Judith Lopez, 46, believes the NYPD’s initial refusal to acknowledge her son as a missing person after he disappeared last year is a civil rights issue: Why shouldn’t cops take the disappearance of a healthy adult, without cognitive or physical problems, as seriously as they might a missing child or elderly person?
Police, she complained, “repeatedly told me he was a healthy 23-year-old who didn’t want to come home,” rebuffing her first attempts to lodge a missing person’s report when her son, Anthony Urena, inexplicably vanished.
Urena, a Bronx Community College graduate and Lehman College freshman who dreamed of becoming a CPA, left his family’s apartment on the Upper West Side the evening of Nov. 13 to go to a club in Inwood. He never returned.
Lopez, a secretary at Yeshiva University, mistakenly thought she had to wait 48 hours to report Anthony missing (no waiting period is required in NYC).
So she was already frantic when she went to the 24th Precinct on Nov. 16 to file a missing person’s report. But staff there refused to file a report and instructed her to go home and call 911.
She did so, but the three officers who came to her home similarly told her “he’s a healthy 23-year-old and just doesn’t want to come home.”
Her son, she told them, would never leave his beloved Dogo Argentino mastiff, Sampson, alone without making plans for his care and exercise, or cause her such worry.
Lopez traipsed back to the precinct the next day, where she was again told to go home and call 911.
This time, responding officers “didn’t want to take a missing person’s report,” she said. As she “was trying not to get hysterical” and collapsed in tears, an officer took her information and a detective, Rodolfo Bisono, was assigned to the case.
After six weeks of looking at corpses on computers and visiting hospitals to see unconscious John Does, Bisono called Lopez asking to see her: A body was recovered in the Hudson River in Hoboken on Christmas Day, with $120 and Anthony’s identification, but missing his watch and two $3,000 gold chains, Lopez recounted.
Dental records confirmed it was Anthony.
An NYPD spokesman said that while the department had yet to obtain the autopsy report, Urena’s case — and the cause of his death — is still under investigation. (The Regional Medical Examiner of New Jersey told amNY it will only give autopsy reports to the lead agency involved in a case.)
Seeking meaning from her son’s death, Lopez wants the NYPD to immediately provide reports when loved ones report a missing person, even if the situation doesn’t meet the NYPD’s criteria: circumstances “indicating unaccountable or involuntary disappearance,” being 17 or younger or 65 or older, or a person with a disability.
“The missing did not fit any of these criteria,” the NYPD said in an emailed statement.
A petition Lopez and her daughter started at ipetitions.com has so far attracted more than 4,000 signatures and 1,459 comments.
“Unfortunately, [police] have to have a narrow definition,” in determining who is a missing person, explained Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who retired from the NYPD as a sergeant in 2012 after more than 20 years.
“There are just not enough resources” to pursue every able-bodied person who does not return home, many of whom have left their families willingly, he noted.
Many adults — such as those fleeing abusers and batterers — have a right not to be found by people they wish to avoid, he said.
Adult missing person cases “are an unglamorous task that the police do not relish dealing with at all. Almost everyone who is reported missing returns or chooses not to return of their own volition,” added Eugene O’Donnell, an NYPD veteran who is now a professor of law, police and science at John Jay.
“You simply can’t launch a full-scale search for every person who does not return home in keeping with their routine,” he said.
The NYPD, while declining to address Lopez’s complaints, said it received the Urena case on Nov. 17 and obtained DNA from his family, requested media attention on Nov. 20 and Dec. 4, had canvasses conducted by the Parks Department and Harbor Unit and canvassed the last place he was seen for video.
The Technical Assistance Response Unit “was involved in tracking phone activity” and his bank records and credit-card records were also checked, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
But Lopez said family members doing their own investigation obtained video from where Urena was last seen after leaving The Cliff Lounge early Nov. 14, staggering along 203rd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues near the Harlem River.
Family members provided that to police along with another video, she said. She is troubled by the presence of a black car in the video that passes Anthony on the one-way street and then is seen again driving past him again the wrong way.
She does not believe Urena — an upbeat fitness buff who could not swim — would ever jump in a river, even if he was drunk. Nor, she said, would he commit suicide.
Law enforcement is in a bind when it comes to accepting reports on healthy missing adults, said Todd Matthews, case management and communications manager for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
“Law enforcement cannot be a location finder service,” but “if it’s your missing child — even your adult child — it’s the most important thing in the world,” he said.
Cops are often skeptical of such reports because there are many anxious, “trigger-happy” individuals who “will tell you anything” to get help finding a loved one who is not missing at all, Matthews explained.
Those people “make it very difficult for the people with real situations,” Matthews said.
But when a case isn’t filed, even a family’s personal search is hampered. Media tends not to publicize cases that are not verified by police and “we don’t publish a case until we get a police report,” Matthews said.
About 80,000 people are listed as officially missing in the United States at any one time, with the majority being runaway teens who are quickly located, Matthews said.
Lopez remains tormented, wondering if her son might have been saved had police mobilized earlier to find him and troubled by the mystery surrounding his last hours.
“Take the report! Find the person!” she said. If the person turns out to have left on their own accord, “let the person decide” if he wants to return, she pleaded through tears.
Calming herself, she explained, “I just don’t want any parent ever again to have to go through what I went through.”