With little guidance, families of missing people in Juneau search on their own

Dozens of people showed up to a vigil for Juneau man Doug Farnsworth on Oct. 27, 2021, in Juneau. Farnsworth disappeared in late September and had been missing for a month. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Last year, five people went missing in Juneau — more than in any year since 2016, according to data from Juneau police.

And some families said they had a hard time figuring out when to rely on law enforcement agencies for help or when it was time to step in and search for themselves. 

When Kiersten Farnsworth’s little brother Doug Farnsworth went dark on social media last fall, she said she knew immediately that something was wrong. 

But she lives in Arizona, so she had to call attention to the case from several states away.  

She emailed Juneau police multiple times to post on their Facebook page that he was missing. In her third email, on Oct. 1, she wrote, “I beg JPD to post a missing person on Facebook.” 

After the third email, the police department posted that he was missing on its Facebook page and assigned a detective to the case. 

“If you don’t know how to verbalize and call and be aggressive like that, then it’s really easy to be overlooked or not informed,” Farnsworth said.

After that, Doug’s aunt, Anna LaRue, found the truck he was driving in a wooded area near town. Then there was a coordinated search with the Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers, Juneau Police and the local search dog group SEADOGS.

But they didn’t find him. 

Those searches didn’t happen until a few days after Farnsworth reported her brother missing. And Marcy Larson with SEADOGS said that they should be contacted within 48 hours for the dogs to be able to pick up a scent. After that, it’s harder to track. 

Farnsworth says time is of the essence, and she wishes her brother’s missing person case had been acted on right away.

“You have to immediately get smells, immediately get videotapes, immediately get everything, because tapes get lost, things get recorded over and smells go away.”

‘Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have anything going for us’

After the active search was called off, Farnsworth said it fell to her to keep the search going. 

She went knocking on doors, asked people for security camera footage, reached out to her tribe Tlingit and Haida and organized a vigil for him

And she created a Facebook group specifically to help find her brother. It was a place for people to share where they have searched and to organize search parties for him. 

She came up to Juneau to search for him at first, but eventually had to go back to Arizona, so Facebook was crucial for her to keep people searching for him. 

“Without the community and without Facebook, we wouldn’t have anything going for us,” Farnsworth said.

After her brother was found, Farnsworth converted the Facebook group she created to help find other missing people in Juneau.

Last year, Facebook played a big role in community efforts to find missing people, especially for families that don’t live in Juneau.

Preston Nelson’s grandmother Geraldine Nelson was the first person to go missing last year. He said his family used Juneau Community Collective — a large community Facebook group — to ask for help finding her. 

After the search for his grandmother was over, Preston Nelson started asking questions about how people find out about missing people in Juneau.  

‘Why did they give up?’

When he thought about the other missing persons cases last year, Preston Nelson thought the amount of effort to find each person was different. 

“One thing [that] has been bothering me about all these people that go missing is, they gave up after a couple of days,” Nelson said. “And the question I’ve been asking myself for a few weeks now is, ‘Why did they spend five days looking for my grandmother?’ They searched multiple different spots the first few days but they kept searching.” 

He said he didn’t see that same kind of effort from law enforcement on other missing person’s cases in Juneau. 

“Why did they give up on these other cases?” he said.

The answers to those questions — about who gets searched for and when — are complicated. 

Alaska State Troopers are mandated by state law to lead search and rescue efforts in the state. 

But each search is different, and there isn’t a standard length of time that they’ll spend looking for someone. 

In a written statement, Trooper Search and Rescue Coordinator Lt. Paul Fussey said they factor in things like weather, geography, what kind of gear they have and the experience of the searchers themselves to decide when and how to search for someone who is missing. 

He wrote that they also rely on the guidance of local search-and-rescue partners when making decisions about searches. 

In Juneau, those organizations are SEADOGS and Juneau Mountain Rescue. Both organizations said they rely on the Troopers to make a decision on when to actively search for someone. 

And when that active search is over and a person isn’t found, Troopers turn the case over to Juneau police. 

Juneau police Lt. Krag Campbell said local police don’t help with ground searches in the woods because they aren’t trained for that kind of search and rescue.

But he said they will search for missing people in neighborhoods and do other investigative things, like looking at phone records and interviewing people. 

Juneau police will also post a missing person on its Facebook page, but usually not right away. 

“So there’s kind of a balance that we put in there to try to make some reasonable attempts to locate the person first,” Campbell said.

Campbell said if police aren’t able to find the person, then they will post to social media and ask people with any information about the missing person to call the police. If they don’t get any hits from that, then they will put out a press release. 

Searching falls to friends and family

While police will investigate a missing persons case, Campbell said they don’t organize search parties.

That means some of the searching falls on family and friends. Campbell said he doesn’t know of any resources to help with that. 

“If there was a group, like maybe a nonprofit group that was through donations and community volunteers, that would step in and help with searches and organizing… That might be something that’s very beneficial,” Campbell said. 

After her experience trying to get help finding her brother, Farnsworth said there needs to be more resources for family and friends of a missing person. 

She said she wants police to include resources in the packet people fill out when they report that a person is missing.  

But she also thinks there could be a separate guide for friends and family when someone goes missing in Juneau. 

“And then maybe possibly start offering a support group at this point,” Farnsworth said. “Because there’s a lot of people missing there for how small we are.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about the person who found Doug Farnsworth’s truck when he disappeared. 

Lyndsey Brollini

Local News Reporter

I bring voices to my stories that have been historically underserved and underrepresented in news. I look at stories through a solutions-focused lens with a goal to benefit the community of Juneau and the state of Alaska.

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