When a loved one goes missing abroad
JP Grealis went missing in the Netherlands four years ago. Frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, his family have been tireless in trying to discover what happened to him but are still looking for answers, writes CIAN TRAYNOR
WHENEVER A new missing-person case makes the news, Helen Grealis instinctively wants to reach out to their family. It has been four years since her brother James Patrick disappeared and she knows that in the first few days, when the panic is overwhelming, crucial opportunities for clues can be missed. She also knows that approaching someone with that kind of personal experience conjures a frightening prospect: that the distress could stretch on indefinitely with no sign of closure.
“When my brother went missing, I didn’t want to talk to someone whose brother or sister was missing for 10 or 12 years. I thought, ‘That’ll never happen to us. We’ll find him.’
“I still do think that. I just don’t know whether it’ll be next year or 10 years down the line. It’s difficult. Every day you’re just hoping to hear something. The phone rings, it’s a private number, and you go into shock wondering, is this the call?”
JP Grealis, a 24-year-old carpenter from Achill in Co Mayo, had begun a new chapter in his life shortly before disappearing. After spending two years in Birmingham with his sister Bernadette, he ventured out on his own to the Netherlands in April 2007, finding various short-term construction contracts that took him around the country.
JP, who was known for his laid-back, outgoing personality, made sure to keep in touch with family every week. When he lost his mobile, he called from a landline or sent an email telling them not to worry, touching base every second day until the phone was replaced.
But in October 2008, seven days passed without contact. His parents checked in with JP’s four elder sisters and, later, his friends in the Netherlands, but nobody had heard anything. The family travelled to the southern city of Breda, where JP was last seen, but by then almost nine days had passed, leaving enormous ground to cover.
From the outset, the police advised that without any evidence of harm, JP had probably broken off contact to start a new life. This seemed unlikely to the Grealis family. Although JP had recently been let go from a job in Someren, he had booked a flight home for Christmas and appeared carefree. But concern deepened when it transpired that October 23rd, the day JP last spoke to family members, also marked the final activity on his bank and phone accounts. The last calls were to recruitment agencies.
Frustrated by a lack of progress, Helen Grealis took unpaid leave from work to chase leads in the Netherlands. Any information she gathered, she passed on to the police.
She made a colour-coded spreadsheet of the phone numbers linked to her brother’s phone, trying to map out every possible connection. There was just one she couldn’t account for: an unregistered pay-as-you-go number JP contacted numerous times late at night. In the years since, repeated calls to this number have gone unanswered.
There were unconfirmed sightings of JP in Eindhoven around the start of November but people’s stories changed the more they were questioned. Everything seemed vague. A private investigator, a costly advertising campaign (printed in colour to emphasise JP’s distinctive red hair), as well as the family’s own network of contacts in the Netherlands, turned up nothing. When a reward of €10,000 for any information was offered in 2010, only false leads materialised.
“There were a lot of hoaxes,” says Grealis. “My parents even got a postcard from a guy in Holland saying my brother was safe and well in a hospital. ‘Don’t be worrying, I’m keeping an eye on him.’ Terrible. I checked it out straight away and I just think it’s horrific that someone can do that to parents. It’s torture.”
After hiring a solicitor to chase progress on the case, the Grealis family were promised an investigation by Breda’s public prosecutor in October 2011. When they heard nothing more, the family held a protest outside the Dutch embassy in Dublin on March 14th this year, JP’s 28th birthday.
Following increased pressure, an investigation was reopened in April and Grealis met with police three months later for an update. When she asked if they’d found anything suspicious with the phone records, they slid a spreadsheet across the table and said there was one number, highlighted in red, that they couldn’t account for. “I know,” she said. “This is my spreadsheet. I gave it to you.”
GREALIS WASonly left with more questions. Why hadn’t the police pulled their own phone records? What if she had missed a number? Why hadn’t they looked beyond the last few transactions on JP’s bank account? Why had it taken them three and a half years to speak to his landlord? It seemed to her that she had opened up far more avenues than they had? To get answers, the family’s solicitor applied to get a report of the investigation released.
In the past four years, appeals to the Dutch missing-persons bureau (whose power is limited), the Irish consul, the Department of Foreign Affairs and various politicians drew the same response. “All we got fired back at us was that it’s different organisations, different countries, red tape, they’re limited to what they can do,” says Grealis. “But I do believe that if this was a politician’s son missing abroad, more would be done about it. I’m not afraid to say that any more.”
Grealis, a 31-year-old who works in the medical-device industry, is sitting in the darkened alcove of a Castlebar hotel, her sleeves bunched over her hands – a habit of JP’s mentioned in the missing-person appeals. She explains that while the search has taken a physical toll on the family, it’s in her nature to persevere.
“It messes you up. Your life just becomes focused on one thing and nothing else really matters. It’s only recently that I realised, this could go on forever. You need to put some shape back on your life.”
“It’s a scandal,” says Jolande van der Graaf, a Dutch journalist who is part of an unofficial cold-case team that has investigated JP’s disappearance. It’s common for such cases not to be properly investigated in the Netherlands, she says, but this one has been plagued by empty promises.
“I haven’t got any answers from the police or the justice department. It’s as if they don’t want to do anything because they do not want to admit they made a lot of mistakes.”
On October 10th, Helen Grealis finally received the police report, informing her that the case is now closed. When The Irish Times asked the police why, they referred the paper to the Breda public-prosecution service. A spokeswoman for that agency said there wasn’t evidence of a crime and no clues for further investigation. Grealis, however, feels that until police properly search for evidence, they won’t find any.
“Every disappearance deserves a proper investigation,” she says. “I do believe at this stage we may not get good news but we just want closure. We want to bring my brother home to my parents. They’re struggling with this every day, doing their damnedest to keep busy, but it’s always on their minds. He’s their only son. “I never thought I would have found the strength to do this but I’m going to put my heart and soul into trying to find him.”
How to search for someone who goes missing
“When you go looking for someone who’s missing, you don’t know how long it’s going to take: you’re thrown into a situation where you’ve no idea what’s going to happen or what to do,” says Anne Ravanona, sister of Paul Nolan Miralles, a 36-year-old photographer from Dublin who went missing in Amsterdam in April 2011.
Five days into the search, his body was found in a canal. (An open verdict was recorded at the inquest.) The search was an ordeal, and the family hope that anyone facing similar circumstances can benefit from their experience. To that end, the Paul Nolan Miralles Association provides an online resource of practical tips and templates to aid missing-person cases at pnmassoc.com.
* When arriving in a foreign city to search for a loved one, as Paul’s family did when he disappeared in Amsterdam, just getting your bearings can consume valuable time. In the Netherlands, it can take 48 hours for a missing-person search to commence.
Once the police and the Irish consul have been notified, however, Ravanona suggests utilising such time to expedite the search. Note the inspector in charge and the case number for future reference. Appeal for information through flyers, posters and social-media networks as well as forming search groups with designated roles, such as media spokesperson.
Retrace any routes home the missing person may have taken, and check for cameras that may have recorded relevant CCTV footage, as many businesses override their footage after four days. Managing your energy levels throughout this process is paramount.
“The stress level is so high,” says Ravanona, a global-management training expert based in Paris. “I slept about three hours a night during the search. I was on the go all the time.
“Whatever you can do to preserve energy, do it. It’s impossible to relax when you’re looking for someone but to be able to switch off for a few minutes will help you focus again on the task.”
* When assessing responses to public appeals, Ravanona advises treating private investigators with caution.“Such people can approach families in distress and it can cost a lot of money,” she says.
“The other thing to watch out for is mediums. There are people who say, ‘I have a vision of them’ and so on. When you’re desperate, you listen to everyone and everything. The problem is you waste time, energy and resources looking for things that are not real clues. It can give you false hope. That, for me, is the psychological damage.”
* One potentially helpful resource are search dogs who track by scent. In Ravanona’s case, volunteer dog association Signi Zoekhonden came forward and directed the search to a canal near the Hard Rock Café, where Paul was last seen. It provided the breakthrough that led to the recovery of his body. Irish Search Dogs are a similar volunteer group who are available to travel abroad.
* Though taking time out of a search to focus on your own wellbeing may not feel like a priority, but counselling can be helpfulin dealing with emotions both during and after the process. “In the first six months after Paul disappeared, I was completely obsessed by what had happened,” says Ravanona.
“Counselling helped me to have a place to talk about it face to face. It’s very important in order to be able to cope with the situation and to live with it afterwards so it doesn’t take over your life, because that’s the risk.”