Meet the Woman Who Catalogs the Missing

Meet the Woman Who Catalogs the Missing

Meaghan Good’s hobby is the thorough, some might say obsessive, cataloging of missing persons. She’s not a detective and this isn’t her profession, yet she’s written over 9,500 profiles of cases in her ten years in missing persons work. This all happens on her website: The Charley Project, which chronicles the facts of a missing person file, plus a blog that details her take on select cases.

Meaghan has been running some iteration of The Charley Project for over 12 years. Originally branded the “Missing Persons Cold Case Network (MPCCN),” she was forced to take it down when it was hacked and subsequently destroyed. It reopened months later as The Charley Project and she continues her (unpaid) work to this day, poring over research, synthesizing complicated case information, and writing the stories of the missing. The information on her site has even lead to missing persons being discovered.

“The Charley Project” name comes from Charles Brewster "Charley" Ross, a four-year-old boy who was kidnapped for ransom in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1874. “His abduction was the first big ransom kidnapping in the entire United States and it was HUGE at the time, like Lindbergh Baby huge,” Good says. Charley was never found, and he’s largely forgotten today. Good wanted his story to be remembered, and in a greater sense, that’s what Good’s purpose is with the Charley Project - a legacy of those who go missing, in the best hope that information can help them be found, and at the very least as a trace of their life, to let people know that they existed.

I interviewed Good about her passion project, how she started cataloging missing persons, the toughest part of her work, and which cases stand out among the thousands:

Can you give us a brief rundown of The Charley Project?

Basically, the Charley Project is meant to be a publicity vehicle for missing persons (I call them MPs for short) and a tool for law enforcement and researchers. What I do with the website is that I take all the information I can find on any particular case and write it up in a single cohesive essay-type narrative, so if a person wants to learn about a certain MP case, rather than chase down many different sources, rather than, say, track down ten different articles in three different news publications, you just go to the Charley Project and it's all right in front of you. I don't actively investigate cases; what I do is put all the material in one place to make it easier for others to investigate. A few times this has directly lead to missing persons being located.

I also see the Charley Project casefiles as a kind of memorial for the MPs; many are never going to get found, but I want others to know that these people existed once.

Do you partner with anyone else on the work?

I write all the casefiles by myself, but over the years several people have taken it upon themselves to dig up information, and they send it to me to post on the database. I call these people "Charley Project Irregulars" like Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. Finding missing people is really a team effort.

How many people have you cataloged?

I have approximately 9,500 cases in the database at present. If you include the cases I had added, and then taken back down, I'd guess that altogether it would be 12,000 to 14,000.

How much time do you spend on Charley?

It's hard to calculate that, because almost all the time I'm online I'm doing something Charley Project related, but often I'm doing several things at once. I'd say at least 15 hours a week, probably more most weeks. There have been times when I have spent a week or more's worth of ten- to fourteen-hour days updating the website, but I keep throwing out my back doing that so I'm trying not to get so carried away anymore.

(A New York Times article about the dissappearance of Charley Ross)

(A New York Times article about the dissappearance of Charley Ross)

What first got you interested in cataloging missing persons?

When I was twelve years old, I first stumbled across the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and basically got sucked in. At sixteen, I became acquainted with Jennifer Marra, the woman who founded the MPCCN (mentioned above). I kept emailing her things to post on the MPCCN, and then when she decided to retire to spend more time with her family, she gave the database to me. I was seventeen then. The rest, they say, is history. I've always been interested in learning people's stories, and I think that's a big part of what draws me to the missing persons world -- all those stories, tens of thousands, that haven't been finished.

Do you ever have contact with friends or family of the missing?

I regularly get emails and Facebook messages from friends or family members of missing people. I never contact them unless they contact me first, however. I don't want to intrude on their privacy.

Do any cases particularly stand out to you?

What I find most distressing are the cases where the person had basically gone missing before they actually disappeared. In adults you see this a lot with people who have a mental illness or a drug addiction; they drop out of sight and no one reports them missing for months or years, because they were already living on the fringes of society. It's even more depressing when it's a child who isn't reported missing for months or years. In such cases it's a virtual certainty that there was abuse in the family and probably the child was murdered. I know of one case where nearly a DECADE passed before the little boy was reported missing, and although it's quite obvious what happened to him, no charges have been brought against anyone in connection with his disappearance.

I'd like to bring up three cases in particular that stand out to me, for different reasons:

Theresa "Sam" Bier, aka "the girl who was kidnapped by Bigfoot." I bring this one up in interviews a lot because she's the only person I know of who is said to have been abducted by a supernatural creature. I sometimes wonder if her companion was, perhaps, on drugs or something, and saw something, or thought he did, because ANY STORY would have been better than this one. ANY STORY AT ALL. And in spite of the unlikely tale he told, Theresa is still missing after nearly thirty years and the suspect is still free.

(Theresa Bier)

(Theresa Bier)

Garnell Moore is, perhaps, the saddest case I have on the entire database. It's a modern-day horror story, that a little boy -- not even a baby, but a school-age child -- just quietly dropped out of sight like that and no one seems to have noticed for YEARS, and all this in the twenty-first century where everyone is supposed to be connected to everyone else. There's a phrase from a novel I read once, "hell would not be anger but indifference." There's no hard evidence that anyone hated Garnell, but I think it's pretty clear that no one really cared about him. This isn't even really a case of a child falling through the cracks in the system; he was never IN the system to begin with.

Peter Kema's disappearance is another case of a child who was the victim of horrific abuse, and whose parents were able to conceal his disappearance for some time before people noticed he was gone. That's not why I've brought him up, though. Peter's case is just a great example of what the Charley Project was intended for. In 2005, the Hawaii Department of Human Services released his entire casefile to the public -- three thousand or so pages in a PDF. Normally these documents are confidential or at least heavily redacted. The only information redacted from Peter's casefile were the names of his siblings, who were all still minors at the time. I downloaded the PDF, nailed myself to the seat of my chair, and read every single page. The medical records, the psychological evaluations, and so on. And I summed up the whole horrifying story in about 1,700 words. So if people want to know what happened to Peter, they can go to the Charley Project and they don't have to read his 3,000-page casefile -- and, incidentally, that DHS casefile is no longer online.

That's what I'm talking about when I say the Charley Project is supposed to basically condense all the information into an essay of reasonable length. And this casefile is also meant to honor Peter's memory and how much he clearly suffered. I do my best to maintain a neutral, journalistic tone when writing up cases, but when I found out about what had happened to this child I was infuriated. I wanted to make the reader angry on Peter's behalf, since no one cared enough for him while he was alive.

What is the toughest thing about this work?

For me, dealing with the loved ones of MPs can occasionally be very difficult. Most of the time when they contact me, they're happy that their MP is on the Charley Project, or perhaps there are just some corrections they want to make. But sometimes things don't go so well. It all goes back to my "get all the information you can" policy. A lot of the people on my website were not angels; many were involved in drugs, prostitution, and so on. Sometimes relatives get upset with me when I publish information like that, because they're embarrassed and don't want their missing family member, and by extension the whole family, to "look bad".

It's not my place to judge another person's life choices. I include information because I think it might help find them. If a person was a prostitute, or they sell drugs, you're going to be looking for them in different places, and be examining different theories, than you would if the person was, say, a day care worker or an accountant. I try to explain my reasoning to the family members and I'm always polite to them, even if they aren't that way to me, because I have no idea what they're going through, but we can't always reconcile. Here is an example:

I have a case on the Charley Project involving a woman who worked as an exotic dancer. She was last seen at the club where she worked, leaving with a strange man. The MP had a substance abuse problem and may have been under the influence at the time. Subsequently the man she left with was identified and they found the missing woman's blood and some other evidence, and he was charged with her murder, although her body has not been found. The casefile had been on the Charley Project, with all this information included, for years when I heard from the MP's sister. She was furious and demanded that I remove quite a lot of information from the casefile, including the part about the MP being an exotic dancer and the part about how she had left with a strange man and so on. She said I was making her sister look "trashy".

I explained to her that I didn't feel comfortable with removing all that information, and I explained why: the MP was last seen, not at the mall, not at the library, not at home, but at her workplace. Which happened to be a strip club. And she was last seen leaving the club with a man who was later charged with her murder. If the MP had just happened to be a stripper and her presumed murder obviously had nothing to do with her occupation, I might have been willing to remove the information, but as I saw it, taking all those clearly relevant facts down would be basically telling a lie.

The MP's sister didn't take this well and sent me several emails about it. She was very angry and went around to some public missing persons forums after that calling me a "mean, cruel bitch" who enjoyed saying terrible things about missing people. She also claimed I'd said her sister was a prostitute; I hadn't said that, because as far as I know it isn't true.

That kind of thing is really distressing for me because I hate to put missing people's family members in more pain than they are already. (For what it's worth, I had also heard from the MP's father and her boyfriend, and neither of them had any problem with what I'd written.) Usually I try to negotiate some kind of compromise with family members who are upset, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. In another case, I got an email from an MP's niece, who demanded I remove the “untrue” things I'd written about her aunt and threatened to sue me for "libel". What I had on her aunt was that the MP had a history of drug use and prostitution, and was last seen getting into a strange pickup truck in a neighborhood known for its prostitution and drug activity. I asked the niece what about this, specifically, was inaccurate. All of it, she said. I told her I had gotten that information straight from the police, but she persisted in calling me a liar and threatening to sue me. This ended in a stalemate; I stopped replying to her emails and I never did heard from her "attorney." I looked up the MP's criminal record in that case and verified that she had arrests for possession and solicitation, so I know my information was accurate, but it didn't make me feel any better.

What is the most gratifying?

I'd say it's most gratifying when I find out my site helped solve a case. I also get really excited when I find a lot of information on case about which I had previously known next to nothing.

Is The Charley Project your “day job?”

More or less; it's how I justify my existence, although I don't get paid for it. I have some serious health problems that make it hard for me to hold down a regular job. More to the point, I think everyone has a duty, when they're born, to make the world a slightly better place than it was before they arrived. One of my mottos is "do what you can, with what you have, where you are." I have a lot of time, and considerable talents for research and writing, and I put all that to use in helping publicize missing persons cases.

(Meaghan Good with puppy)

(Meaghan Good with puppy)

Any interesting stories or revelations you’ve had while you’ve been working on it? Anything else you want to add?

You'd think reading about so many abductions and unsolved disappearances would make me paranoid for my safety, but if anything it's just the opposite. I've learned that the chances of a person dropping out of sight completely, forever, is VERY small, and you have most to fear from the people you know and love and trust. So if you want to avoid getting disappeared, cut yourself off from all your family and friends and never go out of doors, especially during the holidays. Oh, and stay away from drugs.

For more reading, check out The Charley Project, the project blog, and follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.

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