WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Trudging through woods, peering under rocks or overgrown weeds does not bother Monica Caison. She's done it too many times to remember, from one coast to the other, and in dozens of states in-between. Her targets often cannot speak up, wave their hands or send up a flare. Most are no longer alive. They are victims of violence, taken from loved ones and discarded where the killer hopes no one will ever find them.
"To do missing persons work, I go in expecting nothing, giving all, and just trying to do the best I can for these people and hope that in some small way, my contribution or the organization has made a difference in their journey," Caison said.
Caison's found her place in the world of missing persons after a 1993 meeting in Wilmington with Karen Brown. Brown had her own advocacy group, the Non-Profit for Public Safety and Awareness, and was working on an event to benefit efforts to find missing children. Caison had experience with events like Azalea Festival and Riverfest. Ironically, Caison at the time had volunteered to mentor a group of teenagers that entered a fundraising contest and needed a charity. Little did Caison know, it would be a sign of things to come, as she talks about at 21:00 of the podcast.
I said, 'let's do missing kids, no one cares about that'," Caison says with a chuckle. "I don't know why I said that. Everybody's going to do cancer. Everybody's going to do AIDS. Everybody's going to do whatever. We'll kind of stand out."
After their meeting, Brown encouraged Caison to become the leader in advocating for missing children. She suggested starting a non-profit organization, and Community United Effort was born in 1994. Dubbed CUE by the media, it began more as a support organization for families of missing persons. Caison knew first-hand the heartache of having someone close disappear. As a teenager in St. Petersburg, Florida, she watched as a community searched for Melinda Harder, who had gone missing July 27, 1980.
The Melinda Harder case went unsolved for decades until Caison made a trip back to her hometown. A series of events led her to re-examine the case. She talks about it at the start of the interview.
"It was in 2005, I was featured in People magazine and I went home to visit everyone," she recalls. "I was stopped by this one police officer, his daughter was one of our good friends. She had me sign the People magazine and we started talking about the old days. She said 'I don't understand why you won't help Melinda's case'. I said 'I can't bring myself to ask Miss Joan (Melinda's mother) about it. I don't know if nobody talks about it anymore'. She got on the phone right there and called Miss Joan."
Miss Joan said she had waited years for someone to ask about her daughter's disappearance. Caison got to work, immersing herself in paperwork and records. She got the case file. She talked to a retired police officer who provided more information. The case was re-opened. An age progression of what Melinda may have looked like jarred the memory of a detective, who said it resembled a "Jane Doe" found years earlier who could not be identified. Thanks to Monica Caison's determination, 28 years after she disappeared, family and friends had the answer about what happened to Melinda Harder.
"Eight years after Melinda was murdered, her body was recovered in a place that we were hanging out at the time, not even knowing they were recovering her," she says.
The Melinda Harder story is one chapter in the Monica Caison's troubled childhood. Her parents divorced, resulting in what Caison called a "nasty custody battle". She says life got difficult for her and the youngest of the ten siblings. She touches on the subject at 11:15 of the podcast.
Caison hitchhiked to Wilmington at the age of 16, to "rescue" her youngest brother and sister. She came back for good years later, and at 22 she married Samuel. Together they have raised five children, who did not know much about their mom's difficult background until a July 2007 article in Reader's Digest.
By then CUE has established itself as an asset in searching for missing persons. At the start, they were treated as outsiders by law enforcement. Caison says they would get cases involving runaways.
"I remember this one detective saying 'why are you out searching for missing people, aren't you like a soccer mom?' I said, 'I don't like soccer, doll!' He kind of gave me a dirty look, but we became very dear friends over all the years, and I consider him a best friend at this point."
The landmark case for CUE came in 2008, when Margaret "Peggy" Carr was abducted from a shopping center parking lot along Oleander Drive in Wilmington. Peggy Carr had a lot of friends in Wilmington, and they immediately asked Caison to help. Carr's mother, Penny Carr-Britton, came to Wilmington and spent weeks helping to search for her daughter. News stations in her home state picked up on the story, heightening efforts to find the missing woman. Caison describes the events starting at 31:00 of the podcast.
WECT has covered many of the cases CUE has worked in its' 24 years of existence. We have done profiles of Monica Caison and her efforts not only to find missing persons, but to comfort families and raise awareness of the need to mobilize assets quickly when new cases arise. She has done with without ever receiving a paycheck. I have personally worked alongside Monica and her volunteers as they have conducted searches and organized vigils for the adults and children who have never returned home. I have spoken with families who shower her with praise for answering the question 'what happened?'. Here are just a few:
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