Investigation process for locating missing persons

In the complex and often heart-wrenching world of missing person investigations, more than one million cases are reported each year. Among these, individuals who intentionally leave their known environment—referred to as “missing”—pose unique challenges. Despite the daunting numbers, thorough investigation, adhering to specific techniques and procedures, can successfully locate nearly anyone. However, there are three notoriously difficult groups to locate: the very wealthy, the very criminal, and the very dead. Contrary to intuition, the passage of time can facilitate the location of a missing person, as they eventually leave verbal or written traces.

First Phase: The Initial Interview

The journey to locate a missing person begins with an initial interview, a critical step designed to compile a reliable basis for the investigation. During this emotionally charged period, the investigator must adopt a professional and reassuring demeanor to effectively gather essential details. This phase goes beyond mere data collection, as it requires the investigator to navigate through the client’s emotional confusion, skepticism, and reluctance to disclose sensitive information. The interview focuses on three fundamental issues:

  • Previous instances of disappearance
  • Underlying reasons for the current absence
  • A comprehensive description of the missing person

Understanding the reason for the disappearance, whether it be personal disagreements, financial troubles, or more sinister motives such as involvement in criminal activities or threats of violence, is paramount. A detailed physical and behavioral profile of the missing person, including their last known clothing and possessions, lays the groundwork for subsequent investigative work.

Second Phase: The Investigation

After laying the groundwork with a thorough initial interview, the second phase propels the investigation into a more dynamic realm, testing the investigator’s acumen. This phase is characterized by the systematic exploration of leads, scrutiny of the missing person’s personal effects, and contact with a broader circle of acquaintances and official records. Each step of the second phase is examined in detail below.

Checking “the sources of bad news”

The immediate goal is to determine if the missing person has already been located in a context that obviates the need for further investigation. This pragmatic first step involves:

  • Hospitals and jails: Checking these facilities can quickly confirm if the individual has been admitted for medical reasons or detained for legal issues.
  • Coroner’s office: This office can provide critical information on unidentified individuals.

This step requires direct contact and verification with each institution, using the description of the missing person and any identification details gathered during phase one.

Examination of personal effects

Personal belongings can serve as silent witnesses to the intentions, mood, and potential destinations of the missing person. This examination focuses on:

  • Personal effects: Analyzing items such as mail, diaries, electronic devices, and other personal artifacts can reveal clues about the person’s recent activities, interests, or plans.
  • Digital footprint: In today’s interconnected world, examining the digital footprint, including social media activity, email exchanges, and location history, can provide significant clues.

A meticulous inspection of the missing person’s living spaces, vehicles, and online presence is conducted, searching for any anomalies or indicators of premeditated departure.

Follow-up investigation

Building on the information gathered, this step involves a deeper dive into the missing person’s life, exploring various facets to uncover potential motives or destinations. This includes:

  • Interviewing acquaintances: Speaking with friends, colleagues, and family members to gather information on the missing person’s recent behavior and emotional state.
  • Exploring financial records: Financial stress can trigger disappearances. Investigators examine bank statements, credit card records, and other financial documents for unusual activity.
  • Medical and employment history: Reviewing medical history for information on mental health or stress factors, along with employment records for any workplace issues.

This comprehensive approach requires collaboration with various entities and individuals, cross-referencing information to reconstruct a fuller picture of the missing person’s circumstances prior to their disappearance.


The intricate process of locating a missing person demands a mix of empathy, precision, and persistence. From the initial interview to the thorough follow-up investigation, each phase is crucial for piecing together the puzzle of the person’s last known actions and their potential motivations for leaving. In the hands of a skilled investigator, even the most challenging cases can be resolved, providing closure for those in uncertainty.