Early on the morning of July 25, Elias Sorokin's father contacted authorities to report his son, 29, missing. By 5:15 p.m., friends of Sorokin began seeking information on his whereabouts via Facebook.
"Please Help! Elias Sorokin has been missing since Monday 7/20..." one of the status updates read. "Please post this to your Facebook even if you do or don't know Elias. We have filed a missing person and have a private investigator; we are looking for answers and need your help."
Days earlier, the clothing company CEO began driving home to Los Angeles after a business trip to Northern California; he never reached his destination. The original Facebook message was written quickly by his friend Minx Larsen and included disturbing details about the attempted use of Sorokin's credit cards and his last known location near Santa Cruz, Calif. It received a huge response.
Sorokin was last seen the evening of July 20 near Watsonville, Calif. The gold/beige Toyota Tacoma 4D pickup he was driving was found burning near Bonny Doon, Calif., on July 30.
A Facebook group centered on the missing man emerged within hours and quickly attracted more than 750 members.
"It started actually, not with e-mails but just with status updates," said family friend Jonathan Baxter, 35. "That's what's so magical about this whole thing. [Minx's] message has been reposted so many times. I mean, you can find it everywhere…somebody from the UK posted that they were following this."
Concerned loved ones and distant acquaintances continue to spread the word through social networking sites, blogs and Twitter accounts, and it is paying off. The expansive reach of Sorokin's peer network has now grasped $20,000 in reward money offered for information leading to his safe return.
The effort may seem small, but "the way you find people is through generating leads and information from average people doing average things and simply paying attention" declared Ernie Allen, president of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
"In case after case after case… what we find is unsung heroes."
Baxter and Larsen may not have found their friend yet, but their constant online activity has already made them heroes to Sorokin's family. Anna Oleynick, Sorokin's mother, reached out to Baxter for help.
"Within a 12-hour period of Elias' father contacting the cops, she asked me if I could help get the word out -- online," Baxter explained. He has since been in touch with Oleynick several times a day relaying Internet updates to her and posting her messages to various blog and Facebook communities as well.
"I'm just a conduit… because she had no friends on Facebook, and I had a lot," said Baxter.
In one post, Oleynick wrote directly to those who may have her son: "I would like to assure you that we understand that you may have gotten into this situation and do not know how to get out. We have no interest in pursuing any charges against you. We forgive you completely. Please let Elias go free."
Though the online outreach has not yet resulted in solid leads, the increased awareness and ability to feel active is important to those closest to the situation.
"I think Anna feels good about the type of people that Elias has connected to," said Baxter. She said she feels like "my son must be a great person because look at all these amazing people that are coming to help."