ANNAPOLIS – Valerie Littleton was last seen having dinner alone at Denny’s before she simply vanished.
The only real clue she left behind was the contents of her purse, found in the restaurant bathroom.
Littleton, 46, a divorced mother of two from Severn who has been gone more than a year, is one of almost 3,000 adults and children missing from Maryland, according to the National Crime Information Center. Their disappearances leave their families searching for answers.
Even though some missing persons cases receive an abundance of national media exposure – like the recent story of North Dakota college student, Dru Sjodin, or the Elizabeth Smart case in Utah – the majority of cases receive little, if any, coverage.
But it’s publicity that can provide information crucial to locating the missing person. The Maryland Center for Missing Children reports one in six missing juveniles is located because of a publicized photograph, and Carla Proudfoot, the center director, said it is the No. 1 way a child is found.
“The ones that get the news coverage are the blonde-haired, blue-eyed very attractive ones that no one wants to see get hurt,” said Kylen Johnson, the Maryland Area director for the Doe Network and founder of Maryland Missing. “It is very unfortunate, but that is what sells.”
Others, like Anne Arundel County Detective Sheyn Brezniak, the detective on the Littleton case, are not as cynical. Every case is different, Brezniak said, but the media tend to focus on cases where something is unique or there is a large amount of information to report.
The dearth of new coverage leaves the victims’ families frantically searching for ways to show pictures, tell stories and draw attention to their loved one’s disappearance, all in the hopes they’ll be found.
“Press coverage is vital,” said Kim Pasqualini, president of The Nation’s Missing Children Inc., which is the only organization that tracks missing adults. She said there is a cooperative relationship between organizations like hers, the police, the media and the public.
An adult gone missing doesn’t get the same attention as a child who’s disappeared. And tracking missing adults is more difficult. While the vast majority of all missing persons turn up after a week, some are never located. And particularly with adults, there are issues of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. In addition, police are not required to report missing adults as they are with children.
For Littleton’s family, coverage has been scarce, her sister Stephanie Gorman said. The family has been turned away from America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries because of the sheer volume of missing person’s cases in the country. Efforts to get Littleton’s story on local news programs have been similarly rebuffed. In addition, the family has been unsuccessful in its efforts to meet with Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens to call attention to their case.
“The holidays are really hard for the family,” Gorman said. “She was such a wonderful sister with a great sense of humor.”
For now, Anne Arundel County detectives are at a virtual standstill on the Littleton case. While they are still actively working on it, they don’t have any positive leads. Brezniak said he believes that Littleton is still alive and may be living under an alias, but the longer she remains missing, the colder the trail grows.
All that detectives and Littleton’s family really have to go on is a video from the Severn Denny’s proving she was there and the contents of her purse that were found in a trash can in the woman’s restroom.
“All it takes is a lead,” Brezniak said. “It doesn’t take 10 leads. Someone just has to see her picture and she can be found.” –