AIKEN - A million times a year in this country, someone is gone without a trace, often leaving behind suffering children, spouses or parents uncertain of their fate.
In most cases, these disappearances have happy endings. Experts say about 90 percent of people reported missing eventually resurface alive.
But disappearance cases can be among the most confounding and frustrating that law enforcement face - full of conflicting stories with few, if any, real clues, sometimes spotted histories and, in many cases, no trail to follow.
Aiken County has seen its share of disappearances in recent months. Three times since May, a woman in her 30s has been reported missing in Aiken County.
Jennifer D. Hough, 37, was found safe and sound in Beaufort, more than a month after she disappeared in May after a fight with a boyfriend. Last week, Michelle Koontz, 30, vanished and resurfaced in Edisto Beach a day later, but not before staging what authorities said was an elaborate faked abduction that captured public attention.
Lisa Shuttleworth, a 38-year-old single mother of two, is still missing from her Beech Island home, gone for more than two weeks. Waiting for her return are confused friends, a distraught mother and two anxious children.
Experts say cases such as Mrs. Koontz's are rare. Often, someone leaves of his own accord and doesn't bother to tell anyone.
"I've never heard of someone going to the length of making a crime scene," said Kym Pasqualini, the president of the Center for Missing Adults, based in Phoenix. "But people do vanish for a host of reasons: financial, they could have committed a crime, or they just want to take a break in life and not let anyone in their family know."
Missing-adult cases are a world apart from missing-children cases, according to the experts.
"The problem with adults is, of course, if an adult just wants to up and leave, they can," said Monte McKee, a unit chief with the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Service. "That's probably the biggest problem that law enforcement faces - if there's no evidence of criminal activity, it can really put them in a difficult spot." When it comes to deciding how much time to devote to a case, he said: "It can be a tough call."
Mr. McKee helps maintain the FBI's National Crime Information Center, a computerized clearinghouse for wanted people, missing people and other information. The database is checked by law officers nationwide more than 3 million times daily. The names of Aiken County's three missing women were entered into that database.
While at any given time about 100,000 children and adults are listed as missing in the United States, 1 million entries are made into the database annually, meaning about 90 percent are resolved and taken off the list throughout the year, Mr. McKee said.
"The vast majority are resolved with the person returning alive," he said.
But it's the worst-case scenarios that keep law enforcement from writing off disappearance reports with a skeptical eye, said Capt. Wallace Owens, the chief investigator for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.
"We can only rely on what people tell us, and a lot of times (with disappearance cases) we get false reports," Capt. Wallace said. "But we want all the reports, regardless of whether there's completely nothing to it, because we never know if one of them will turn up to be something. It's just part of the job - we take every one of them seriously."
Ms. Pasqualini, of the Center for Missing Adults, says investigators must look at the missing person's background, relationships and patterns of behavior to determine the urgency of the case. It entails time-consuming, sometimes lengthy interviewing, and often they can't rely on family members to be completely honest, she said.
"That complicates and delays things for law enforcement, when family or friends don't give information that's completely accurate," she said.
Sheriff's officials haven't said they've run into those problems in recent cases, though clearly Mrs. Koontz's admitted deception was a source of frustration for those concerned for her safety. The "clues" she left behind - a smear of blood on a wall and an ominous phone message - are seldom found in disappearance cases.
That kind of manufactured drama threatens to overshadow real cases of concern, Ms. Pasqualini says.
"I would think on some level it would have to desensitize the public for the next missing-persons case," she said. "It's like the little boy who cried wolf."
Aiken Department of Public Safety Capt. Wendell Hall acknowledges that Mrs. Koontz's ruse - apparently used to flee pending embezzlement charges - ate up needless man-hours at his department.
"It certainly took time away from legitimate investigations, but for a while this was a legitimate investigation, too," he said. Even though police learned of Mrs. Koontz's pending criminal charges early on, Capt. Hall said, "We don't blow anything off. Every investigator has the mind-set of what possibly occurred, but it could be 180 degrees different than that. You have to be careful."
Total missing people: 98,752
Estimated number of missing adults: about 33,000
Total missing people, ages 30-39: 7,227
Total missing women, ages 30-39: 3,111
Total missing men, ages 30-39: 4,116
Endangered* missing women, ages 30-39: 1,787
Endangered missing men, ages 30-39: 2,221
* According to FBI classifications, "endangered" means there is evidence a missing person could have been abducted or is at risk of immediate harm.
Sources: Center for Missing Adults, FBI Criminal Justice Information Service
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110.