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."
"Another Note from Anna, the Mother of Elias"
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."
The Web activity surrounding Sorokin's disappearance has also yielded emotional support for those close to him. People who have gone through the same experiences in the past have left words of encouragement while private investigators have offered their services and advice pro bono.
A Professional Perspective
The use of Facebook and other Internet outreach for missing people is something that has changed the face of professional investigations in recent years, mostly for the better. However, law enforcement and non-profit agencies dedicated to finding people are careful to encourage families to use the power of the Internet properly.
"These things should be done in coordination with law enforcement because one of the challenges is what do you do with the information you get," said Allen.
"Don't do this unilaterally," he said speaking from experience with cases at NCMEC. "The leads and information that are generated need to go to law enforcement, or need to go to an organization like ours."
Because Sorokin was living in Los Angeles at the time of his disappearance and went missing while traveling in Northern California, his case is being investigated by the Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville police departments.
When authorities give family updates about a case, the information is not usually meant to be widespread. If made public, sensitive details of the officers' progress can spook suspects off authorities' path. For this reason, Det. Carmine Sasso, officer in charge of the Adult Missing Persons Unit for the Los Angeles Police Department, said it is important for online groups to release information carefully.
"Sometimes these investigations take a unique turn and… once [a detail] gets out its hard to take back."
Wide Circulation Helps
In the Sorokin case, "people were quick to put out some information…and it's like, hold on a second we're still investigating some leads here," Sasso said. "I'm not saying not to let the public know what's going on but do it in steps."
Following some of this advice, those in Sorokin's online community have begun removing the more detailed updates about their friend.
"A policeman can say something to one of our friends and it can literally be broadcast to literally hundreds if not thousands of people," said Baxter. "So we're trying to be cautious."
What is positive about the online presence of Sorokin's friends and family is the wide circulation of his photographs. According the NCMEC, photos of missing people are the most important information in their recovery, and social networking sites have only made that process easier.
"Photos work, media work, and the challenge is to reach the highest number of people we can… this is just another way to do it," said Allen.
Facebook Not Just Another Pretty Face
Using the Web to quickly spread news among local groups is proving more effective than the milk carton photos of generations past.
In the five years since Facebook made its way onto computer screens across the globe, the site has proven to be much more than a mindless procrastination tool.
"This is one of the most moving things that I've ever witnessed, and I think a lot of it is because it's unscripted," Baxter said.
Baxter's feelings are shared by many of the friends and peers commenting on the Elias Sorokin Facebook page.
"I am inspired and in awe how this is transpiring. My love to the community. It is beautiful to be a part of you all," read one post by William Stricklen of Los Angeles.
There are high hopes that the end result of efforts online and by authorities on the ground will be positive as well.
Elias Sorokin is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds, with brown eyes and brown curly hair.
The family asks that you e-mail any information to EliasSorokin.firstname.lastname@example.org or contact local authorities. There is a $20,000 reward.