In 2004, 15-year-old Ashley Martinez went missing from Krug Pool in St. Joseph. Seventeen years later, her mother, Tammy Mack, continues to search for the answers that might lead her to her daughter.
As the years pass, more and more stories of missing people just like Martinez continue to pop up.
“[It] makes me sad because I know back when Ashley went missing, her case was very, very unique. And now you see it all over. It’s scary,” Mack said.
Over the summer, details about the disappearance of Gabby Petito swept news cycles for weeks. During that time, the bodies of multiple other missing people were discovered all over the country. This included a man in Wyoming who was found through tips that came as part of Petito’s search, and another man in Illinois, whose case received attention after his family struggled with getting the word out.
These cases ended in less-than-ideal outcomes with families burying their loved ones. But there are many others who continue to wait for any closure at all.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re found alive or deceased, it’s still hope. You know, if their loved one is deceased, they have to have the body back, they have to be able to do all those things that other grieving people get to do, all the rituals as a part of their healing,” said Maureen Reintjes, the executive director of Missouri Missing.
Reintjes understands the position these families are in firsthand after experiencing the disappearance of a loved one herself in 2005. Reintjes now focuses on helping families and searching for missing people.
When her husband went missing, national newscasts were filled with information regarding the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway, but Reintjes did not see the same coverage around her case, which left her wondering why.
“The first thought in your head: ‘When is it my turn?’ But that’s not an answer that, you know, we don’t have that answer,” Reintjes said.
Now as she advises families of missing people, her main focus is on spreading the word. Mack has done the same for almost two decades as she continues to look for her daughter.
Some cases like that of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, who returned to their families after being missing for 10 years, motivate people like Mack to keep searching.
“Throughout the years, seeing different stories of, like, the girls in Ohio, you know, that were found and just different things ... does give you hope. I mean, hope is pretty much all you got to go on,” Mack said.
The trail goes cold
When the investigation reaches a standstill, Mack said it can be discouraging and hard to understand.
“It was just a nightmare. And then it seemed like every time I turned around, I was coming up with dead ends, and it was frustrating,” Mack said. “I noticed I went through a period where I was just angry, really angry. You know, I think any parent, I mean, you want to protect your child, and I felt I failed her.”
Reintjes said the families never stop searching.
“They don’t give up. Just because the public doesn’t see them and what they’re doing, that doesn’t mean they have stopped looking. They never — it’s just not even an option. You just don’t stop looking. As far as when it goes to a cold case, to the families, it’s not a cold case,” Reintjes said.
Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Puett has decades of personal experience with families of cold-case and crime victims.
“It’s just heartbreaking to tell the family that there’s no information, there’s nothing that is going forward,” Puett said.
Puett said every case like that has left a mark on him.
“I can’t even imagine, as many years as I’ve worked violent crimes, I can’t even imagine having a loved one who becomes the victim of violent crime or becomes missing and is presumed to be a victim of violent crime,” he said. “There’s no way to understand what those families go through.”
Puett has worked on the case of missing Buchanan County resident Gloria Palmer since 1989. The trail went cold after years of searching for answers, he said.
Palmer was at local bars celebrating her son’s birthday when she disappeared in the early morning hours of June 29, 1989. Since then, it’s been decades of dead ends and no answers for not only the detectives on the case but also for the family, who has been left with a missing piece.
“We would love to find her alive and well. It’s cold because there was just no information. There was nothing else developed,” he said. “Every time investigators pick it up ... they look at possible leads. And if there is any, they work them, and oftentimes, there’s nothing. There’s nothing new that has been developed.”
When a case is moved from active to cold, it means no new leads are coming in, there is no more evidence to be tested and there are no witnesses left who have come forward with information.
Ashley Martinez’s case is constantly moving between active and cold as theories and new suspects spark investigation but then lead to nothing. The most recent development surrounded a new sworn statement about a suspect who previously had been named in the case.
“I know when she went missing and the situation that surrounded it with Christopher Hart, an older man, and I’ve always warned her about things like that. But I never, I mean, in reality, always prayed that wasn’t possible,” Mack said.
St. Joseph Police Detective Sgt. Jason Strong continues to track the Martinez case and is currently heading the investigation into any tips in Ashley’s disappearance.
“I have books and books of leads and tips that we’ve been working on that case for years. So I think from the surface, people look at it and say it’s a cold case. And maybe, you know, but I can tell you we work on that case often,” Strong said. “To this day, we will receive numerous tips this year that we follow up on and some tips we’ve already followed up on.”
Coming back from cold
In 2009, the ability to test and track DNA became widely used and officers began solving cold cases from decades prior. Since the creation of this science, it has boomed.
A 25-year cold case in St. Louis was solved in 2019 after DNA testing advanced enough to revisit it. Angie Housman was 9 years old when she was molested and killed in 1995. The man responsible was identified when scientists finally had the technology to isolate DNA from colored cloth.
Both Martinez and Palmer have files on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons clearinghouse that is a resource for law enforcement all over the country. Strong said he receives hits from other jurisdictions based on his missing or unidentified files. These could be possible matches that he must identify and investigate. The database has helped solve hundreds of cases, but an average of 600,000 people continue to go missing in the United States each year.
As quickly as detectives can move and test available evidence, sometimes it’s just not enough, and they’re just forced to wait for the right person to say something.
A 13-year-old cold case was solved in Columbia, Missouri, in 2019 after a man walked into a Wisconsin police station and confessed to the murder of his wife at the time, Megan Shultz. Shultz disappeared, leaving behind her family, including a young child.
The man’s confession led to the search of a landfill, the recovery of Shultz’s body and long-awaited closure for her family.
This gave her mother, Debra, the chance to finally bury her daughter. Puett said these scenarios are sometimes exactly what officers waiting for.
“The only way that we solve crime is a combination of not only hard work on the investigator’s part, but the help and assistance of citizens providing that information,” he said. “And when I say we have an obligation, I truly believe that. I can’t imagine what these folks deal with.”
Strong said running into a dead end on a case is difficult but all too common.
“No detective wants to have those cases kind of lingering out there,” Strong said. “But yeah, after a certain time, you run out of witnesses, you run out of viable evidence, and it’s just, you’re just stuck.”
Holding onto hope
No matter how small a piece of information might seem, law enforcement officers push the idea that any tip could help.
“These cases exist. Even though you’re not hearing about them in the news, they exist, and the more you share the flyers if you’re on social media, the more it’s talked about, the more the chance there is a tip is going to come in,” Reintjes said. “Anything, any kind of little tip gives the family hope, so for those that know something and haven’t come forward, just do it.”
Beyond following investigations and dealing with the unknown, one thing families of the missing don’t do is forget.
“I loved her from before she was even born, and I’m not going to stop, and I’m not going to stop looking and searching and I’m going to do everything I can,” Mack said. “Hope is pretty much all you got to go on, so it’s always good to hear new things and always pray for that closure she needs. We all need that closure.”