Police tape at a crime scene

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  • Social media posts from Kansas City locals in September claimed a serial killer was targeting young Black women in the area.
  • In October, a young Black woman escaped a home where she had been held hostage for a month, claiming there were other victims .
  • Timothy Haslett Jr. was arrested and charged with rape, kidnapping, and assault. Police said no reports of a missing person were made prior to the arrest.

On October 7, a 22-year-old Black woman reported to the Excelsior Springs Police Department that she had been abducted and locked up in a basement in Excelsior Springs for nearly a month. The alleged culprit, Timothy Haslett Jr., 39, was arrested later that day on charges of first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, and second-degree assault, according to a complaint filed in Clay County Circuit Court. The woman told neighbors and police that Haslett repeatedly raped and whipped her, and kept her restrained in a small room in his basement. After escaping from the home while Haslett was taking his son to school, the woman said she found refuge with neighbors who heard her calling for help. 

Lisa Johnson said she heard a faint “help me” around 7:35 a.m while she was getting ready. According to NBC News, Johnson spoke with the young woman and offered to call the police, but the woman begged her not to, claiming, “If you call the cops, he’s going to kill us both.” Johnson called anyway, but the young woman had already left. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office probable cause form identifies Lisa Cashatt as the woman who first contacted police.

Ciara Tharp, Haslett’s neighbor, said her grandmother also heard a woman calling for help and allowed her into her home. “She came and knocked on the door, and my grandma opened it, and there was a young Black girl. She didn’t have much on,” Tharp told NBC News. Tharp also said that the woman appeared “pretty weak and hungry.” Tharp’s grandmother provided the woman with food and a blanket before calling the police. 

According to a probable cause statement filed the day of the report, police found the woman with duct tape and a metal dog collar with a padlock around her neck and latex lingerie. 

Police deny rumors of a serial killer

NBC News reported that the young woman told neighbors that there were other victims who did not survive and that she had been held captive since early September. According to the Clay County Investigative Squad, no deceased individuals were found at the home during a search of the property. That same month, a series of social media posts from Kansas City locals claimed a serial killer was targeting young Black girls in the Kansas City area, which at the time, the Kansas City Police Department discredited as “completely unfounded rumors.”

On September 25, the Kansas City Defender, a non-profit newsroom, posted a TikTok of Bishop Tony Caldwell, a local community leader, claiming “there is a serial killer currently on the loose in Kansas City” and that four Black women had been murdered and three others went missing from Prospect Avenue in the last week. Bishop also called out police for being silent about the claims. In a statement provided to Insider, the Kansas City Police Department said: 

“We base our investigations on reports made to our department. There have been no reports made to our department of missing persons, more specifically black women, missing from Prospect Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. In order to begin a missing persons investigation, someone would need to file a report with our department identifying the missing party.”  

The young woman, who is referred to as T.J. in court documents, noted in her report that Haslett picked her up on Prospect Avenue in early September. “That was the description of the guy we were talking about and that was the location we said they were being taken from,” Caldwell told the Defender after Haslett’s arrest. “That’s exactly what we were telling people.” 

“Tony Caldwell made no report to us,” Sergeant Jacob Becchina of KCPD told Insider.

In a statement given to the Defender after the arrest, the Kansas City Police Department maintained that “there was no indication that there was anything that supported that claim.” 

“We share what information we can publicly, many times from the scene, of incidents of violent crimes when there is a report or an investigation underway, there had and has not been anything that corresponded to your reports on social media and the web which is why we refuted that report and said that the claims were unfounded.”

No report, no investigation 

According to a statement provided by the Kansas City Police Department, “to date, we have had no reports of missing Black females from that area.” A statement by Excelsior Springs Police Department suggests the same:

“We have checked with law enforcement agencies in the Kansas City metropolitan area and there are no current missing persons reports which correspond with the evidence examined so far in this investigation.” 

In cases where a report is filed, the Kansas City Police Department forwards the information to its local media outlets and posts the information on its Twitter and Facebook pages. But in this case, the radio silence from police and local outlets could be related to having no report in hand. It begs the question, why didn’t anyone file a missing person report? 

A 2020 PBS NewsHour-NPR-Marist poll revealed two-thirds of Black Americans have little or no confidence in police treating them equally. As a result, Black Americans are less likely to call 911 and file police reports. Ma’Khia Bryant was just 16 years old when she was fatally shot by an officer outside her home after she called Columbus Police Department for help. Tragedies like these, where police have been called for help, but instead resulted in police brutality or death, leads to distrust in the Black community. 

Even in instances where reports are filed, missing Black girls and women are often neglected.

Demonstrators in Washington, D.C. gather in remembrance of the second anniversary of Relisha Rudd's disappearance.Demonstrators in Washington, D.C. gather in remembrance of the second anniversary of Relisha Rudd’s disappearance.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

An invisible crisis 

Cases like the one in Kansas City aren’t uncommon. According to the National Crime Information Center, of the 268,884 girls and women who were reported missing in 2020, nearly 34% of them were Black, despite making up only 15% of the U.S. female population that year. Black girls and women go missing at higher rates than their white counterparts, who made up 59% of the missing population, while accounting for 75% of the overall female population. 

The disparity mimics that of the disproportionate media coverage on missing white girls and women. A 2016 study called “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” found that when Black women go missing, the news coverage is much smaller in comparison with other demographic groups. Additionally, Black children who go missing are often written off as runaways by police investigating their disappearance, directly decreasing the amount of attention these cases receive because “runaways” do not receive Amber alerts. 

“That classification is really critical because typically what happens within the first 48 hours plays a huge part in whether you’re gonna be finding that child safely versus it becoming a recovery mission or unsolved case,” said Ruth Richardson, a state representative in St. Paul Minnesota. Richardson sponsors HF2849, a bill to establish the Office of Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls in the state. Richardson finds that these cases often suffer from little media coverage, dismissal by police, and a lack of access to resources. “Cases of missing and murdered Black women and girls stay open and unsolved four times longer than cases   of other women. It’s data like this that inspired me to do this kind of work,” she said, noting that Minnesota will be the first state in the country to bring attention to the crisis and that it took two legislative sessions to execute the bill. 

Dismissed by mainstream media

A combination of lack of news coverage and dismissive law enforcement puts pressure on the Black community to rectify the crisis of missing Black girls and women, advocates say. “We often have to take up that banner ourselves instead of waiting on white mainstream media to pay attention to us,” said Erika Marie Rivers, the creator of Our Black Girls, a website dedicated to amplifying the stories of missing Black girls. Launched in 2018, the website acts as a database of cases involving missing Black girls and women, dating back as early as 1915. Rivers saw a need for her reporting when she realized most major true crime series didn’t follow the cases of missing Black girls.

Creating a community for the families of victims is the driving force behind Our Black Girls, Rivers said. “I wanted to create a space where I can give space and attention to families, and in cases where there is coverage, I want to make sure that families don’t feel like they’re just being exploited,” she said. In her profiles of missing Black girls and women, Rivers makes it a goal to include details that humanize the victim. “I want these families to feel like someone cares about them and doesn’t just want to talk about the gruesome details about how somebody was kidnapped. I want to talk about what her aspirations were while she was in college or what her favorite TV show or favorite toy was,” Rivers said. 

The practice of shedding light on positive details of a victim is crucial in cases of missing Black girls, for several reasons. A 2017 study conducted by the Georgetown Center of Poverty and Inequality found that adults believe Black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, support, comfort and protection than white girls of the same age. The study also found adults to believe that Black girls are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls. Furthermore, a 2019 study found that adults exhibit less empathy for Black girls than their white counterparts.

Waiting for answers 

In cases of missing Black girls, the parents are often subjected to being treated as criminals or vilified.

Isha Miller was just nine years old in September 1986 when her mother dropped her off at school and she never saw her again. Her mother, Myrtle Anne Hudson, was kidnapped and murdered by serial killer Tommy Lee Stewart, along with Miller’s 19-year-old sister, Willette Jeanice Hudson. It took 22 years for Miller’s family to get answers.

At the time of reporting the murders to the police, Miller said she felt hopeless. “They wanted so badly to pin it on my dad, but they couldn’t, so they didn’t search for anyone,” she told Insider. It wasn’t until 2008 that Stewart was linked to the case.

The criminalization of Miller’s father is an example of flaws in the investigation process of cases involving missing Black girls and women, even three decades later. Even with advanced technology, modern DNA testing, and social media platforms to spread information, the cases of missing girls and women are still largely neglected.

“This is often why people don’t go to the police, because they fear that they will then end up in the system,” Feminista Jones, a host of Black Girl Missing podcast, told Insider. “We had a case where a 4-year-old went missing and the cops cared more about the mother and her so-called food stamp fraud than they did about finding this girl. And so this woman was arrested and put in jail while her daughter was missing.” Jones and her co-hosts Asa Todd and Niki Irene first launched the podcast in 2020, after noticing most true crime podcasts didn’t include cases of missing Black girls. Since the launch, Jones says the hardest part of producing the podcast is finding information. “So much of what we find are Facebook posts made by the family members, unverified sources, or a small news piece from local media that didn’t really take off. It’s a lot of digging around.” It becomes even harder to find information on older cases before the Internet, Jones said. 

Amplifying these cases becomes more important than ever in ensuring that they are given necessary attention by law enforcement. As Miller said: “This stuff affects everyone. Communities are destroyed, and as a community, we speak out, but nobody hears us. We’re yelling silence.”

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