To help find Susan Powell, supporters enlist social media

With no breaks in the Susan Powell case in Utah, her friends and family on Monday launched a social-media campaign – apparently the most extensive use of online technology in a missing-person search.

Facebbook screenshot
A screengrab shows a Facebook group set up by family and friends of Susan Powell.

It’s been 29 days since Susan Powell, a young mother of two, was last seen in her Utah home.

In the days after her disappearance, Ms. Powell’s friends and family plastered her neighborhood of West Valley City, Utah, with missing-person posters. They held candlelight vigils and donned purple ribbons as a visual reminder of her disappearance.

Now, they are going one step further – enlisting social-media communities in their search. This campaign, they say, is the most extensive use of online technology in a missing-person search.

A month after her disappearance, police are still largely without leads in the case. They have no known suspects but have called Powell’s husband, Joshua, a “person of interest.” He denies involvement and says he was camping with the couple’s two sons when his wife disappeared.

Worrying that Ms. Powell’s story was beginning to fade, her friends and family turned to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to help spread awareness of her disappearance.

“We know there are some people who rely on social media and the Internet to get news,” says Shelby Gifford, a friend of Powell’s who is helping organize the social-media campaign, which will be a concentrated push for three days beginning Monday. “We want people to know she’s sill missing, that we’re still looking for her, and what she looks like.”

The Facebook group that was formed after Powell’s disappearance added more than 2,000 new members in only four hours Monday morning, Ms. Gifford says. Many of the new members wrote messages of support or pledged to keep the search alive.

Gifford is hoping that visitors to the group’s page will flip through the nearly 80 photos of Powell – smiling at her baby shower, on family vacations, and after a college prank – in hopes that somebody will be able to provide more information about her disappearance.

YouTube videos, which went up Sunday, show more images of Powell in slide shows set to music. A Twitter account, established before Christmas, provides updates on the social-media campaign and encourages followers to get involved.

The groups’ organizers have also posted a missing-person flier for people to download and post in lunchrooms and on community bulletin boards, among other places. They’re asking people to e-mail at least five friends about the case, and for them in turn to e-mail another five friends.

“We’re hoping it goes viral, and Susan’s face is on every computer screen in the world,” Gifford says.

There are precedents to suggest that greater public awareness helps solve cases.

The AMBER Alert Program – a partnership between law-enforcement agencies, the media, and transportation agencies to broadcast descriptions of missing children immediately after apparent abductions – works on this principle. The program claims 492 “successful recoveries.”

Television shows like Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” have also had success engaging the public in manhunts and missing-person cases. To date, the show says, it has aided in the capture of 1,099 criminals.

Just this past Saturday, a tip from a pair of “America’s Most Wanted” viewers led to the arrest of Paul Michael Merhige, who is accused of killing four relatives on Thanksgiving Day in Florida. The owners of a motel alerted police to his whereabouts after seeing the preview for an “America’s Most Wanted” episode featuring Mr. Merhige.


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