Lots of people go missing. Why don't we care about all of them?

Toni Patrick (left) gets a hug from her sister Khadija Banks, at Roxborough Hospital, where they prepare to search the neighborhood for Patrick’s missing son, Zariff Thomas.

While the Delaware Valley was obsessed with four Bucks County men who went missing and wound up murdered, others were missing, too.

But their absence didn’t make a dent in our collective conscience.

We didn’t ponder the whereabouts of Phyillis Wilkie, Marquis MartinMarquetta Macky-Bell, or Jose Colon. Or watch the news for word of Marcella Coe, Tyrah Goldwire, or Jaikeia Jennings. Or post Facebook prayers for the homecoming of Zariff ThomasKeziah Baker, or Yanae Petty

What, is it too soon after the Bucks County horror to notice the discrepancy?

The victims – Jimi Taro Patrick, Dean Finocchiaro, Mark Sturgis, and Tom Meo – have been laid to rest. And the men who confessed involvement in their deaths – cousins Cosmo DiNardo and Sean Kratz – are behind bars.

The Bucks families may have closure, but other families are still in agony, wondering what has become of their vanished kin.

Last year, 4,284 persons were reported missing in Philadelphia. By year’s end, 111 of those cases were still active. Currently, 661 missing people are unaccounted for in the city. Nationally, 647,435 missing persons were entered into the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person File.  To date, there are 88,040 active missing-person cases.

Camera icon Family photo
Toni Patrick gets a hug from son Zariff Thomas on Mother’s Day 2017. He has been missing since July 12.

Why do some rivet us while others escape our notice?

“What matters most in missing-person cases is how many people actually miss that person,” says Todd Matthews. He’s director of case management and communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a database of missing people overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice. “Those who get the least attention are the ones who are the least connected. They’re loners, or isolated by age or addiction or sickness. They stay missing because no one is looking for them.”

In the Bucks case, the four victims, who knew one another, were reported missing over two days. That alone made their situation newsworthy. Not so with the case of Timothy Ceasar, whose disappearance June 1 generated broad interest only when people wondered if it was connected to the Bucks case. When authorities found no evidence of that, Ceasar slid below our radar again.

We’re like twitchy brats that way. Without a juicy story to hold our attention, we move on. A lone family’s worry isn’t enough to engage us.

Where the Bucks case unfolded was also unusual – sleepy, bucolic Solebury. Area residents were stupefied.

“This doesn’t happen around here,” Lisa Curreri of New Hope told 6ABC.

Compare that with Philly, where, for example, the shooting of nine people at a June graduation party barely registered on the public radar.

Then, there was the news that the Bucks victims were killed during what they thought would be marijuana buys from DiNardo, police say. But few of the 1,500 attendees acknowledged that at last week’s gathering for the men at the Garden of Reflection 9/11 Memorial in Lower Makefield Township.

“They’d be alive if they weren’t buying drugs,” says Cindy Yuen, a Philadelphia police officer. She lost a brother on 9/11 and was so incensed that the Bucks victims were being praised at the Garden of Reflection that she called me to vent. “But people are treating those guys like they were angels. I don’t get it.”

Was it because the men were white and from nice areas? Mary Jones thinks so. She reached out after reading my column last week about families of the missing.

“The Bucks County case is a perfect example of the disparity that exists when it comes to missing minorities vs. white people,” said Jones, who wouldn’t tell me where she hails from. “If these four young men had been black or Hispanic, the coverage would have been minimal and the drug-dealing aspect would have been front and center.”

I think the vanishing of four friends of any race would’ve been news, and Philadelphia Media Network did give heavy coverage to the “drug-dealing aspect” of this grisly crime. But Jones is right about one thing: Society rarely “humanizes” young black males who are killed during a drug deal. In the Bucks case, sympathizers barely mentioned the drug deal as they rushed to humanize the young white males who were killed.

Most missing people make it back home, thank God. But until they do, the fear is overwhelming. Just ask Toni Patrick, whose son Zariff Thomas, 25, went missing July 12. His big family is tearing Philly apart trying to find him.

“I can’t sleep, I’m so worried,” says Patrick, whom I met with Wednesday.

Camera icon Clem Murray
Gary Thomas and Toni Patrick, parents of Zariff Thomas, at Roxborough Hospital, the last place anyone saw Zariff.

Thomas is bipolar and schizophrenic but, with medication, has lived a good life with his mom and stepdad in South Philly. He’s a Neumann-Goretti High School grad, has always worked, and  never been in trouble with the law. He’s tight with his dad, Gary Thomas, his grandparents, and a raft of extended family members who are frantic right now.

A few days before Thomas went missing, he was acting erratically. His family took him to Roxborough Hospital’s ER for psychiatric evaluation, but he fled before he could receive the help he needed.

He left behind his wallet and phone. He has not been heard from since.

“This is not like him,” says his mom shakily. “He has never just taken off like this. I’m scared that someone might hurt him. Where is he sleeping? How is he eating?”

The family has called hospitals and shelters, and relatives have descended from out of state to look for him.

Thomas is listed on the Philadelphia Police Department’s online “missing persons” web page, and a few community groups have posted that link on their websites. But without a compelling story to capture the public’s attention, his loved ones don’t know how to rivet the public’s eyes and ears to their plight.

Now that the Bucks mystery has resolved, maybe we can at last turn our attention to Zariff Thomas and other vanished locals whose families love and miss them. They’re desperate, and they need our help.

 

Anyone with any information on Zariff Thomas’ whereabouts is asked to please contact Southwest Detective Division at 215-686-3183/ 3184 or call 911.