Still waiting for Chioma ...
Friends and family insist Chioma Gray was kidnapped despite police claims she left willingly, meanwhile, critics charge racial bias in media coverage of missing person cases
By Bill Lascher 05/01/2008
CHIOMA GRAY’S BIRTHDAY passed April 27, and still there was no word.
The Buena High School student turned 16 (Editor's Note: Age corrected from originally posted version), and her family and friends celebrated the day with a barbecue missing its star, 126 days after any of them last saw or spoke with her.
Their prayers continue. Their hope that she is safe persists. They continue to count each day she has been gone. They have even launched a business in hopes of raising money to offer a reward to help find Chioma, but, for now, still no word from the teenager who loved her family and studied hard in hopes of becoming an OB/GYN and running a medical practice with her sister, who is studying to become a pediatrician.
Chioma is still missing.
Chiomaezronesha Gray was last seen by her family when her father and brother dropped her off at Buena High on Dec. 13, 2007. When her mother, Franciene Black, showed up at the school to pick her up, Chioma was nowhere to be found. School officials said she never went to class, and her friends hadn’t seen her. By 5:30 or so, Ventura Police Department investigators say, Black showed up at the department to report her daughter missing.
As they questioned her, Black informed the police about Andrew Joshua Tafoya, the then-20-year-old man who previously had a relationship with Chioma. Tafoya, Black revealed, served 147 days of a 210-day sentence after pleading to having sex with Chioma, a minor. In addition to his sentence Tafoya was on three years’ probabation, among the conditions of which was a stipulation that he not contact Chioma. Black also believed she was to be notified if he was released early. She was not.
Black told police she feared Tafoya had taken Chioma somewhere.
That same day, Ventura Police Investigations Unit Supervisor Lt. Ray Vance said, the department received a report from a car lot in Ventura that they were missing a 2008 white Acura.
Tafoya, they learned, worked at the car lot as a car washer as part of his work furlough. Police reports from the time show that Tafoya was driving that car when he met with a friend of his early that morning. A vehicle matching its description was also seen on a security camera at Chioma’s high school.
When the police made the connection between the two reports they ran the car’s license plate number through their computer system as a stolen vehicle, and it was quickly revealed that it had crossed into Mexico at about 1:20 the same day.
“By the time that Francience came in here to report her daughter missing we believe that Tafoya, Miss Gray and the car had crossed into Mexico three to four hours prior to her even being reported being missing,” Vance said.
The FBI was contacted and asked to get involved with the investigation, since it now appeared Chioma had been taken across state lines and into another country.
Ventura police investigators, though, refuse to call the case an abduction.
“From what our investigation shows it’s not an abduction case,” Vance said. “It’s a voluntary runaway with him.”
The police are investigating the case as a felony for “child stealing,” contributing to the delinquency of a minor, car theft and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
“You have to realize also that we, as parents, want the safe return of Chioma as well,” said Sgt. Rick Murray, part of the Ventura Police Department team investigating the case. “She is a 14-year-old girl, and we want her safe return ourselves. We work this case every day in some fashion.”
Black, however, wasn’t satisfied the police acted quickly enough in the case, or that the proper precautions were made to enforce the provisions of Tafoya’s sentence preventing him from contacting her daughter.
She is not alone. Marisa Enriquez, a friend of Chioma’s, was a cheerleader with Chioma’s older sister. Chioma was friends with Enriquez’s younger sister.
Enriquez doesn’t believe Chioma would have run off with Tafoya. She says the police dismissed the case because of the alleged sexual relationship. She does believe Chioma may have got in Tafoya’s car to talk to him, but he may have had other plans.
“I don’t think he forced her into the car,” Enriquez said. “I think he kinda wanted to talk to her, and she was willing to go talk to him, and then he had other ideas. I think he just never let her come home.”
Enriquez believes if Chioma had willingly left with Tafoya, she would have at least tried to make contact, if only to say she was OK.
“We waited for her to call on Christmas, her mom’s birthday, on New Year’s Eve and on her birthday,” Enriquez said. “I would think she would at least call and say ‘hey mom, I’m safe,’ and hang up.”
Enriquez said she and her boyfriend have decided to work on a business set up by Franciene Black to raise money to help pay for another reward for Gray.
“I pray every day that she is (safe),” Enriquez said. “And if she is just out there, I hope she comes to her senses that this is, you know, not right.”
More direct approaches have been taken to question the police department’s dedication to the case. In a story first reported by the Ventura County Star in February, Black, and her attorney, Gloria Allred, sent a letter criticizing “the numerous ways in which the system failed to protect Chioma” to the District Attorney of Ventura County. The letter alleged early problems in the investigation, as well as failures before Chioma and Tafoya disappeared.
Black was not prepared to comment further for her story beyond a Feb. 28 statement issued to the press.
In that statement, Black said Chioma called her life “The Perfect Story,” and expressed her love and dedication to her family.
“Few people have had the wonderful opportunity of knowing Chioma,” Black said. “She is extremely quiet and shy, with a great sense of humor. We miss her beautiful smile and spirit, and I especially miss her sweet gentle presence.”
Chioma maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average, Black said, and she was a great athlete, well behaved and confident.
“She is innocent, sweet, brave and a beautiful person who is truly loved and respected by all,” she said. “My daughter Chioma and our family’s dreams are on hold.”
Through an accompanying statement from Allred, Black claimed she was supposed to be notified when Tafoya was released from work furlough. He was also not supposed to contact Chioma, but about four months before the disappearance Black reported to the police that he had violated that term of his probation.
Murray confirmed the report was made, but after interviewing Chioma and Tafoya, he said evidence provided by Black which she believed would prove a violation occurred actually refuted the two had made contact.
“When they left that day that investigation was still going on,” Vance said. “Since they crossed or disappeared, that case has been resolved. Both Black and Tafoya’s parents know the status of that case because there’s now evidence to show what they believe to be going on is going on.”
It is unclear how that resolution was arrived at, as the police would not discuss details about the investigation.
However, an affidavit from Gene Kennedy, the FBI agent investigating the case, issued to support an arrest warrant and complaint in the case, painted a grim picture of the circumstances leading up to the disappearance.
Tafoya was arrested in March 2007 for a sexual encounter with Chioma and began his sentence in June. He wasn’t to have any contact with her or any other minor without a responsible adult present as a condition of his probation.
While incarcerated, he wrote a letter to Chioma saying he loved her and that they would be together after he was released. Black told a Ventura detective in July that Chioma had admitted having sex with Tafoya on July 9, 10 days after his sentence started. He denied the allegations. Results of the DNA test were not available at the time of the report.
In October, a county crime lab discovered semen on a pair of underwear both Black and Chioma said she was wearing on that day, and two detectives later obtained a DNA sample from Tafoya to make a comparison, although Tafoya continued to deny the allegations.
Meanwhile, the foundations may have been laid for the two to travel together to Mexico.
Interviews by Ventura police detectives revealed in the FBI report show Chioma told friends Tafoya was trying to convince her to leave the country with him when his sentence was over and that he was afraid he would be sentenced to 20 years in jail if they didn’t go together. Chioma wasn’t sure if she wanted to leave with him, but didn’t believe Tafoya would force her to go. The reports, taken after the abduction, also said Chioma claimed the two would shoot each other if they thought they would be caught. One, Ashley Diaz, told investigators she believed Tafoya had brainwashed Chioma. Another, Jeramy Little, said Chioma wanted to leave with Tafoya and that the two would commit suicide together.
The possibility she may have wanted to leave made it harder to initiate an AMBER Alert, which was not issued. The alerts, short for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, were set up in the late ’90s in the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas. They are quickly disseminated announcements made by law enforcement and circulated through broadcast networks, electronic road signs and other methods to quickly raise public awareness about child abductions.
There are, however, clearly defined criteria established to achieve a uniform system for the alerts and to ensure effectiveness and avoid public desensitization to missing person cases. In California, AMBER Alerts can only be initiated by law enforcement. They are intended for serious, time critical abduction cases and aren’t intended for runaways or parental abductions, unless those cases pose a serious risk to the abductee.
To issue an AMBER Alert a law enforcement agency must confirm an abduction has taken place, the victim must be 17 years or younger (there is an older cutoff for disabled victims), there has to be reason to believe the victim is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, and there has to be information available that could assist a victim’s safe recovery if it is disseminated to the public.
Only one AMBER Alert has been initiated in Ventura County since the system began.
Even if Chioma’s disappearance was deemed an abduction that option was taken off the table once it became clear the two were likely already in Mexico. That country doesn’t have an AMBER Alert system, and the FBI must rely on its contacts with law enforcement there to help solve the case and locate Chioma and Tafoya.
Despite Allred’s demand that the District Attorney investigate alleged systemic failures that may have precipated Chioma’s disappearance, Ventura County Chief Assistant District Attorney James Ellison said it’s not the D.A.’s job to investigate the internal workings of a law enforcement agency.
“If you’re talking about something that does not rise to the level of some criminal activity, you’re really just talking to the performance of that agency,” Ellison said. “The people in oversight of that agency would be the chief of the agency and ultimately up to the city council.”
Ellison said different law enforcement agencies investigate crimes in different ways and the myriad discretionary choices police officers make happen quickly.
“I think it is highly inappropriate to second guess a lot of those decisions because often you don’t know what goes into those decisions, it’s a judgment call,” he said.
As far as Chioma’s disappearance, Ellison wouldn’t discuss the details of how his department would prosecute Tafoya after he is found. He did call the case an abduction.
“I’m using an abduction because that’s what everyone has kind of referred to it as,” he said.
Tafoya is not charged with kidnapping, but a felony charge of taking a child without a parent’s permission, felony auto theft and a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a child.
“In this case even though the child may have gone willingly, and I’m not saying she did or didn’t, this person didn’t have a custodial right to the child,” Ellison said. “Willingness or unwillingness doesn’t play into our prosecution at all because it’s a felony.”
Ellison said the D.A.’s office takes the case seriously and will continue to do so through a trial, whenever that might take place.
“As long as a child is missing a case is important,” he said. “It doesn’t get any less important because time goes by. Leads may fade or cool and the posture of the investigation can change, but the importance of the case until the child is found doesn’t diminish. Any time you are talking about a child taken from its parents, whether or not it is willing, clearly if it is an unwilling act, everybody’s senses are heightened, but from law enforcement’s perspective I think if someone is taken from their parents there’s always a concern.”
As long as the pair are believed to be outside U.S. borders, the FBI will direct the investigation. It has updated its Web site with information on the case and pictures of both Chioma and Tafoya (information is available at www.fbi.gov/wanted/kidnap/gray_c.htm and www.fbi.gov/wanted/alert/tafoya_aj.htm).
“As in a lot of cases, it’s pretty tough,” FBI Spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said of investigating cases in Mexico. “We work, of course,with local law enforcement. We clearly don’t have the same authority we have here in the U.S.”
Eimiller said the FBI has legal attachés stationed within the country and an agent at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
“Cases don’t go away, particularly when you’re dealing with egregious cases,” She said. “We won’t stop until Tafoya and Chioma are found.”
If they are, Tafoya will be turned over to Ventura County authorities to face charges here.
As it began working with the FBI, the Ventura Police department did take other measures. They contacted law enforcement agencies in San Diego and other communities near the Mexican border, in case the pair were seen again in the United States, Murray said.
As it stands, though, nearly five months have passed from the last time anyone in her family saw Chioma. All her clothes remain where she left them, and Chioma’s beloved puppy, Pinkie Stiles, is now being cared for by her family.
There have been no breathless dissections of the investigation by CNN’s Nancy Grace and there have been no tabloid covers asking in blaring letters where Chioma has gone.
The Reporter is not exempt from criticism. While its weekly format means the paper rarely covers any breaking crime stories, including kidnappings and disappearances, we, like other publications, did receive pleas for help when Gray first went missing. It wasn’t until the FBI announced a private organization, the Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation had set up a $5,000 reward for information leading to Gray’s safe return that something clicked and we realized the case had yet to be solved and that, months after her disappearance, she, like thousands of other missing children, has not become a national sensation.
This news stoked the questions. It may not be the type of coverage we do, but why wouldn’t this case be of interest to the community?
Chioma’s disappearance and the lack of coverage thereof has brought the attention of activists and children’s advocates across the country. When news spread of her disappearance alerts showed up across the Internet. Word has spread through postings on blogs such as Deidra Robey’s Black and Missing but Not Forgotten. Robey, who was unavailable for an interview at the time the Reporter contacted her, set up a news feed and fundraising efforts to publicize this and other cases of missing African Americans. She is one of many critics who argue there is a pattern of neglect from media outlets toward missing person cases involving non-white individuals and those of lower social standing.
In an e-mail, Robey claimed the Ventura Police Department consistently mishandled information that could have helped their case and that multiple mistakes were made on posters issued about Chioma’s disappearance (Posts about Gray on Robey’s site can be found at blackandmissing.blogspot.com/search?q=Chioma+Gray).
“Had [the Ventura Police Department] handled it correctly, the information would’ve got out quicker, and more news stations would have picked up on her story,” Robey said in the e-mail.
“I’m not a journalist, but I know that some would rather have the facts straight before they do a story. So, I don’t blame them (now) for that, but I am just as confused as everyone else as to why her case is being handled the way it is.”
Another organization, Saving Our Children, has publicized Chioma’s disappearance as part of monthly YouTube videos profiling missing person cases involving African Americans.
“The purpose of the organization is to help spread the fact that a lot of African American children go missing and don’t receive the coverage,” said Gaetane Borders, a representative of Saving our Children. Borders said the organization randomly selects cases to highlight among the many she receives, and Chioma’s was one of the ones selected.
“The case in and of itself is a very troublesome and interesting case altogher, so we wanted to alert the public,” Borders said.
She said if the media had made a greater push early on to cover the case, members of the public who might have encountered Chioma or Tafoya would have had the details to identify them.
She said a child is reported missing every 40 seconds in the United States.
“That’s a preponderance of kids who don’t get media coverage,” Borders said. “Thirty-three percent of these kids are African American. If you look at the news coverage you’re not really seeing 33 percent of these kids identified or shown in the news or on milk cartons and everything.”
It’s not that Caucasian children or children of other ethnic groups don’t deserve coverage, Borders said, just that all missing children should be publicized in the first 24 hours. She said it’s better to err on the side of caution and publicize too much information, even for runaways.
“I think we need to put every single safeguard in place for children who don’t return home when they’re supposed to be home,” she said. “We have far more to lose by not broadcasting it as loud as possible, than by overdoing it.”
Vance, of the Ventura Police Department, defended the investigation into Gray’s disappearance and the criticism the department has received.
“It’s a reality of doing police work,” he said. “You’re always going to have people asking questions. A lot of times when people are asking questions they don’t understand the reasons for or why not to do an AMBER alert or some of the other things we do.”
Locally, some are upset the media aren’t in better contact with the African American community.
“This child has been missing all this time,” said John R. Hatcher III, the executive director and immediate past president of the Ventura County NAACP, during an April 28 interview. “You are the first person, the first person to call me.”
Hatcher said local media do not understand the black community in Ventura County.
“We feel the attention given to us as black people is very little,” he said. “When it comes to black folks, the Star, the newspapers and radio and T.V., when it comes to a black person if we did not rob a bank or kill or shoot somebody we don’t make the front page.”
The black community in Ventura County is invisible, Hatcher said, so cases like Chioma’s often go unreported (the Star did publish a story about the case on Feb. 29 and a brief about Chioma’s disappearance on Feb. 5). Despite the stories it has produced, Hatcher said he feels the Star is “institutionally racist” from a black point of view.
“They don’t seek out and look up and find out what we’re doing to write about it,” he said.
Star editor Joe Howry defended his paper’s journalism.
“We publish our newspaper every day, and our record speaks for itself,” Howry said in an e-mail. “Mr. Hatcher’s inflammatory comments are untrue, unsubstantiated and flat irresponsible. I am comfortable with our readers judging for themselves about our coverage of the black community in Ventura County.”
Instead of focusing on negative perceptions of African Americans, Hatcher said reporters interested in fairly covering their community should go to their churches and community events.
“We have weddings, we have picnics, we have churches,” Hatcher said. “We have a lot of stuff in our community that you never ever talk about until something bad happens.”
Howry said there is merit to the argument that racial and social dynamics play a role in how media cover disappearance cases, but that he thinks it is more typical in television than print journalism.
“The only thing I can tell you about our coverage of the Chioma Gray case is that it’s a local story with a great deal of local interest,” Howry said. “I believe the dynamics of the story have more to do with the interest than the ethnic make-up of the participants. I know for us that is the case.”
Vance and Murray said they don’t influence the type of stories that run in the local media, and that they have no biases when pursuing cases, whether there are racial, religious, sexual orientation-related or other factors at play.
Both also said the evidence they have suggests both individuals were involved in the planning of the incident, despite Black’s belief Chioma wouldn’t have left so much of her life behind.
“That may all be true,” Vance said. “I don’t know, but what she agreed to, and obviously I would think if she was going to runaway with somebody and she and her friend or her boyfriend or whatever has agreed to do, I don’t think that’s something you’re going to go tell your mom or your parents and say, “Hey, I’m running away and going to Mexico.’”
As a parent of a teenager himself, though, Vance said he knew where she was coming from.
“I would want the same things as a parent,” he said. “I would want everyone working on it and doing that diligently.”
The department has publicized the case with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he said, and both the Ventura Police Department and the FBI have expended a lot of effort on the case.
“We’ve done everything we can do getting information out and warrants out into the system,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can do notifying people, using any technological advances to enhance this investigation. It’s just a matter of right now hoping one of those things falls into place.”