County Medical Examiner’s office. So, one case was ruled out as not a match, but 2 other cases are being looked at as possible matches, so that was definitely a big plus.
TODD: Well at least they knew who they weren’t; they know now that they’re not there.
SOFIA: Yeah, that too, and the family that did not get the match, at least their DNA sample is now in the National DNA Database, which they did not have before.
TODD: Now that’s a big accomplishment with one article.
TODD: Even if it’s one family.
TODD: You know I can’t think of anything, and I’ve said this so many times, probably when you were interviewing me, I can’t think of anything any worse that could happen than to not know where one of your loved ones is, especially your child.
SOFIA: Yeah, and I think it’s also really sad when families get to the point where they just say, “I’d rather not know. My child or my brother disappeared and I think he’s dead and I would rather not know” because then you have a body or a skeleton floating around that no one is really looking for and I think that’s the worse part of it.
TODD: But, now these people that would rather not know, often, what they don’t realize is, somebody’s probably working really hard on an unidentified body that they’re not providing the rest of the data.
SOFIA: Yeah, and in the rather-not-knowing part, I don’t mean that out of…like they don’t care, I mean that like, that the pain is so great, they don’t want somebody to tell them that.
TODD: They can’t deal with it.
SOFIA: Yeah, they don’t want somebody to tell them, “Hey, I found you 12-year-old girl in the bottom of a ditch, she had been there wrapped in plastic bags for 10 years.” That’s…it’s unbearable.
TODD: It’s not something everybody wants to hear.
TODD: And I’ve had people that would rather hear it than to not hear it.
TODD: You get people all over the board with that.
SOFIA: uh huh
TODD: Now, your co-writers, other crimes writers, do you have other crime writers that you work with?
SOFIA: There are 2 that I work particularly close with at the paper and, unfortunately since there’s so much crime in South Florida, every reporter, on some days, becomes a crime reporter, but we do have 2 other fulltime crime reporters here at the paper.
TODD: Now, do they cover missing, unidentified or is that sort of your thing now?
SOFIA: No, it’s my thing and, unfortunately, I talked to them about and they have no interest in that area.
TODD: Wow, that’s scary, because they could really change dramatically if something happened to them or touched them directly. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing that they’re not interested, but how quickly…I’ve met so many people that didn’t even know that this world existed until it touched them.
SOFIA: Exactly, and the other reporters, it’s…you know it’s nothing unique to them, this is something that I’ve seen throughout the state and I’ve noticed in newspapers across the country, that, like you said, it’s a whole other world that a lot of people are not aware of, and then there’s the issue that a lot of editors are uncomfortable about writing about dead bodies in the newspaper that people are going to be reading while they’re eating breakfast. They think everything is going to be all gore and blood and guts, and it’s not like that. When I write about dead bodies, I write about the families who are looking for people and the detective who are working hard, and that’s the way we try to get around those issues that the media has with publicizing these cases.
TODD: And that’s like the case in this particular article, you know we all, all of us that worked on that case, we saw the graphic photographs from the original scene, and your description and in the artwork, a lot of that was taken away, the graphic nature was taken away so that people could bear to take a look at it. As a parent, it would be a lot easier for me to read what you’ve written and look at that image, than to see an autopsy report and those photographs.
SOFIA: Yeah, that’s true, and I also didn’t want to get too graphic in there because I was hoping that people would read that and see that she had been in the water for some time and I wouldn’t have to tell them. Hopefully people in South Florida know that a body that is in the water for some time is going to be unrecognizable and it’s not going to be pretty, so I didn’t feel the need to write that, you know, I was hoping people would just…
TODD: Well, you can read into it; you kind of get that idea. And I have people that call after, and I’ve got responses to this particular articles where people ask more, well where do I see more cases like this, or, there’s so many different questions that come in and you have a section in the newspaper where you get writer feedback and I try to participate in some of the banter going on there. Not all of it is positive; you always get a wise guy that has something to say.
SOFIA: uh huh
TODD: How do you deal with that?
SOFIA: Oh, boy…
TODD: The critics?
SOFIA: Yeah, the critics, if they don’t send me an email or try to contact me directly, I don’t listen to what they write on the website because a lot of those people are just people with too much time on their hands and just want to see their screen-name on the website.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: I mean, if someone has something important to say, hopefully they’ll just pick up the phone or email me instead of leave some wisecrack comment on the website.
TODD: I think if they knew exactly who we were trying to reach; it’s obviously someone that has no insight into this world.
SOFIA: Yeah, and I feel fortunate that usually the critics, it’s rarely the police or the people that I’m trying to help, it’s always someone on the exterior who either didn’t read the article or doesn’t understand the issue at hand.
TODD: Well, no 2 sets of remains are created equal; I know that. The forensic art gets a lot of criticism at times but I think people don’t realize where we have to start at, and what conditions this body was in when the artist actually began on it and “Why does this image look a little better than this image?” It all boils down to where you begin and what you have to work with. Now, what about some other cases you’ve got down there? Now I know we’ve got cases listed on the Doe Network also, that you’ve actually touched in some way; by writing about them or worrying about them or trying to initiate some type of artwork. And if we talk about it, when this particular part of the show is transcribed, there’s a hyperlink there, so that people can click there exactly what we are speaking of right at this moment in time.
SOFIA: Oh great.
TODD: Which is good and that is how we kind of proliferate more data to the Internet.
TODD: So what other…now we’re doing another sketch for you. Actually we’ve completed another sketch for you.
SOFIA: Actually, I’m working on the article right now and figuring out how to approach my editor to say, “Hey, I have another article on a missing person.”
TODD: How do you think they’re going to react?
SOFIA: Oh, they’re going to roll their eyes, like they always do. This would be about the 20th article I’ve written in the last year, relating to unidentified bodies and missing persons and, you know, I thought that they were going to get tired with me a couple months but, luckily, I still have a way to get in there, but it is getting more difficult unfortunately, but we’ll keep pushing though.
TODD: You must be pretty good at it because I’ve had a lot of really good writers that did do articles and then I hear from them later, “Well, the editors just didn’t buy it.
SOFIA: Yeah, I think I’m just a little luckier because, instead of writing about these cases individually when I started doing this, when I started writing about them more often about a year and a half ago, I started with a project and that was looking at how many of our John and Jane Doe cases were not in the NCIC.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: And that opened up a lot of doors because with that project, I’m able to pitch articles that are updating what happened as a result of that project.
TODD: You have to have foundation.
TODD: And you did get that there. We’ve talked…
SOFIA: I think they’ll always…oh sorry.
TODD: Oh, that’s okay. Go ahead.
SOFIA: I was going to say, editors will always be open to story ideas where you can write in the article that based on a Sun-Sentinel investigation, this will happen.
SOFIA: Because you get to put the newspaper’s name in other papers, so…
TODD: That’s great. That’s great. Now, I know with the NCIC, there were approximately 600 bodies plus, in Florida, listed with the NCIC. I have a feeling there’s probably a lot more than that.
SOFIA: They estimate that there are closer to 1,000.
SOFIA: Yeah, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement actually took a bold step in saying…in telling all 24 medical examiners in the state, to report back to this agency, how many John and Jane Doe cases they had, whether they were in NCIC, whether there were DNA samples available and what police agency is handling them. And, immediately, they got responses from the medical examiners’ offices saying, “We don’t know this information for half of our cases,” so the Florida Department of Law Enforcement really got the ball rolling and forced the medical examiners to organize their case files and try to get the cases into the NCIC, and I was really fascinated with the results and that’s what the initial project was about.
TODD: Now what’s FLUIDDB?
SOFIA: Ooh, the Florida Unidentified Decedents Database. (www.fluiddb.com)
TODD: Now, I’ve seen the database, obviously, and you know we’ve got a new government database, and I know you know that. We’ve talked privately about it; www.namus.gov and they look a lot alike.
SOFIA: They do, and that was also something pretty extraordinary that kind of…I can’t say that NamUs has roots in Florida, but you know, FLUIDDB, when it came out, I believe 5 or 6 years ago, that was a pretty radical idea to the point that some medical examiners didn’t want to put their faces on the Internet because a lot of people weren’t ready for that. But still, the medical examiners office in Naples, they put together the database, and I believe they’ve identified close to 10 people through that webpage.
TODD: Wow. It’s all worth it, right?
SOFIA: Yeah, and that’s with little advertising. That’s just from people, you know, detectives and family members of missing loved ones just passing along the website through word of mouth and by emailing links.
TODD: That’s how it works. It really works quite effectively. You’re getting it to the right people that way.
TODD: Now what other cases? Do you have any more cases that we want to plug tonight to try to get just a little bit of time, maybe somebody you picked, some case you picked and it might not have made it yet?
SOFIA: I have so many cases on my mind. What I do is, I make a manila folder for each case and I keep it on my desk; that way when I get in to work, that’s the first thing I see and I remember to make the checks to see if there’s anything new. One of those cases, probably one of the bigger cases for me personally is the one of Teresa Lyn Fittin.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: She went missing in Fort Lauderdale in 1975, and her case really bothered me because, it was pretty obvious early on that she had been in trouble, I mean that she was in trouble, she wasn’t someone who ran away, even though she did have a history of running away once or twice. You know the thing is, she had a fight with her boyfriend, she was having some drug problems, and she drove away from her apartment and was never seen again and her car never turned up either, and even more odd was 2 or 3 days after she disappeared, her wallet was found in the parking lot of a local library. While it’s possible that she may have dropped it there when she went to the library, it’s more likely that she dropped it during a struggle.
TODD: uh huh
SOFIA: That’s what police think. And it just bothered me that, at the time, there had never been any media coverage of the case. It reminded me of the attitude back in the 70s and early 80s, that when a teenager or a young adult went missing, nobody cared, even if there were obvious signs that this person might be in danger. You know, so when I finally contacted her mother last summer, she was just in tears saying she’s been waiting for 30 years to tell her story and to see it in the newspaper and to see it on TV, and it never happened, and that really bothered me.
TODD: That’s an incredible feeling too, when you are actually able to empower somebody to do that. There’s nothing like that and that’s what I try to do with this radio show in particular, I like to find the most lost of the lost, the people that have had so much trouble getting jumpstarted, and that involves working with people like you because I think just from hearing this, rather than covering individuals at times, I’m letting several of the people that are normally listening, try to look for little gems of knowledge. I think they can get that, I think they can see that there are people like you that care. It is possible to get your story out there.
SOFIA: Oh absolutely. It’s so much about finding the right reporter and calling on the right day. I mean, calling on the right day is key because when we have…when we’re covering 2 homicides and a shooting and an internal affairs report from a police department, we don’t have time to really talk to anyone else on the phone and it’s really sad, but that’s the nature of the business.
TODD: Well, what catches your eye on an email? What sticks out? Having complete information or…what makes it easy for you to say, “I think I can work with this?”
SOFIA: Well usually if a family is willing to talk candidly with me about their missing loved one. For example, so many of these cases are people who run into financial trouble, and they just want to disappear for a while…
SOFIA: …and as long as I know, I can help a family in that situation, even if the police won’t listen to you, just as long as the family will tell me the truth and say, “We think he just disappeared for a while. We just want to tell him we hope he comes home.”
TODD: They’re just wanting to pass a message. It’s not necessarily something that law enforcement needs to be involved in.
SOFIA: Exactly, and a lot of times, you know, reporters may be leery of these kinds of stories because, you know, sometimes we’ll write about a person missing and the family insists that the person is in danger, and just as we’re finished with the story and we’ve spent all these hours interviewing people, you know, the relative comes home. And it’s like all the work for nothing. Now there’s nothing going into the newspaper because the person’s not missing any more. And other times we’ll have cases where, you know, a relative might be so excited to get a reporter on the phone that they’re just talking and talking without really saying anything, without really organizing their thoughts.
SOFIA: And a lot of reporters get frustrated and say, “I’ll call you back” and they never call the person back.
TODD: So to get your attention, I need to really have my thoughts together…
SOFIA: uh huh
TODD: …and be honest with you.
SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely.
TODD: And be persistent, maybe?
SOFIA: Well, not with me. You’ll get me in one or two emails or phone calls, but I think with other reporters, yeah, persistence; understanding what kind of stories get into the newspaper; understanding the right people to talk to, yeah, things like that.
TODD: It’s the same as with you, a lot of times if I see a certain market that I’m trying to go for with particular information, I’ll look and see who’s written about this type of thing before and who shows a little compassion, and that’s the person that I’m going to pick, and try to write for that person and reach out, and so far it has served me very well.
TODD: I’ve always found some really good people, and you’ve taken some time off work tonight to do this, and I appreciate it very much. And I think you’ve got a lot of good information for people and I hope to get to work with you for a long time.
SOFIA: Thanks and I appreciate you having me on the show.
TODD: Well it’s just a little show but I think we’re growing a little bit. In fact, you and I have a little plan we’re working on for people that go missing to maybe help out a little bit when law enforcement can’t, and I’m going to keep working with you on that and maybe we’ll you to come back and talk to the people about that and present some ideas.
SOFIA: Great. Great.
TODD: It was great having you here.
SOFIA: Great. Thank you, Todd.
TODD: Thank you. Bye bye.