It’s been 68 days since Alicia Morales last heard from her sister, Reina Carolina Morales Rojas. Reina, an East Boston resident who went missing on the evening of Nov. 26, was in daily communication with her two children and Alicia, who live in El Salvador.
But a public alert on the disappearance of Reina, who was reportedly last seen getting dropped off from a vehicle in Somerville that night, wasn’t issued until Jan. 12, more than a month later. When I first wrote about Reina’s case, there had been barely any news coverage of her disappearance, in stark contrast to other missing persons’ cases as of late.
According to Alicia, there are still no updates about Reina, and she, other family members, and local advocates — who organized vigils to raise awareness of Reina’s case — remain extremely frustrated. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Police Commissioner Michael Cox met with Alicia via Zoom on Monday. The convening came after an initial meeting between police and Latinos Unidos en Massachusetts, a nonprofit group that has advocated on behalf of Reina’s family, generated controversy after attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights were blocked from attending.
During the meeting with Wu, “the police assured me that they were committed to finding Reina and that they had been working since day one to find her,” Alicia told me in Spanish. “But I am indignant at the lack of updates on her case,” her voice breaking and almost trembling in anger. “[Reina’s children] ask me every day, ¡¿dónde está mi mamá?!”
But there’s another urgent question: Why did the police wait so long to make Reina’s disappearance public? Lucy Pineda, executive director of LUMA, said she asked that question twice during the meeting with Wu and Cox. “The police kept saying the same thing: that they had been working on the case since the day she was reported missing on Nov. 28,” Pineda told me.
The BPD has acknowledged that it could have alerted the public about Reina’s disappearance earlier. “In our focused efforts to identify her whereabouts, our investigative team regrettably did not share her information publicly until January 12,” according to BPD statements.
In an interview with the Globe editorial board Friday, Wu said she has “been digging into” the delay. “What I know is that when a person is officially designated as missing … there are a number of things that BPD does to investigate. And some of that is the direct interviews and conversations with contacts and those in the area where a person might last have been seen,” the mayor said. But that also includes blasting out the information to the public, which in Reina’s case did not happen in a timely manner.
Wu admitted that there is currently no formal policy for BPD as to when a missing person’s case goes public. And public alerts typically don’t include multilingual versions, she said. Those are clearly oversights that ought to be corrected. “We need to evaluate our larger procedures for when a public call goes out,” Wu said.
In general, if an elderly person, a child, or an underage youth goes missing, law enforcement may do an expedited search or send an Amber Alert in the case of children. Of course, there are also cases of missing people who voluntarily disappear. But Alicia, since the day her sister disappeared, has been adamant that Reina would have never vanished like that.
Indeed, according to Tom Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran Boston police lieutenant and author, the circumstances of Reina’s disappearance — namely, family members reporting that Reina went from daily communication with them to zero communication — would indicate to law enforcement that something is amiss. “And that there was a possibility, if not an unfortunate likelihood, that this woman may have been a victim of a crime of violence,” he told me.
That’s why the delay in alerting the public about Reina cries out for an independent investigation into how the police handled her case from the beginning. Alicia told me about a particularly frustrating phone call in December with a Boston police officer that left her and Reina’s children distraught.
“The officer told us, ‘we have no clues, you have to wait until she calls you, then you let us know and we’ll go looking for her,’” said Alicia. (The children are going to receive free psychological care through the El Salvador government.)
Every Bostonian should be aghast that there haven’t even been press conferences asking the public for clues on Reina’s whereabouts. Her case raises important questions about the police response when people are reported missing, which have strong implications on police trust. Simply put, there shouldn’t be different levels of information provided to the public when someone disappears. That’s why the new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency could launch an inquiry into how her case was handled from the beginning.