Seven years ago, Hugh Turner, an 85-year-old winter visitor from Canada, went for his daily walk in northeast Mesa on Christmas Eve.
Turner was a fit and vital man, working out three days a week, playing golf a couple of times a week.
His family saw no sign of what would happen next.
Turner never came back.
He still hasn’t been found, frustrating thousands of volunteers who’ve looked for him.
His grieving family, robbed of closure through a memorial service or a burial, released balloons in remembrance a year after his disappearance.
Turner, who is 92 if – against all odds – he is alive today, is not the only person in the East Valley who left without a trace.
Arizona has 1,507 missing people, according to a national website. East Valley police field hundreds of missing-person reports each year, mostly runaways and people suffering from dementia.
Others voluntarily disappear, choosing to have no contact with family members who report them missing.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, police from the East Valley and throughout Maricopa County will be at Arizona State University West’s campus in Glendale to hold an annual effort aimed at trying to find some of those missing people.
Family members who can’t find a loved one will have an opportunity to report someone missing, submit a new report or provide a DNA sample from their loved one.
DNA is a powerful form of evidence that may not have been widely used when a relative disappeared a decade or more ago, said Sgt. Vince Lewis, a Phoenix Police spokesman.
Lewis said eight cases have been cleared since the approach was first used two years ago.
Tempe police credit a DNA sample provided by a relative at Missing in Arizona Day with providing critical evidence that helped them identify a homeless man found dead a couple of years earlier.
The event includes a support group for the families of missing people and a candlelight vigil.
Police suspect a strong connection between Arizona’s 1,500 missing persons reported and the 1,400 unidentified remains. Those remains are among an estimated 40,000 unidentified remains on record nationwide, Lewis said.
“Having a missing person in your life, it’s a terrible and unique club no one wants to belong to,” he said.
Missing kids get priority
The smallest and most unusual category of missing persons involves abductions of small children, especially by strangers.
That’s when the Arizona Child Abduction Response Team, coordinated this year by Tempe police, conducts a massive and immediate search in hopes of saving a child’s life. All major East Valley police agencies participate.
“People who abduct a child, the percentage of them killing that child in one to three hours is very high,” Tempe police Commander Kim Hale said.
Cases involving children 13 years old and younger get the top priority.
Tempe Sgt. Trent Luckow, who supervises homicide and missing-person investigations, said “it’s always the clock. It’s a race against time. All investigators understand that.
“With vulnerable people like children, the clock tends to tick a little faster,” he said.
Mesa police called out the team on Sept. 29 when an 8-year-old girl went missing after school. A team of 125 officers from Mesa and other cities quickly joined the search and a bulletin was issued.
It turned out the girl hatched a plan to run away with a friend, who backed out.
She ended up sleeping overnight near some shrubs close to Hawthorne Elementary School and was found the next morning, said longtime Mesa police missing persons investigator Laura Colón.
“That’s the best possible outcome,” Colón said. “It makes the 15 hours of work worth it.”
Police find most people who are reported missing, including children who run away multiple times or merely do not return home after a miscommunication with their parents.
But there are tragic exceptions – cases that haunt families and investigators who search for decades.
They simply have vanished with no trail that police can follow, such as pings off a cellphone tower or use of an ATM card.
Chandler Police Lt. Gary Minor, a former missing person investigator, estimated that Chandler receives 400-600 missing person reports a year.
“I’d say the vast majority of them are recovered by patrol officers,” Minor said. “It’s very rare when you have a stranger abduction, but they do happen.”
Dozens in local police files
Colón said there were 58 open cases, including cold cases, as of early August. Mesa police had taken reports about 185 missing adults and 525 missing juveniles.
In Ahwatukee, Phoenix police received 15 missing person or missing adults calls between August 2016 and August 2017. Some were solved quickly, but four resulted in missing person reports and five resulted in missing juvenile reports, Lewis said.
Steve Turner, an attorney in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, has been waiting for a breakthrough in his father’s disappearance since the day he vanished from northeast Mesa’s Red Mountain Ranch neighborhood.
He noticed no signs of dementia in his dad, but Colón said Hugh Turner had attended a Christmas party and asked a woman, “Where am I?”
Colón recently “flagged” the gold ring with his initials on that it Turner was wearing in a photograph, hoping that someone might have found it, or that it might have turned up at a pawn shop.
The ring would be the first tangible link to Turner since his disappearance, with various shoes and clothing items ruled out in the past.
“Everybody pictures their parents passing away at some time. You might think you would have some last conversation with them and say goodbye,” Steve Turner said. “It’s just not the normal cycle of life. It leaves a bit of an empty space.”
All Turner and his family would like is an answer to the nagging question that his mother, Joyce, Hugh’s wife of 50 years, would ask Steve every so often.
“She feels very lonely,” Turner said about his 89-year-old mother. “I’d sit down with Mom and she would say, ‘What do you think happened to Dad?’”
He said he would never have an answer and still doesn’t. He is somewhat relieved his mom doesn’t ask him that question anymore, but he knows she is hurting inside.
“Maybe someone will dig down in their conscience,” he said. “At this point, I have no desire to bring anyone to justice. All I would like is an answer to what happened.”
A mom goes missing
Lisa Moore of Chandler has similar feelings, breaking down in tears when asked if she thinks her mother, Evelyn “Cindy” Guido, 60, is still alive.
Just like Turner, Moore has lots of questions and no answers five months after her mother vanished without a trace from her Gilbert home in April.
Moore appeared on television in an appeal for tips to help the Gilbert police find her mother, who was facing surgery to repair a hole in her heart the following week. Now, it’s Moore who has a broken heart.
“I don’t think it was a matter where she got scared and took off,” Moore said, noting that her mom had a long history of illness and had undergone many other surgeries.
“I am very hopeful that she is alive, but I don’t think she is,” Moore said. “When she went missing, I knew something was wrong.”
Moore said her mother did not own a car and didn’t know how to drive. She left behind her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Yorker, making her disappearance completely out of character and difficult to understand.
“She had no reason to leave and not tell anyone, especially me,” Moore said.
Colón looks at her job as her mission in life. She describes how she tracked a suicidal woman with three children and intervened before the woman carried out a plan to take her own life.
She has tracked people with dementia, describing the case of a 67-year-old man from Prescott Valley who went missing after his discharge from a Mesa hospital.
Eventually, a California officer found the disoriented man in a hotel room near Bakersfield, where he once lived. The lost man told police he was looking for his dog.
Colón has found missing children hiding behind cars parked on a street. She used Facebook to track down a missing teenage boy when he showed up for football practice.
“We take every case seriously, even a 16-year-old who ran way three times,” Colón said, noting that she believes two missing teenage girls in her caseload may have fallen victim to human trafficking.
In all, Colón has found more than 4,700 missing people, either alive or dead, during her 10½-year career as a missing person investigator.
“It stays in my heart that I have the ability to help people, and I use it to the fullest extent possible,” Colón said.
But Colón, like most good investigators, is bothered by the relatively few cases in which she did not find someone, despite her best efforts. She knows her work is highly appreciated.
In one training exercise, a group of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office volunteers did yet another search for Hugh Turner. Steve Turner brought doughnuts to the command post and thanked the volunteers for not forgetting his father.
“This is somebody’s husband. This is somebody’s grandfather. This is what drives me,” Colón said. “All the time, I never lose hope.”
But Colón also is a realist. She knows the odds of an 85-year-old man, reported missing on Dec. 24, 2010, still being alive are not very high.
“That would give me such joy, if I could find Mr. Turner or what happened to him,” Colón said. “I’m not hopeful of finding him alive, but I’m not giving up.”