From the time 13-year-old Jayden Robker disappeared in Kansas City’s Northland, it took four days for the Kansas City Police Department to alert the public that he was missing.
For Jayden’s mother, Heather Robker, that was too long to wait.
After five weeks of searching for her son, Robker’s fears were confirmed Friday when his body was found in a wooded area about a mile from their home near Northwest Plaza Drive and Northwest Plaza Avenue.
Since then, one missing persons advocate has echoed Robker’s feeling that police should have notified the public sooner. Kansas City police have said they were delayed by difficulty in obtaining a recent photo of him from the family.
Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, said police should have put out a news release the night Jayden was reported missing. Later, when a photo became available, they could have put out an updated flier, she said.
“There’s no such thing as small information,” Wilson said. “Everything is critical . . . I think it could’ve made a huge difference, because someone may have seen this young man.”
Christopher Boyer, executive director of the nonprofit National Association For Search And Rescue, said an up-to-date photo is “abolutely essential” when putting out a public notice on a missing person.
“Typical policy for most police departments is ‘if we don’t have a picture, then we’re probably not going to go sending out that missing person flier,’” he said.
The Kansas City Police Department’s handling of missing persons cases has long been a source of frustration for families, social activists and neighborhood leaders who say police are often not responsive to their concerns, especially in cases of missing people who are Black.
Many advocates who study the best practices in the field say every department should have strategies for alerting community members of missing persons and communicating with them during a search.
After Jayden’s body was found in a pond not far from his neighborhood, just across U.S. 169 highway near North Broadway and Northwest Englewood Road in Gladstone, police said a preliminary autopsy showed no “obvious signs of foul play.”
The cause of death remained unknown while the investigation continued.
Jayden last seen Feb. 2
Jayden’s family has said they last saw him on Feb. 2 at their home in the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood.
He got off the school bus around 2:30 p.m. that Thursday afternoon and was seen by Robker’s husband in their home as the teen rushed in and out and took off on his RazorX DLX electric skateboard to sell some Pokémon cards.
He never returned.
At 3:30 p.m. he was seen at the nearby QuikTrip, less than a mile from their home and from the site where his body would be found more than a month later. Robker, police and a manager at the convenience store have said Jayden was seen on surveillance video visiting the bathroom and then heading east past the Family Dollar next door.
About 10:40 p.m. Robker woke up for her night shift at work and discovered her son missing. She called police.
Kansas City detectives immediately began investigating the case that night, said Capt. Corey Carlisle, a spokesman for the Kansas City Police Department.
But they did not release a notice to the public about the missing teen until after the weekend.
Carlisle has said the reason Jayden’s flier wasn’t posted immediately by the police department’s communications team was that Robker couldn’t find a current photo of him right away.
Robker acknowledged the problem finding a photo but said she wishes police would have put out a public release sooner.
Four days passed, from Thursday to Monday, before the family tracked down a photo and police circulated a news release asking the public for help finding Jayden.
Did KCPD wait too long?
Wilson, the co-founder of Black & Missing Foundation, says it is true photos are critical to a missing persons case. But not every family will have one readily available for police.
“That should not deter law enforcement from putting out information about this missing child,” Wilson said. “It still should not deter law enforcement from being that gatekeeper and releasing that public notification.”
Any descriptive details, such as height, weight, what the person was last seen wearing, can help, she said.
And once released, a public notice about a missing person can be updated with new information and photos.
That is what could have been done in Jayden’s case, she said.
“I think it could’ve made a huge difference, because someone may have seen this young man.”
Boyer, the executive director of National Association For Search And Rescue, said he doesn’t think the police department was wrong to wait for a photo.
Waiting for the photo is worthwhile, Boyer argued, so police can “screen the nuisance calls out. So they don’t waste time on bad calls. They can spend and focus their time on real calls that are affecting the case.”
And, as in Jayden’s case, police can search for the missing person even if they have not yet sent out a public notice.This can take many forms, including investigating through technology, canvassing, checking surveillance cameras, searching social media activity.
“In this case, I’m betting the picture with the public would not have made a difference in the outcome, necessarily,” Boyer said. “But it’s certainly something to consider.”
Maureen Reintjes joined the search for Jayden on March 5 when about 50 people gathered to canvass the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood where the family lives.
As executive director of Missouri Missing, an organization that supports families of missing people, Reintjes said in her experience, in cases of missing teens and adults, police often “sit on it a little bit longer thinking the person is going to show up, and most of the time they do.”
In Jayden’s case, she said, there were obvious delays.
“In my books you should always play to the worst scenario, and rejoice when the best scenario happens,” she said. “But if you play to the worst scenario, you could save a life.”