Jeanette Patton with a portrait of her missing sister, Elizabeth Kovalik.
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Elizabeth Kovalik of Milford disappeared in November 1987, leaving behind a 3-year-old child and a family wondering what had become of her.
After years without any answers, Kovalik’s relatives decided to place a memorial plaque in her honor at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Milford. According to her sister, Jeanette Patton, the memorial was a coping strategy.
“It was to give the family closure and a place to go on the anniversary of her disappearance,” Patton says. “It’s also a place where I go when I want to spend time with my sister. I find the memorial very helpful.”
Patton says she still dreams about her sister coming home, but adds, “Deep in my heart, I know differently.” She says not knowing what happened to her Elizabeth eats away at the family, which yearns for closure.
Kovalik is just one of hundreds of missing persons in Connecticut, and thousands in the country—people with families mourning their absence and fearing what might have happened to them.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, state police spokesman, says, “Missing-person cases are very difficult for the families—the not knowing.
“Sometimes, people want to leave for various reasons—they may be mad at someone or want to break up with someone,” Vance explains. “Our objective is to locate the person, be sure they’re okay, and report to the family that they are okay, or bring them back home. Obviously, some missing people are the victims of violent crime. It is a tragedy for the families who just don’t know.”
The National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, had 85,820 active missing-person cases as of Dec. 31, 2010, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to Vance, NCIC as of mid-March had about 500 of these cases listed for Connecticut.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, listed 237 missing person cases for Connecticut as of late March. However, many cases listed on NamUs aren’t up to date, with found individuals still listed, and some missing not included. The NamUs site lists 42 cases of unidentified human remains for Connecticut.
Early this year, at the urging of State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz, a special team of state police investigators was formed to focus on missing-person cases.
Sgt. James Thomas of the state police Central District Major Crime Squad, who is leading the team, says the new team includes investigators from all major crime squads within the state police. The team is available to help municipal police departments with their cases, according to Thomas.
“The team is in place and is getting boots on the ground,” Vance says. “They’ll provide assistance to other agencies for new cases, and will tackle older cases too.”
On the national level, there have been recent efforts as well to address the missing- persons problem. U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5, has proposed the federal “Help Find the Missing Act,” which seeks to create an organized system to match remains to missing persons, and an incentive grants program for law enforcement and medical examiners to report information to various databases, like NCIC and NamUs.
A state law went into effect in October that requires Connecticut law enforcement agencies to accept “without delay” any report of a missing adult. Also, information collected relating to a missing adult has to be entered into the NCIC database “with all practicable speed.”
According to Cruz, there are still differences in how missing-person cases are handled.
“We have to take the families seriously until we know otherwise,” Cruz says. “When it is a missing child or someone with a mental health issue [it is addressed right away], but if it is a missing adult, especially a missing male, it is not taken seriously.”
When William Smolinski Jr. of Waterbury disappeared in 2004, police told the family to wait three days before filing a missing-person report, according to his mother, Janice Smolinski of Cheshire.
In spite of the new law, the misconception of a waiting period persists among some law-enforcement agencies. William Young of New Haven was last seen alive on Jan. 5, 2012, and his family called police Jan. 7 to report him missing. The family says they were told by New Haven police that they needed to wait 72 hours, so a missing person report wasn’t filed until the next day. Young’s body was found Feb. 11 in the Mill River.
But fast police response is crucial to solving these cases, says Cruz. Police need to obtain video recordings from surveillance in an area, such as from stores and parking lots, before they are recorded over and lost.
Meanwhile, the missing are still unaccounted for by the hundreds and thousands. Here, we spotlight a few of Connecticut’s cases.
Jeanette Patton, 48, will never forget the day she brought her nephew to his first day of kindergarten. There were numerous proud parents snapping pictures of their children, and while the day should have been joyous, it was a sad one for Patton.
All she could think about was that it should have been her sister, Elizabeth Kovalik, with the boy, who was Kovalik’s son.
Milford police say the search continues for Kovalik, who was 28 when she disappeared 24 years ago, but they have no idea what happened to her. There is no evidence Kovalik is dead, but they have no leads concerning her whereabouts.
Patton describes her sister as “fun loving, energetic and beautiful.” She fondly remembers family picnics, singing and dancing together. One of their favorite activities was roller-skating in Stratford.
After seven years of desperately hoping Kovalik would come home, her family had her legally declared dead.
“It’s very difficult every time they find human remains,” Patton says. “It stirs a lot of emotions. It’s very raw from day to day. On anniversaries, I pray she’ll walk through the door. I pray that if her remains are out there, we could bring her home.”
Milford police spokesman Officer Jeffrey Nielsen says the department received a missing-person report from Kovalik’s father on Nov. 22, 1987, days after she was last seen. Kovalik had missed the family’s Thanksgiving celebration. According to the police report, it was “very unusual” for her to misse a family holiday.
An investigation determined that Kovalik had last been seen with an acquaintance who drove her to New Haven to visit a friend. Nielsen says it was not unusual for Kovalik to be away for a few days, but that she was always in touch with her family.
Police interviewed her friends, family and co-workers at Dictaphone Corp. in Stratford. A co-worker told police Kovalik’s behavior was unusual right before she disappeared. Kovalik missed three days of work Nov. 9, 10 and 11 before returning Nov. 13. Further investigation revealed Kovalik was in New Haven Nov. during that period. An acquaintance said he saw her at a bar in New Haven Nov. 14 and that she stayed overnight in the city. The acquaintance told police he dropped Kovalik off on her street in Milford on Nov. 15. That was the last time anyone saw her, Nielsen says.
According to Nielsen, Kovalik’s information was submitted to other law enforcement agencies, NCIC and a missing-person database. He says there have been leads over the years, but nothing that has helped solve the mystery.
Anyone with information should contact Sgt. Antonio Vitti at (203) 878-6303.