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Missing brother leaves sister wondering what happened

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Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010 12:00 am

For most people the loss of a loved one is a horrific tragedy. But for Stephanie McNeil, what is worse is not knowing what happened to her big brother, John Spira, who disappeared Feb. 23, 2007.

“It’s torture. It’s serious torture. Every day I think about him,” said McNeil, who with her husband and children, has lived in Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 12 years.

And she isn’t the only one left in limbo, unsure of what happened to a loved one. Each day in the United States 2,500 people are reported missing.

And since 2004, more than 40,000 sets of unidentified remains have been collected by medical examiners across the country, awaiting identification so that the next of kin can be informed.

While some high-profile cases do make the nightly news, the stories usually are about young women, McNeil said.

“There are thousands of missing men, and they get no attention, no resources,” she said.

After three years, her brother’s case will get some national publicity when the Discovery Channel’s Investigation Discovery does a segment March 15 in which it will outline the strange case of Spira and the circumstances of his disappearance.

McNeil is certain that her brother met with foul play: He had a $500,000 life insurance policy and Google stock that she thinks is worth “millions.”

Spira was last seen at his office by his business partner, she said. Less than an hour later he didn’t appear for dinner with some friends and by 11 p.m. that evening his phone, which wasn’t used, was turned off or the battery died.

The next night he didn’t appear at a blues club where he was supposed to play and then his estranged wife was finally convinced by Spira’s girlfriend to make a missing person’s report.

His truck was found parked at his office, and it appears that nothing was missing or taken. But there were no physical clues for police who, according to McNeil, didn’t believe that foul play was involved.

“They made up their minds that he did it voluntarily,” McNeil said. “He didn’t take anything. I know something bad happened.”

But the local police in Illinois at one point told her that he was probably in Tahiti getting drunk, and “that just made me so mad,” McNeil said.

Messages left for Maj. Mark Edwalds of the DuPage County Sheriffs Department were not answered by press time.

Missing person cases are tough, according to police.

“It’s not a crime to walk away from your life,” said Sgt. Tommy Thompson of the Phoenix Police Department.

And with limited resources, all law enforcement agencies have to prioritize their response to a report of a missing person, to separate those who walk voluntarily from those who are abducted or taken against their will.

“If a 2-year-old is missing, we jump on it,” Thompson said.

But if the case appears to be one where someone has run away, they will wait longer, hoping the situation evolves and the missing person simply returns home.

A bill making its way through Congress would help coordinate information on missing people by linking the existing U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Person System database, or NamUs, the only federal missing persons and unidentified remains database accessible to the public, with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.

“A family that has lost a loved one to violent crime is forced to bear a terrible burden,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) the bill’s co-sponsor, during testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. “This burden is made even worse when the family is not able to determine what exactly happened to their loved one.”

McNeil’s hopes are resting on the Discovery Channel show to get the word out and hopefully generate some clues as to what happened to her brother.

She keeps his story alive, with a Web site and by continuing to push law enforcement agencies.

“Hopefully (the Discovery show) will kick start something,” McNeil said.

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