Police had said reports of seven missing or dead Black women in Kansas City, Missouri were “completely unfounded.” They say there’s still no evidence of others who’ve been kidnapped.
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When a woman wearing a metal collar and a latex minidress said she escaped her captor’s home just outside of Kansas City, Missouri, a community leader who sounded the alarm about missing Black women and a possible serial killer in the area had one thing to say to police: Customs ya.
Just weeks before the woman escaped the basement where she said she had been held for a month, Bishop Tony Caldwell of the Eternal Life Church and Family Life Center made a plea on TikTok.
“We got a serial killer … and ain’t nobody saying nothing,” Caldwell said in the video, posted by The Kansas City Defender news outlet on Sept. 25. “We got three young ladies who are missing. Ain’t nobody saying a word. What is the problem? Where’s our community leaders, where’s our activists, where’s our public officials, where’s our police department?”
Caldwell said the women were disappearing from an area frequented by sex workers – Kansas City’s Prospect Avenue. The next day, the city’s embattled police department called the claims “completely unfounded.”
The 22-year-old woman in the metal collar, who is Black, escaped capture less than two weeks later, on Oct. 7. She told a woman in the neighborhood who called the police that she had been kidnapped from Prospect Avenue and that two of her friends didn’t make it out alive.
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The case highlights how social media can be a double-edged sword for police departments. Police have used social media to help solve cases, but it can often embarrass them or uncover departmental wrongdoing.
“Social media can make life complicated for the police,” said Eric Miller, a law professor specializing in criminal procedure and policing at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
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“Whether they take it seriously or whether they don’t, when they make public comments about it, like the police in Kansas City did, then they can end up with egg on their face,” Miller said. “They’re playing into a stereotype to distrust the idea of serial predation against Black women.”
Lack of action or even the appearance of it can further erode trust in the police, he said.
“You see this with communities of color, you also see this with women reporting sexual violence,” he said. “The report gets made and when it gets dismissed, the community has no reason to trust the police and has no reason to believe the police are taking it seriously.”
In the case of Kansas City, the already embroiled department was put on its heels when the woman who said she was kidnapped from Prospect Avenue emerged.
The department, which is under Department of Justice investigation over allegations of discriminating against Black officers on the force, said in a statement that police “have had no reports of missing Black females from” Prospect Avenue.”
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Sgt. Jacob Becchina, an agency spokesman, acknowledged the department was “very aware” of Caldwell’s claims but repeated that no official missing persons reports had been made.
When asked whether the handling of the case has affected community trust in the police, Becchina referred USA TODAY to a prepared statement saying the department values the community and relies on it for investigations.
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Caldwell said he and other community members have tried filing police reports, but most of the women are known only by street names and they can’t answer police questions about things like dates of birth. For that reason, he said the department has declined to accept reports of missing women – a claim that Becchina said he couldn’t rule out.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said many of the families who contact her organization have similar experiences.
“They have to go through an uphill battle in order to get law enforcement to take the cases seriously and file a missing persons report,” she said.
Caldwell said the Kansas City department’s actions are just another example of crime against Black women going unanswered.
“It hurt my heart knowing that we already made the alarm and sounded the concerns that she was missing, that there were more out there, that it got dismissed,” he said.
No one had filed a specific missing person report about the woman who escaped the home, said Excelsior Springs Police Chief Greg Dull.
Police said the woman was kidnapped in Kansas City but the home where she was being held is in Excelsior Springs, a different police jurisdiction 30 miles away.
Police arrested 39-year-old Timothy Haslett, Jr. in the case. Prosecutors charged him with first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping and second-degree assault. He’s being held on a $500,000 bond.
No attorney is listed for him in online court records.
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When asked whether there could be a serial killer case on Prospect Avenue, Dull said “anything is possible” but that his department has found no evidence of other potential victims at Haslett’s home.
The social media reports about missing women have been “frustrating” for investigators, he said.
“People started speculating and then it started being reported as if it was true … and it’s just not,” he said. “It may end up being true but at this point we don’t know.
“We’ve been in regular contact with members of the Kansas City Police Department, as well, and I spoke to some of them today,” Dull said earlier this week. “Again, they have not had anybody reported missing. They checked with people out on the street and checked with the morgue to see if there’s any Jane Does, anything that might reveal that somebody is missing. So at this point they don’t have any information about alleged women who are missing from the streets there.”
Caldwell said “police don’t listen to what the folks in the street do.”
“They dismiss what they say, just like they dismiss what I said,” he said.
Increasingly across the US, investigators are using social media tips and information to help solve cases.
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In Stockton, California, a community organizer named Renee Myers took vacation from work to start a Facebook page to generate tips after police announced a serial killer had been stalking the streets and killing people at random, claiming six lives. In all, the group generated about a dozen tips for police, although it’s unclear yet whether any of them led to the arrest of Wesley Brownlee.
“I was in daily communication with my contacts at the police department about the page,” Myers said. “We had a very fluid and active relationship with the police department and we still do.”
She said the Facebook page “took off like wildfire” and thinks such tools can help bridge the gap between communities and police.
“I felt like it was intolerable for me to sit back as a resident and allow my community to be traumatized on the fact that they may not feel supported during this investigation,” she said.
USA TODAY reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg contributed to this story.