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Police hope to solve case by channeling missing girl online

🕐 5 min read

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — On Sunday, Sept. 17, 25 years after her disappearance, Misty Copsey will speak — in spirit.

“My name is Misty Copsey,” she will say. “I am missing and I need your help.”

In a double-barrelled social media push, the Puyallup Police Department will devote its Facebook and Twitter feeds to the 14-year-old who vanished after a visit to the Puyallup Fair in 1992. The twin feeds will be hers and hers alone for the entire day.

“As people wake up that morning, Misty will begin talking,” Capt. Scott Engle said. “It’s her face, her voice, her story.”

Using memories and photos provided by Misty’s family, department leaders have written social media posts in the teen’s voice that start with a short portrait of her early life before describing the night of her disappearance.

Officials hope the effort will reach beyond the local area and yield tips that might solve one of the department’s oldest unsolved cases.

“We hope people will hear Misty through our feed, and bring attention to her disappearance,” Engle said. “Hopefully, that leads to further information and tips for our case.”

The idea came to Engle during a recent law enforcement conference in California, he said. Speakers at the conference included a law enforcement contingent from Manitoba, where local police were trying to solve the case of a young woman who was abducted and killed.

By pushing information out through Twitter and Facebook, investigators gained attention beyond the Canadian province, Engle said. Eventually, the case was solved.

While Engle can’t say the publicity push was the clincher, it provided useful information. He added that police in Miami recently deployed a similar strategy.

Puyallup’s attempt would represent only the third effort in North America to “personalize” law enforcement social media feeds using the victim’s voice.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity,” Engle said. “Obviously we needed the family’s help.”

That meant working with Misty’s mother, Diana Smith.

Her relationship with the department has been rocky over the years. In 1992, police decided Misty was a runaway, and lost the chance to pursue angles when they were fresh. Smith has never forgiven the department for that — but she said the new social media effort can’t hurt.

“It’s nice and stuff,” she said Thursday. “I think the hope in her case is for somebody to come forward.”

The News Tribune has written about Misty’s case many times over the years.

In 2009, a three-part series examined records of the investigation in detail, noting loose ends and lost opportunities. Police rebooted the case, seeking witnesses and suspects and conducting new interviews as well as polygraph tests.

Those inquiries yielded additional information and forensic detail, but no resolution. In 2010 and 2011, police searched the grounds of a 40-acre farm in Buckley, following up on an unexplored angle. Again, the results were barren.

The night Misty disappeared was a Thursday. She and her best friend Trina went to the fair by themselves, dropped off by Smith.

They left the fairgrounds around 8:30 p.m. Misty planned to catch a bus from Puyallup back to her home in Spanaway, but she missed it. About 8:45 p.m., she called her mother in a slight panic, and said she would try to get a ride home with a friend. At that point, Misty and Trina parted.

After that, details begin to blur. A Pierce Transit bus driver saw Misty briefly at 9:20 p.m. He told the girl his route didn’t go to Spanaway and recalled Misty walking away, downcast.

Two more possible but unconfirmed sightings from that night suggested she began walking south on Meridian, the main drag through Puyallup that abuts the fairgrounds.

One vague tip forwarded to police 24 years ago from a News Tribune reporter came from a man who worked in Alaska from time to time. He said he saw someone who looked like Misty getting into a yellow car linked to a convicted sex offender. Police pursued the tip as far as they could take it, but found no supporting evidence.

At the time of Misty’s disappearance, multiple serial killers roamed Pierce and King counties, including Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who had not been identified at the time. Ridgway, questioned after his arrest in 2001, denied taking any victims from Pierce County.

Other potential suspects appear in the Copsey case file, but police have no solid evidence beyond supposition.

The problem remains what it’s always been: no remains, no physical evidence to examine.

Engle and Detective Sgt. Jason Visnaw expect tips to emerge from the latest push, and they expect some will be familiar. With that in mind, they’re trying to avoid pointing to any specific suspects.

“We’ll evaluate some tips way more quickly than others,” Engle said. “But we don’t want to steer it right off the bat. We don’t want to put a filter or a tinge on it that might stop someone from calling us. We don’t want to inhibit any of that.”

Cold cases aren’t easy. In the social media script, Misty’s last words are, “To this day, I’ve never been found.”

But Engle and Visnaw, allowing a little superstition into their thinking, noticed that Color Me Badd, Misty’s favorite R&B boy band from the 1990s, will play the fairgrounds this year, just as they did in 1992.

“The irony of that,” Engle said. “It’s just like OK, come on, the stars are aligning. Let’s hope. We know that somebody out there knows something.”

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