LaMont Dottin was a sophomore at Queens College when he vanished in 1995. his mother flew to New York to report him missing. Because LaMont was over 18, the NYPD initially refused to take her report.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We’re continuing our series from Radio Diaries about those buried in America’s largest public cemetery on New York’s Hart Island. Back in 1995, LaMont Dottin was a 21-year-old freshman at Queens College when, one evening, he didn’t come home. Within 48 hours, his mother was at a local police precinct, trying to report him missing. His name was added to a pile of thousands of cases that the NYPD’s Missing Persons Squad was supposed to investigate, and LaMont’s case fell through the cracks. This is a story about the New York City Police Department and a woman’s search to find out what happened to her son.
ARNITA FOWLER: It took me 30 days to get him officially reported missing. My name is Dr. Arnita Fowler, and LaMont Dottin was my son who went missing in 1995. I remember walking in to the precinct with a full room of people scurrying around when I was talking to a man who was being very nonchalant with me. Now, here, I’m a mother trying to report my one and only child missing. And no matter what I said, he said, no, take my word for it. He’ll home soon. You know, he was considered an adult. And then I called at least twice a week at night ’cause that’s when they would work the shift for missing persons. One day turned into two days, and two days turned into three days and, unbelievably, months.
PHILLIP MAHONY: The Missing Persons Squad at that time was in a state of disrepair. There was no work being done on cases. Record-keeping wasn’t good. I’m Philip Mahony. I was the commanding officer of the Missing Persons Squad in the New York City Police Department from 1998 to 2000.
KAMERON BROWN: My name is Kameron Brown. I was a detective in the missing persons department from 1997 to 2002. The amount of case law that each individual detective had there was amazing. And there was not a lot of investigation. They didn’t have vehicles for us to actually go out and do the interviews. It was just mostly phone calls at that point. You know, hi. This is Detective Brown. You made a report on so-and-so missing. Did they come home? No, they didn’t. OK, thank you.
MAHONY: I remember looking at this spreadsheet of open missing persons cases. It just went on for, like, a hundred pages.
FOWLER: And this article is from the Daily News, November 21, 1995. (Reading) Hollis resident Arnita Fowler hadn’t had time to prepare for Thanksgiving. She’s been too busy checking city hospitals, the morgue and jails in a desperate search for her 21-year-old son.
I was known as a one-woman search party. I’m creating my own press conferences. I’ve learned how to write press releases on the fly. I would look in every homeless person’s face as I walked the streets. I go, was I crazy? But I know that I could not live the rest of my life not knowing if he was out there. I was 17 when I had my son, and everything I did evolved around him. We were always together. And I know he was saying, my mom’s going to find me.
MAHONY: I became lieutenant and commanding officer of the Missing Persons Squad in 1998. Then I immediately tried to organize the Missing Persons Squad. And so we appointed a couple people to go through that list – the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of active cases that had accumulated over the years, page by page, name by name – and find out what happened to these people that the Missing Persons Squad never followed up on.
BROWN: It felt good. I was actually out doing investigations. And we had two or three cases from, you know, the ’50s.
MAHONY: They would start very basic checks, fingerprint checks and so on. We did find a lot of people through routine checks.
FOWLER: I spent four years looking for my son. And then this one particular night, I picked up the phone in frustration and called. And the same man who had been telling me no – it was the same guy – he said, sure, we’ll meet you. And when they came, there was a lady officer. She said they had discovered that they hadn’t dotted every I and crossed every T.
MAHONY: OK, so I’m reading from a missing persons report. The report says that the missing person was found floating in the river October 1995. And after that…
FOWLER: So apparently, eight days after LaMont went missing, they found his body. And their process requires them to submit fingerprints.
MAHONY: …To identify him through fingerprints, which could be difficult if they were in the water for a long time.
FOWLER: And the FBI matched it with an arrest that was made. He was arrested for a stolen car when he was in high school. But the NYPD never followed up for results of that identification until 1999, four years later.
MAHONY: On this date, the deceased was identified as LaMont Dottin through fingerprints. In view of the facts stated above, the undersigned recommends that this case be marked closed.
FOWLER: I couldn’t imagine that this is the outcome after four years. I don’t know how he died. I do not believe it was suicide. And there was no blunt force trauma, nothing indicating foul play.
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FOWLER: This is a paper that shows where my son was buried at in Hart’s Island. There’s no name. It just says male. To bury my son in a place as though he had no one – and it shows the date of death and the day he was exhumed four years later.
BROWN: I remember opening the paper and seeing the picture of the body and the horse-drawn carriage going around Queens. I was like, wow, we had that case. Look. And we were all looking at it. I just can’t imagine any of my children not coming home or not knowing what happened to them. This is the Daily News, September…
FOWLER: Daily News.
BROWN: …Twenty-first, 1999.
FOWLER: September 21, 1999.
BROWN: Student laid to rest.
FOWLER: (Reading) Four years after being buried in a pauper’s grave, a missing Queens student was finally given a proper burial yesterday.
And it was a perfect funeral. He was drawn by two horses in a carriage. And the casket itself is all white, like the horses. It is what I believe that he deserved – nothing but the best. I needed memories to be something that you could reflect on who he was, the prince that he was to me.
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SHAPIRO: Following years of advocacy by Fowler, New York State passed a law in 2016 requiring police to expedite searches for missing adults. It’s called LaMont Dottin’s Law. And some news – after more than a century of Hart Island being mostly off limits, the New York City Parks Department has announced they are starting public tours this week. This story was produced by Alissa Escarce and the Radio Diaries team. To hear the other stories in the Unmarked Graveyard series, visit the Radio Diaries podcast.
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