It was late April in Washington D.C. and things were looking up for 22-year-old Marty McMillan Jr. He’d just gotten an apprenticeship with a local electrician, was driving a new car, and even had a date lined up for Saturday night.
“Having a good time,” Forlesia Cook, his grandmother, said. “You get your first car, that’s the time. man you know, that’s the time. Start living then, oooh man, you know?”
Marty would stay with her a couple days each week and the two were really close. She even helped him get that new car. So it seemed weird to her that he hadn’t called or stopped by.
“So I called him and said, ‘Marty, look. Grandma needs to hear from you. I need to know if you’re alright. At least you can call me. You know I was thinking he was over at his father’s. So finally I called his dad and I said “Look, I haven’t heard from Marty. I said, you know, I’ve been trying to get in touch with him and he said: “Me too.” He said, “Forlesia – that’s what he calls me – I think something is wrong.”
They called everyone they knew, but soon it became apparent that Marty would become one of the roughly 650,000 people who go missing in America each year. Little did they know that simply being black might be one of the biggest obstacles to seeing him again. Because in cases like Marty’s, the two major tools, media and law enforcement, both have a record of ignoring missing backs.
As a black male, Marty was someone missing person researcher Michelle Jeanis would probably classify as a “non-ideal”.
“The media is less likely to represent minorities as victims,” she said. “They’re more likely to represent them as perpetrators.”
Jeanis’ research shows that media outlets across the country will cover missing white girls over any other demographic. It’s a documented effect called the “missing white girl” syndrome and it may even be affecting law enforcement’s response.
“Oh, well, law enforcement definitely feels pressure from the media,” she said. “I think that’s a commonality if you ask law enforcement about that. Especially high profile cases.”
To add to that bias, Marty had something that made the odds of him getting attention even worse.
“First of all, Marty had a past ok,” Cook said. “Cause they threw that up in my face too. When Detective Randolph came out here, he said oooh he’s got quite a record, anybody could have done something to him. I said, ‘What?'”
Marty had gotten caught a few times for driving with no license, jumping over metro turnstiles, stuff like that. He also had done a few months in county jail for driving a vehicle that had been reported as stolen. So when his dad, Marty Sr., went to talk to police a few days after reporting his disappearance, he said they hadn’t even assigned someone to the case.
“They didn’t even really think he was missing,” McMillan Sr. said. “They just thought he ran off or something. So they weren’t really taking it seriously.”
Marty Sr. was so frustrated, he broke down in the police station and a detective walking said he’d take the case.
“Even though he took the case, he wasn’t really taking it seriously,” he said. “From everything, you could tell from his perspective, that he was talking like Marty’s still okay, that he just left his job and left everything.”
Natalie Wilson, the co-founder of Black and Missing, said that especially when missing blacks have a criminal record, police routinely dismiss their case.
“We are hearing from family members that their loved ones are being dehumanized or criminalized,” she said. “So law enforcement will say, well they’re involved with some type of criminal activity or they’re on drugs and when it wears off they will come back. That is so cynical and stereotypical to say something like that to a family member and what we tell them all the time is that you know your loved one better than anyone else.”
Take for instance Carrie Blewett, a missing black woman who was found dead in Kansas City earlier this year. Her sister, April, said Carrie’s race and prior history with drugs kept Kansas City police from looking for her.
“I just feel like if they had taken seriously, we would have found her way before then,” April Blewett said on the phone. “They didn’t go out there and search for her or nothing, we did.”
And that’s what Marty’s family had to do too. They jumped into action without the police and took the investigation into their own hands. In fact it was Forlesia who found Marty’s car after she heckled the detective for any information they might have. On his way out of the office for the day, he told her that the car had registered on police cameras nearby.
“So I drove those areas and drove those areas,” she said. “There were three cars parked and I saw the tag. It was a Passat. I called the detective and they wouldn’t answer the phone.”
When the private eye and detectives arrived and got a description of the driver from neighbors, it was clear that Marty wasn’t driving his car. Still, the family says detectives were yelling stuff like “Okay Marty, you can come out now.”
“When we was out there on the scene, when we found the car, he was making jokes and laughing and stuff like that,” he said. “He seemed insensitive to the whole situation and wasn’t taking it serious.”
The Missing Persons department declined to comment, but they must have found something concerning enough to transfer Marty’s case to a homicide unit, Homicide Commander Lt. Anthony Haythe said.
“If we believe that there could be some suspicious activity or foul play involved, at that point we will investigate,” he said. “I’m not sure what missing persons did with the case from the beginning, but I know they would have went through their normal steps of investigating.”
He said the homicide team is doing their best to find any trace of Marty. But now more than seven months since they last saw Marty, the family is hoping for any conclusion, good or bad.
“I never thought I would be where I am today with this,” Cook said. “I never thought this would happen to me. I was never prepared for this, I was prepared to see my grandson having a good life.”