Missing St. Thomas student's mom gets political

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2009 - 12:17 AM

The mother of a missing college student told legislators that state law needs refining on when the search for a missing person should start.

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Sally Zamlen, second from right, got some encouragement a well-wisher after she testified Wednesday before the House Finance Committee on a bill that would give law enforcement wider latitude in starting a missing person’s search. Zamlen’s son, Dan, went missing 10 days ago. Her husband, Dale, is at far left.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Ten days after her college-age son went missing in St. Paul, Sally Zamlen said police moved too slowly in their search for a young adult in danger.

She refuses to accept, she said, that as a 19-year-old, her son Dan Zamlen, a freshman at the University of St. Thomas, had the right to go missing -- had a right to be alone.

No, she said, searchers should have been out in force that very first morning. And to that end, the Eveleth, Minn., woman found herself before a state House panel Wednesday, speaking in support of a bill that she hopes will force quicker, more intensive searches for missing adults.

Not that she was letting go of the task at hand. Of the ongoing search for her son, she told legislators, "We are seriously, seriously running out of time."

The bill, dubbed "Brandon's Law," would expand the state's missing children's law to include adults who are missing and endangered. Authorities would take missing persons reports "without delay," and conduct preliminary investigations to see if fears appear founded. If so, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension then would be consulted because of "the fact that the first two hours are critical," according to the bill now headed to the House floor.

Zamlen said she believes the bill would have forced a nearly immediate, full-out search for her son, who has Type I diabetes and reportedly said by cell phone to a friend, "Oh, my gosh, Anna, where are you? Help!" while he was walking on St. Clair Avenue near Mississippi River Boulevard early on April 5.

Bloodhounds and police would have combed the bluffs that day, Zamlen said.

Not a perfect solution

But the bill's chief author, Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the proposal would not go so far as to dictate when authorities would "begin scaling walls" in efforts to turn up missing adults. Investigators still would have discretion to search when and how they see fit, he said. Of the Zamlens and others, Seifert said, "I can't give them false promises."

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association, said that the law does guarantee, however, that the state's 87 sheriff's offices and 320 police departments take a uniform approach to determining whether an adult is missing and endangered, which he sees as a positive step.

"Previously, different agencies might be responding to different situations differently," he said.

Zamlen's frustrations were shared Wednesday by Annette Swanson, whose son, Brandon Swanson, 19, has been missing since last May, when his car went into a ditch along the Lincoln and Lyon county line near Tauton, Minn. He was on his cell phone with his father, she said, and then he was "just gone, vanished."

"I was told, 'You know m'am, he's an adult, he has a right to be missing,' " Swanson said in a telephone interview. "But don't tell me that without finding out the circumstances first."

She is glad, she said, that the bill now named after her son at least forces that preliminary step.

St. Paul response

Looking back over the past 10 days, Dale Zamlen, who is Dan Zamlen's father, took a more charitable view of police efforts than did his wife: "Law enforcement did as well as they could," he told the House panel. "Their hands are tied."

Sally Zamlen said police should have been more aggressive in seeking her son's cell-phone records. In addition, she said, police had an officer stationed at the river bluffs April 5, warning people away from the slippery terrain, rather than launching an intensive search there themselves.

St. Paul police spokesman Peter Panos said Wednesday that officers who responded to the initial call about 3 a.m. had immediately searched for signs of foul play near the intersection of St. Clair Avenue and Mississippi River Boulevard. Canine officers also had searched on the bluffs hours before fire personnel were summoned for a more thorough search that began about 4:30 p.m., he added.

A general rule for missing-adult cases, he said, is that investigations are handled at the district level for 24 hours before the handoff to the missing persons unit. In the Zamlen case, he said, Western District officers worked with the student's friends that first day, trying to glean where he may have gone.

As for the cell-phone records, Panos said that judges require that certain criteria be met before they sign off on a search warrant.

One must consider, too, the reaction of someone whose records have been searched -- someone who decided to just disappear for a day.

"Isn't my cell phone private?" Panos said that person might say. "As an adult, don't you have a right to privacy?"

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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