Jones Maurice Martin was 22 when he sat down with his mother. He told her he would be leaving Moss Point to do some traveling.
That was in September of 1986. Mamie Gayle hasn’t seen or heard from her son in more than three decades.
She dreams about him often. In her dreams, he’s happy and healthy and has a family of his own — somewhere in Louisiana, because he loved the water.
“I believe in my heart that he’s still alive,” the 83-year-old Moss Point resident said. “...You pray every night that he returns.”
In reality, there’s no knowing what happened to Martin.
He is among 117 people in the National Unidentified Persons System who were reported missing from Mississippi. NAMUS is a database funded and administered by the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Though Martin’s family reported him missing to local law enforcement decades ago, they didn’t realize that he was not registered in NAMUS until 2017, about 10 years after the creation of the database. That means photos of Martin and details about his disappearance weren’t readily available online until recently.
In cases like Martin’s, public awareness can make the difference between a cold case staying cold or getting solved.
Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga, who specializes in investigating cold cases, said there’s no knowing how many people have gone missing from Mississippi. Unlike some other states, the Magnolia State does not require law enforcement officers to register missing person cases to NAMUS. Versiga believes there could be 100,000 people who have gone missing in Mississippi in the past 20 years.
This year, a state legislator introduced a bill to require law enforcement to make an entry in NAMUS for every missing person that gets reported to them. It’s unlikely that the bill will be passed this time around, but Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, said he will be bringing it up again next session.
“I think the upside is tremendous and there’s no downside,” Zuber said. “We can bring closure and a sense of finality to families of missing persons.”
‘We still love and miss him’
Jeremiah Gayle was 9 or 10 when his brother went missing.
At every milestone of Jeremiah Gayle’s life — when he graduated high school, when he joined the military — he wishes Martin could have been there.
“Trying to make him proud was a big thing for me,” he said.
Martin encouraged his younger brother to start lifting weights. Working out was one of his biggest passions.
“He had a physique that you see in magazines,” Jeremiah Gayle said. “Muscles everywhere, an eight-pack and everything.”
Martin’s father died when he was a teen. He became reclusive and stayed in his room to draw. He spent some time at a mental hospital, his mother said. “He was so devastated by his daddy dying.”
Later, when he was in high school, an older sister, who was a “mother figure” to Martin, died suddenly of a ruptured appendix.
“He never did recover from it or learn how to deal with it,” Jeremiah Gayle said.
Martin was quiet, self-sufficient and didn’t like socializing with others.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising to his family that he wanted to go off on his own, his brother said.
Mamie Gayle, aware of her son’s struggles with mental health, grew increasingly concerned as months went by with no communication from him. About a year after she last saw him, she notified the police.
“I’m sure they did all they could around here (to find him),” she said. Law enforcement’s efforts were unsuccessful.
It wasn’t until 2017 that someone noticed Martin was not listed in the national database of missing persons.
Jeremiah Gayle’s girlfriend mentioned to a coworker that her boyfriend’s brother had been missing since the 1980s. That coworker, Samantha Bignell, is no stranger to missing person cases. She’s part of an online community of “web sleuths” who are dedicated to finding answers to cases like Martin’s.
Bignell checked NAMUS and saw there was no entry for Martin. She helped the family put his details online.
Martin’s NAMUS entry lists him at 5 feet, 10 inches or 6 feet tall, with brown eyes and black hair that he wore in a “small afro.” In his photos, he wears a shy smile.
NAMUS also provides contact information for the investigating agencies, in this case, the Pascagoula and Moss Point police departments.
So far, no new leads have turned up for Martin’s family. Jeremiah Gayle is thankful nonetheless.
Bignell’s help brought his brother to “national awareness,” he said. Now anyone with internet access can find out that Martin’s family is looking for him.
Jeremiah Gayle said he would support a law making it mandatory to report missing people to NAMUS because it could help families like his.
The family hopes that if Martin is alive, he’ll get their message: “Just let him know that we still love and miss him, that’s enough.”
A few months ago, Bignell approached Zuber urging him to introduce a bill to require all law enforcement officers to register missing person cases with NAMUS.
To the lawmaker it sounded like a good idea. Registering cases on NAMUS is a “relatively simple process,” Zuber said, with the potential to make a big difference to families who have had a relative go missing.
“My God, can you imagine what it’s like to not know what happened to your loved one?” Zuber said. “That must just be a horrific way to live life.”
Several other states, including Tennessee and Michigan, have similar laws in place, Zuber said.
To his knowledge, this is the first time a proposal of this sort has been introduced to the Mississippi Legislature.
Currently, the bill is dead in committee, meaning there’s little to no chance it will be passed this session, he said. Zuber plans to bring it up again next year “in a more timely fashion with a more organized and concerted effort.”
Versiga, who is working with Bignell on the push for making use of NAMUS a requirement for law enforcement, said the database is a useful resource for officers when they find an unidentified body.
“If there’s no report of a person missing, it’ll go unsolved,” he said.
Critics may say required use of NAMUS would be “a waste of time, waste of taxpayer money,” according to Versiga. They could argue that the vast majority of people who are reported missing are found quickly and that the database could become cluttered with “missing” people who have already been located, he said.
There are ways to address those concerns, Versiga said. Lawmakers could consider allowing for a certain amount of time to pass before a missing person case is entered into NAMUS, Versiga said. It would also be prudent to require officers to update the database when a person has been found, he said.
The unidentified persons database and the missing persons database were launched separately in 2007 and 2008. Then, in 2009, the two systems were connected, according to NAMUS’s website.
More than 600,000 people go missing in the country every year, the website said. Of those, tens of thousands of people remain missing for more than a year. An estimated 4,400 unidentified bodies are found annually. About 1,000 of those bodies remain without a name after a year.
Read more at ClarionLedger.com