Kansas City community activist-comic book writer Alonzo Washington has been on a bittersweet -- and moderately successful -- mission: to shine the spotlight on "forgotten" missing children and adults.
Washington was one of the first -- and most persistent -- activists to call on the media and law enforcement officials to continue pursuing the case of the decapitated girl once known as "Precious Doe," whose gruesome beheading baffled authorities for more than four years because no one claimed her remains. When police identified Doe as Erica Michelle Green and arrested her mother and stepfather, Michelle and Harrell Johnson, in her death, Washington was gratified that his persistence paid off.
But it was also a time to mourn and reflect.
"It was bittersweet, very bittersweet," Washington said. "I was working so hard to keep on police to keep investigating the case, on the media to keep covering Precious Doe/Erica Green, to the point where people were making fun of me, saying, 'Oh, he's seeking publicity. Oh, he's crazy.' It was gratifying to see the work pay off, but once you finally know who this girl was and what happened to her, it was very sad.
"I just want to continue to work on cases of missing children who were once thought to be Precious Doe because they still need attention," Washington continued. "The work doesn't stop here."
An Eye-Opening Mystery
The Precious Doe case opened Washington's eyes to what critics have called unbalanced coverage of missing children and adults in the news.
Washington and others have said that young, white, attractive missing children and adults with families that have the eloquence, wealth and resources to keep their stories in the headlines get more widespread and consistent coverage than minorities.
Missing children and adults like Elizabeth Smart, Danielle van Dam, Laci Peterson and currently Natalee Holloway received more attention than the lesser-known cases such as Tamika Huston, a South Carolina woman who has missing for more than a year, or Diamond and Tionda Bradley, two Chicago girls who have been missing since July 2001 and Jahi Turner, a San Diego boy whose disappearance has been a mystery since 2002.
"How long you cover a story, how much you held it up and for how long depended on whether you met the aesthetic," Washington said. "If you didn't have that aesthetic, you didn't get the coverage."
'You Can't Give Up'
Last week, Harrell Johnson was indicted by a grand jury for first-degree murder in Erica Green's slaying, opening the door for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Michelle Johnson faces second-degree murder charges in her daughter's death and is being held on $500,000 bail.
Johnson's uncle has said that he repeatedly contacted and tried to convince law enforcement officials that he knew the identity of Precious Doe and who killed her. He was able to get hair samples from Michelle Johnson, contacted Washington and they both convinced police to test the hair for a DNA match to the slain child. A match led investigations to the break in their case.
According to court papers, Harrell Johnson admitted he was under the influence of alcohol and the hallucinogenic drug PCP when he became angry with Erica after she refused to go to bed. He allegedly admitted grabbing her, kicking her and throwing her to the ground, leaving her unconscious. After Erica died, he allegedly admitted, he used hedge clippers with help from his wife to sever the child's head and dispose of her body.
"So many people have asked me whether I am glad that the father could face the death penalty but I am not a proponent of capital punishment," Washington said. "If there are lessons to be learned from Precious Doe, it's that you can't give up. If there's a lesson for all families who are searching for loved ones, like the Holloways, you can't give up."
The Mission Continues
At one point, authorities suspected Precious Doe and Rilya Wilson, the 5-year-old Florida girl who was missing for more than a year before the state's Department of Children and Families [DCF] even noticed, were the same child, but palm prints failed to match the two girls. Rilya remains missing today, and Washington intends to bring attention to children and adults like her who disappear seemingly without a trace or a voice to fight for them.
Washington held a prayer vigil Friday for missing children who were once believed to be Precious Doe. He has used his independently produced comics and Omega Man, a socially conscious black superhero he created 13 years ago, to bring attention to missing children and adults whose cases may not generate national headlines.
"Things are changing slightly," Washington said. "People like LaToyia Figueroa [a pregnant Pennsylvania woman who has been missing since July] may not get the exact same coverage as Laci Peterson, but I feel good that she has gotten some coverage in some places. … I thank God for bringing me the break in the Precious Doe case. I want to break other cases as well."