Disappearance of 2 soldiers casts light on gaps in military, civilian investigations
By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 5, 2017
WASHINGTON — Army criminal investigators said Thursday that they began looking into the disappearance of two soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas on Dec. 31, nearly two weeks after they were first reported missing by family members and their commanders.
Pfc. Melvin Jones, a cook, and Pfc. Jake Obad-Mathis, a supply soldier, both 20 years old and friends in the 1st Armored Division, were last seen together Dec. 19 in a Camaro belonging to Jones, according local media reports.
Jones had requested holiday leave and was not considered absent without leave until this week, when his time off was to end. Obad-Matis was not on leave and was considered AWOL on Dec. 20 after failing to report for duty, according to media reports.
Duane Jones, Melvin’s father, told a local television station that his son was scheduled to pick him up at the airport Dec. 30 ahead of the Sun Bowl football game, but he did not arrive. He was scheduled for leave and was not declared AWOL at the time.
Delays in launching an official probe in the days after the disappearance has cast light on the often frustrating and bureaucratic entanglements between military and civilian law enforcement when troops go AWOL, said Maggie Haswell, a former Air Force security forces specialist who volunteers to search for missing troops and veterans.
Army criminal investigators were alerted to the disappearances Dec. 31 and immediately launched the investigation, Army spokesman Christopher Grey told Stars and Stripes on Thursday. Army investigators typically handle felony cases.
Agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command “are aggressively investigating the whereabouts of the two missing [s]oldiers in question and we take this matter very seriously,” Grey said Wednesday.
Missing persons reports can be filed with a civilian police department 24 to 48 hours after a disappearance. But there is no equivalent trigger of investigation in the military, and civilian police are not always notified or search for AWOL troops as a priority, Haswell said.
“The civilian police aren’t willing to get involved, or take too long to get involved, unless there are indications of foul play,” Haswell said, adding investigators only took this particular case seriously after media reports and public outcry.
“Dear Commanders at Fort Bliss,” Carin Obad, the mother of Obad-Matis, wrote on Facebook on Dec. 28 after phone calls with commanders. “My son is Jake Obad-Mathis and we will find him.”
“Your leadership in his company is horrendous and we would like someone to step up and find our son,” she added, apparently criticizing her son’s commanders at Fort Bliss.
The military’s law enforcement is often slow to move on AWOL troops, Haswell said. Commanders must request military police assistance for a missing servicemember, and they often wait 24 or 48 hours to give troops a chance to show up.
Occasionally, days or weeks can pass before military police is notified of an AWOL servicemember, she said.
Tatjana Christian, a spokeswoman for Army personnel and human resources, said Wednesday that soldiers are removed from their duty roster 30 days after they are reported AWOL, which allows the service to fill that slot with another soldier.
“We do not actively look for deserters,” Christian said, adding most AWOL troops are found only after reported by civilian law enforcement following traffic stops and other encounters when their name is cross-referenced in a database of military reports.
The El Paso Police Department did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment on their role in the investigation, and Army investigators have not released any new information on the case.
Haswell has spent four years voluntarily investigating active-duty troops and veterans gone missing across the country when civilian and military police do not begin active searches, she said.
The Warriors Aftermath and Recovery Group, which she leads, is a band of about 20 volunteers and various veteran groups across the country who comb Facebook pages for leads, post missing persons fliers and join search teams on the ground.
Volunteers are activated when reports of AWOL troops or missing veterans are received. The group has participated in between 100 and 150 investigations, Haswell said.
One investigation in North Carolina of an AWOL Marine came to a successful closure after Haswell tracked down credit card receipts and surveillance video, she said.
Haswell, who lives in North Carolina with a husband on active duty with the Marines, will investigate cases on the ground when they are nearby.
There are seemingly endless reasons for troops to miss formation, though most center on unfound car accidents, along with financial, family or mental health issues, she said.
But Haswell has only encountered one other case with two missing troops, when two Marines drowned in 2014 after their vehicle crashed into a canal in North Carolina.
“There are a lot of reasons one person will leave,” she said. “Two together is very rare.”
Haswell’s first move after she receives a report is to offer help to families, she said. She began working with the families of Obad-Matis and Jones shortly after receiving word of their disappearance.
Her background in military law enforcement is a vital tool in explaining the complications of who owns investigative authority, when family members are looking to military and police simultaneously for help, she said.
“We shouldn’t have to wait two weeks to get someone from the Army base to at least look,” Obad told the Washington Post. “Don’t treat them all like criminals.”
Jurisdictions, stigmas slow process
Civilian law enforcement possesses a different set of values and priorities about military culture, said Sky Gerrond, a former Air Force security operations officer.
An airman missing morning formation without notice is a serious concern for their commander, for instance, but a civilian police officer will most often view that as someone missing a shift at work, Gerrond said.
The authority of military police stops at the base gate, he said, so they are not permitted to conduct a search or investigation in a civilian jurisdiction.
The Posse Comitatus Act restricts military personnel from enforcing domestic policies, Gerrond said. The measure was created in part to foster a distinct line between military and civilian police authority, but a byproduct is an inertia between the two investigative arms that often shift accountability to the other, Gerrond said.
When servicemembers are reported AWOL, communication between military officials and family members is uneven, Haswell said. Carin Obad told Haswell that a supervisor in her son’s chain of command hung up on her after she demanded information on the investigation over the phone, Haswell said.
Obad could not be reached for comment by Stars and Stripes.
Haswell pointed to a stigma among the term AWOL for military police to move at a glacial pace even days or weeks after a servicemember is reported missing. The first instinct is to assume poor conduct or unprofessionalism, Haswell said, and their recovery and safe return becomes a low priority for military law enforcement.
That is an issue when a servicemember’s life is in danger, Haswell said. Her most recent investigation, the disappearance of Army Pvt. Dakota Stump at Fort Hood in October, concluded when he was found dead on post under his car weeks after his disappearance. There was no formal search for Stump, she said.
Haswell, a mother herself, is working with Stump’s family to lobby Congress to draft a law for the creation of an Amber Alert-style notification system for civilian law enforcement when a servicemember goes missing, she said, to better facilitate a missing person investigation.
Haswell, who left the Air Force with a medical discharge, said she feels a surge of urgency for family members when a servicemember or veteran goes missing.
“I feel like I didn’t do enough in the Air Force, but I’ve come to terms with that. I have purpose doing this,” she said. “I don’t ever want to lose another one.”