WILKES-BARRE — Leslie Hunt has been looking for her father for 47 years now.
She was just one of those seeking potential answers about long-lost loved ones during Luzerne County’s first Missing Persons Day event Thursday.
The event at Wilkes University’s Henry Student Center was a joint operation by the county District Attorney’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
Hunt, now in her 70s, says father Walter Lawton was a professor and chair of the math department at Temple University. She and her family were in the White Haven area looking into purchasing a cabin, when Lawton decided to go for a walk.
“And he just didn’t come back,” she recalled.
Hunt, who now lives in Vermont, said her mother searched for years, writing letters to institutions like state and mental hospitals in the hopes of finding an answer. But the answer never came, and the search effort slowly faded away.
“We didn’t keep up with it; I feel guilty about that,” she said.
So Hunt traveled to Northeast Pennsylvania once again to attend Thursday’s event.
While there, she and others with similar stories got to talk to investigators and representatives from NamUs. The names of those missing were entered into NamUs databases, and DNA samples were taken from relatives to see if any matches could be found.
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she was thrilled with the event.
“It was beyond expectations,” she said, pointing out how crowded the room was. “We didn’t know what to expect. But we want to show that the loved ones haven’t been forgotten.”
Salavantis said the most important goal was to spread awareness, so people knew the route to follow to get the answers they need.
“Some of these people may be alive, and the word just needs to get out to find them,” she said.
Salavantis said plans are already beginning to form about how the initiative can grow from here, saying she was in contact with other district attorneys about the possibility of moving the event from county to county.
Salavantis also said it’s important for a stronger emphasis to be placed on finding missing people. Pennsylvania is one of a very few states that do not require the names of missing people to be added into the NamUs database, she explained.
‘Never give up hope’
Family members of missing people also said more emphasis is needed.
Steven and Heather Whitenight, of Millville, said Amber Alerts for missing children and Silver Alerts for missing elderly create a lack of urgency for missing adults who don’t fall into either group.
“People go missing, and you hear it for 30 seconds on a newscast, and that’s it. There’s no urgency when it’s an adult,” said Mr. Whitenight.
The Whitenights’ son, Steven Jr., 33, went missing in January 2016. His vehicle was found near a bridge in Bloomsburg, where he lived. Tracks in the snow suggest he walked away from his car, but the tracks ended without any conclusive evidence of where he went.
The Whitenights said events like Thursday’s help to show solidarity for the families of missing people.
“You have to never give up hope,” Mr. Whitenight said.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan