The gusty winds along the Cedar River in downtown Waterloo on August 1 may have challenged the lighting of candles at a vigil held for the families of missing Iowa children, but it could not extinguish the sense of hope and determination that pervaded the gathering of some 200 concerned community members. While the vigil focused on providing support for the families of missing La Porte City teen, Jake Wilson, who has been gone for more than 120 days, and Mollie Tibbets, who disappeared three weeks ago from Brooklyn, it also served as a rallying cry for ways people can do a better job helping keep children safe.
Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart welcomed those in attendance, saying, “In tough times, communities stand with one another.”
“When our children are not safe to walk the streets in La Porte City or jog the roads of Brooklyn, then our children are not safe in any community, no matter the size or location,” he added.
Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hart touched on a recurring theme that would prevail throughout the evening- finding justice for children victimized by violent crime.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he quoted.
Amanda Goodman, the Executive Director for Family and Children’s Council in Waterloo was the next speaker. She acknowledged and thanked the police chiefs of the neighboring communities, including La Porte City’s Chris Brecher, who were present in solidarity as a reminder they stand ready to do whatever they can to protect families in the communities they serve. She also stressed the effort to bring kids home will require urgency and determination.
“115 days ago, Jake Wilson left his house to go for a walk and he never came back. For 115 days, his family has not seen his smile. For 115 days, his family has not hear his voice. For 115 days, his family hasn’t felt his hug. For 115 days, his chair has been empty at the dinner table. For 115 days, his bed has not been slept in. For 115 days, his family has wondered. Is he hurt? Is he scared? Is he hungry? Is he crying? 115 days.”
“Share his picture,” she proclaimed.
“Say his name over and over. Be relentless.”
Goodman also announced the formation of new coalition. With the help of La Porte City’s Knox Blocks and Sing Me to Heaven foundations, Goodman said the mission of Safe Kids Cedar Valley, which will include childcare resource and referral, will be “to keep children safe from the moment they come into this world.”
Morgan Collum, former Union High School student and cousin of missing 20 year old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, was the next speaker.
“The last two weeks have been really difficult. You wake up and look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, ‘How am I going to get through this day? What am I going to do to get through this day? How am I going to help bring Mollie home?’”
Collum credited the family’s faith for giving them the strength to continue believing that Mollie will get home.
“My community I come from has been unreal, amazing. My family and I cannot say thanks enough to them. The way this state has come together to share Mollie’s story makes me so incredibly proud [to be from Iowa],” she said.
Heather and Drew Collins, whose daughter, Elizabeth, and niece Lyric Cook-Morrissey were abducted and murdered six summers ago, spoke next.
“It’s been a hard six years, to say the least. When I heard Jake went missing, my gut just… sank. And anytime I see something posted on Facebook [about missing kids], I get anxious and I go right back to when Elizabeth was missing- the day I went to look for her and I could not find her, the day Drew sent me a picture of her purse thrown over a fence… I go straight back to that every time. And it’s never stopped. It’s still a nightmare every day I wake up,” Heather Collins said.
Drew Collins thanked Bryce Lippert, credited with starting a local chapter of Crimestoppers following the abduction of the girls in Evansdale. Each year, the annual Ride and Drive fundraiser held in memory of Elizabeth and Lyric, donates half the proceeds to Crimestoppers. Calling Lippert forward, Collins then presented a check to Lippert in excess of $9,000.
“This money will go directly to taking these people off the streets. But we need to keep them off the streets. So many times these people get out of prison when they shouldn’t and we need to do something about it. We need to come together as a community, as Iowans, and say ‘Enough is enough,’” Collins said.
After accepting the donation, Lippert explained how the money is used by Crimestoppers. At last weekend’s Iowa Irish Fest in Waterloo, for example, free DNA kits were distributed to parents so their children’s DNA sample could be taken and stored in a safe place. In the coming weeks, the organization will have 1,000 kits available to distribute.
“I hope and I pray to God we wasted all that money. I hope those 1,000 kits are never touched, never analyzed, they’re never needed,” Lippert told the crowd.
Dan Trelka, Waterloo Chief of Police, quoting statistics from the FBI, noted that nearly half a million children in the United States were reported missing in 2017. While many of these children were runaways who were returned safely home within a week, Trelka said, “The life changing hazards of living on the street are very high for those who cannot return home, because they have no home to go to, or they have become victims of prostitution or drug selling.”
Trelka noted another substantial portion of abductions are carried out by non-custodial parents. For the remaining perpetrators, who, as strangers, commit crimes against a children they do not know or have not previously met, Waterloo’s police chief had three declarations to address how communities can do a better job keeping their children safe.
The first was vigilance. Pay attention to your surroundings and to those around you, he said. He also encouraged people to use the technology many have in their hands when they see something that doesn’t look quite right.
“You don’t necessarily need to call us. But get your face out of that cell phone and take a photo of that car, that license plate or that person. It may be a significant piece of evidence for us if something were to later happen,” he explained.
His second declaration affirmed law enforcement’s commitment to missing children, saying they will never be forgotten and the search for them will continue until they are found.
Trelka’s third point was directed to child predators, saying “We will hunt you down to the ends of earth. We will hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
State Senator Jeff Danielson’s message echoed support for the families, briefly outlined some of the progress being made by the state legislature in the area of child safety and called for an enhanced amber alert system to boost response efforts in child abduction cases.
The final speaker of the evening was Rev. Cathy Young, who cited 2017 General Social Survey national statistics that indicate only 20% of Americans regularly spend time with their neighbors. One-third have never interacted with their neighbors at all.
“They don’t even say hello,” Young stated.
She encouraged Waterloo citizens to take advantage of the neighborhood associations and begin conversing and building relationships with those around them.
“We are robbing ourselves of the central component of helping communities,” she declared.
“I so believe in the power of prayer, but I also know we have to roll up our sleeves and work. We HAVE to make our communities and our state safer for young people.”
“Young concluded by inviting everyone to join in the effort to “link hearts and arms and forces so we can make the Cedar Valley a safer place for children.”