Pasadena volunteer detectives track down missing people

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KPCC / Sanden Totten

Actor and volunteer detective James Elliott makes calls in front of a board with pictures of missing people.

This week the Los Angeles City Council voted to enact a hiring freeze at the LAPD. The move is expected to save close to $4 million over the next couple of years. But Police Chief Charlie Beck says it leaves the force understaffed. Many police departments hit by cutbacks are relying more on volunteers to help pick up the slack. The Pasadena Police Department has recruited an entire unit of volunteer detectives to locating missing people.

At 5 in the afternoon on a Thursday, when many people are heading out for happy hour, James Elliott is staring at a picture of a girl he's never met.

"We have a 15-year-old female who ran away from a group home essentially and has not been seen since," he says.

Elliott studies her photo for a minute, soaking up the details. Then he staples it to a board above his desk. It's filled with pictures of people who've disappeared.

"They're looking at us every day when we do the job," Elliott remarks. "We see the faces of the people we are looking for and they become quite human very quickly."

Elliott is square-jawed with close-cropped hair and an all-business attitude. Even though he's a volunteer, he blends right in with the law enforcement pros.

Casting directors think so, too. In his day job he's an actor who's portrayed cops many times, including in the L.A.-based drama "Southland."

His acting experience got him interested in police work. So three years ago he signed up as a volunteer with the Pasadena PD.

He heard it was short-staffed when it came to tracking down people who'd vanished. Elliott asked for a desk and phone, and said he'd come in after work to start finding people. He's run the department's missing persons unit ever since.

Elliott says that even though he never wanted to be a cop, this kind of work called out to him. "It's an instinctual thing that comes from the need to engage your environment and not wanting the community to go to hell while you are sitting on your couch watching TV. You want to get up and take part in it. You want to live it."

Today, that means finding a missing 15-year-old girl. He starts calling her friends and family for details. He asks them about the missing girl's love life, how she gets around the city, whether she has a favorite object she likes to carry with her.

"You build a profile from scratch until you have so much information you know that person better than anyone she knows," Elliott explains.

This case, like more than half the ones Elliott gets, involves a runaway. But he points out that runaways can quickly become abductions or even homicides, especially when young girls are in the picture. That's why he's moving fast to locate his target.

Elliott has gathered a devoted team of more than a dozen volunteers eager to follow his lead. Last year they found more than 500 people who'd gone missing.

"It gives me kind of a purpose in life," says volunteer Karen Venable. "It gives me something to do that actually will help people."

Venable has worked with the unit for almost two years. When she's not actually tracking down the missing, she often steeps herself in the gritty details of police work.

"I'm reading all kinds of mystery novels, police novels, all the TV shows," Venable says. "Like I can't come in Tuesday nights because 'NCIS' is on. I just love that kind of thing!"

These days, though, when she watches "NCIS," it's good for a laugh.

"Just watch and say, nah, that's not the way it is. But you know, that's cool. It's entertainment!"

Another volunteer, Sergio Fajardo, says he loves the challenge of finding missing people. Sergio's a scientist by day. He searches space for new planets. He sees obvious parallels to his work with the unit.

"In science we are trying to put things together and find something that was not there at first sight," Fajardo explains. "Same thing when we're working these cases. There might be something staring at us, some fact, but we need to piece it together. And that's quite difficult to do."

The missing persons unit represents a small fraction of the total number of volunteers who help out the Pasadena PD. This year more than 140 people signed up to assist with patrols, fighting identity theft and other tasks.

They've contributed 16,000 hours of service. Police officials say that amounts to $373,000 in annual savings for the department.

For Elliott, the big numbers don't matter much. Something much more personal drives him.

"I know what it's like to lose a child."

His first son was born with a medical condition that took his life when he was 13 years old.

"And when these children are missing and the parent doesn't know if they are alive or dead or what happened to them, I can relate at a gut level with what they are going through. And ending that misery for anyone is a gift we can give here day in and day out. And that's something that's very important to me."

At 7 p.m., Elliot is still on the hunt.

"The good news on this case is we already have a good lead on her friends through Facebook," Elliott says, going over notes on the case. "I have already e-mailed her through these online social services. If we can get these contacts to generate a call back we might possibly close this one pretty quick."

Elliot goes back to his desk, hoping to find the break through that will crack the case of the missing 15-year-old girl. Above his head, her picture stares back at him. He picks up the phone and makes another call.

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