WARWICK, R.I. — We may never know what happened to Frank Hanson Jr.
In the 70-plus years since the boy disappeared from his neighborhood in Cranston, nearly all of those who knew and loved him are dead. The police case files are closed. What was once national news is long forgotten.
Now, a stranger has given Frank a chance of being found. She also made sure that he will be remembered.
Gloria Coppola has been retired from the New York State Police for eight years, after a long career as a major crimes investigator of homicides and sexual assaults. She also specialized in missing persons cases, her mind locking in and turning over mysteries.
A disappearance is a puzzle, and Coppola seeks the pieces, looking for clues in behavior and cryptic last words, patterns of crimes over geography and time, and matches with forensic genetic genealogy that can give names to thousands of unidentified human remains all across the country.
When she stumbled across a story about a long-missing boy from Rhode Island, a place she’s loved for years, she was inspired to do more than simply find out what happened to him. And her efforts may have opened up a way for authorities to finally find him.
Coppola had kept her hand in investigative work after retirement, working pro bono as a consultant for other law enforcement agencies on their cases, and staying in touch with families of missing loved ones. She is currently helping the Berkshire County sheriff’s office in Massachusetts with a string of cold cases.
She still lives in New York state, but had a second home in Narragansett where she loved to walk her yellow Lab to the Point Judith Lighthouse, the beauty of the sea providing an escape from the ugliness of crime.
One day in 2019, her Google alerts for missing person cases picked up a story in The Providence Journal about a boy who’d been missing for more than 70 years.
Frank Hanson was the son of Swedish immigrants, living in Cranston’s Edgewood neighborhood with his parents and older sister, Helen. The boy with a crew cut was a Boy Scout, played baseball, and sailed out of the Edgewood Yacht Club. He was just 15 when he vanished without a trace on July 12, 1947.
Frank had crewed in a sailboat race that day and had won. He was expected at an awards dinner and dance. His mother expected him at home.
Author and playwright Ken Dooley wrote in the Journal about his memories of Frank’s disappearance. The two boys were friends, and Frank had stopped in the local store where Dooley was working. Frank casually said maybe he’d see Dooley the next day. Two hours later, Frank’s worried father came into the store, searching for his son.
Dooley recounted questions from police, neighbors canvassing, the fruitless searches of the Pawtuxet River where some thought Frank may have crossed a rickety trestle and fallen to his death. The unfounded suspicions that he ran away. And, the sickening feeling among his friends that Frank, a frequent hitchhiker, had thumbed a ride with the wrong person.
His parents died without knowing what happened to their son. His older sister eventually married and had a daughter, who had children. Dooley was one of the few left who remembered the lost boy.
Oh, this is interesting, Coppola thought as she read Dooley’s story.
“Everything pulled at me,” she said. “It was his account, which was very touching, but also that Frank’s a missing person, and he’s not even in a missing persons database. How could he even possibly have a chance of being found?”
She had no illusions about solving the case. So much time had passed, and so few people were left who would remember him. But the advances of time had also brought advances in technology, genealogy, and the approach that law enforcement takes to investigate cases of missing or unidentified people. She could do something.
Coppola began investigating: assembling photos, maps, news articles, and witness statements at the time into a thick blue binder, and looked at what they told her.
She quickly discounted the theory of him being a runaway. To her, this looked like a homicide case. He may have died shortly after he disappeared. He was last seen leaving the store at 7:15 p.m. and then, “he dropped off the face of the earth,” Coppola said.
It’s hard to know whether Frank’s disappearance was part of a pattern of missing children. Reports in the newspapers about kidnappings and missing children weren’t always reliable. Some were reported as runaways. Kidnappers and child killers move around, take their time. “They’re looking, they’re hunting, they’re driving, they’re walking, they have failed attempts,” Coppola said.
She believes Frank could have been hitchhiking and come across the wrong person: maybe one of the hundreds in town for the regatta; maybe a drifter; or a local Frank trusted.
Coppola found one possible solution: He may have already been found, and no one knows it yet.
The police file on Frank’s case is long gone, but after she reached out to Cranston Police Chief Michael J. Winquist, the department entered Frank’s case into the National Crime Information Center, where missing and unidentified persons cases can provide information about the identification of burned, decomposed, and skeletonized remains and other unidentified dead and living persons.
Frank’s case is also entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases throughout the United States.
NamUs has a public database that shows cases of people who are missing and reports of unidentified human remains from each state. It’s not a complete picture, because the database only contains information on people who have been voluntarily reported as missing, unidentified, or unclaimed. Just 13 states mandate using NamUs for missing and/or unidentified persons cases — Rhode Island isn’t one of them.
In the NamUs database, Frank is one of 24 males reported missing in Rhode Island, and there are 25 sets of unidentified human remains from Rhode Island. His case is the oldest by decades.
Adding Frank to the database is a step toward finding him, Coppola said.
“I get the probability of solving this case, but you know what, this kid has a little bit of a chance [of being identified],” Coppola said. “I always say, these people have no voice, so we should be their voice.”
After doing all she could as an investigator, Coppola did something else she’d never done before on any of these cases.
Frank’s parents are buried in peaceful Pawtuxet Memorial Park, but Coppola noticed there was nothing to show he had ever existed. That bothered her.
She told cemetery superintendent Stephen Douglas and memorial counselor Myra Aylward Durfee about Frank and asked if she could pay for a stone to memorialize him, even though she wasn’t family. They’d never received such a request before.
“She took such an interest in him that she captured us,” Durfee said.
The cemetery designed a black granite bench for Frank, with the dates of his birth and disappearance, a sailboat, and the words “Never Forgotten.” They found the perfect spot for the bench, facing the graves of Frank’s parents.
The memorial bench was installed this fall, and recently the grandchildren of Frank’s sister came to visit. “They were very impressed that Gloria did this for someone she didn’t know,” Durfee said.
Coppola hopes to meet them — and persuade them to submit their DNA, in hopes of finding a match that will bring Frank home.
Until then, the bench will serve as a memorial for a long-lost boy.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Coppola said. “He’s got a chance now to be found someday. . . . At least now his friends and his distant family will know he’s not forgotten.”
This story was updated to correct the name of the sheriff’s office that Gloria Coppola is working with.