VANISHED: Recent TN law could breathe new life into old missing persons cases

MEMPHIS, Tenn — Where is Ricarda Tillman-Lockett? The young wife and mother disappeared 11 years ago leaving her family, a community and police searching for the answer to that question.

However, WREG has uncovered details about a tool that is open to both the public and law enforcement that could help solve cases like Lockett's, except we learned it's hardly being used.

A new Tennessee law could change that, and possibly lead to closure for families with missing loved ones.

Across the country there are some 85,000 active missing person cases.

Richenda Pritchard's niece, Ricarda Tillman-Lockett, was reported missing Feb. 19, 2007.

"You don't know what happened to them...you don't know where they are. You don't know if they're alive. You don't know if they're dead," said Lieutenant Cindy Capps of the Memphis Police Department.

Tillman-Lockett reportedly left work but never picked up her young son from a relative's home that February night.

Something that immediately seemed odd to Tillman-Lockett's aunt, Richenda Pritchard, "She'd call all through the day and ask 'how's my boy?' like that, and then I didn't hear from her after she got of work."

Pritchard raised Tillman-Lockett, or as she called her "Rica", so she said she knew.

"I thought, 'Oh no. Something's wrong, something's wrong!" she said.

Tillman-Lockett was estranged from her husband and living in a shelter for domestic violence victims at the time of her disappearance. Her missing persons case was eventually turned over to homicide.

"I felt like she got killed. I do," Pritchard said.

But 11 years later, police have yet to make an arrest or find Tillman-Lockett's body.

"If she's buried or if she's somewhere, if they could just tell us then we'll get her and take her home," she said.

It's misery for the family and a mystery to police.

"She's been missing for a really long time. Yes she has,"

Lieutenant Cindy Capps is with the Memphis Police Department's Missing Persons Unit.

"At some point, especially on the older cases, they go cold and you do random database checks to see if there's been any activity in any area," Lieutenant Capps said.

Because of a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, Memphis police got a tip in 2017 that remains found in Oklahoma could be those of Tillman-Lockett.

Police obtained DNA from Tillman-Lockett's mother and her son, who's now being raised by Pritchard.

The remains weren't Tillman-Lockett's. But that full DNA profile, and potential to match remains of John and Jane Does, is what Todd Matthews calls the power of NamUs.

"If you're a good investigator, a good detective, you're going to get in there and you very well could solve your own case by looking through the cases," Matthews said.

Unlike other databases for missing persons, NamUs is open to the public. So families can add details to their loved one's profiles.

The problem, according to Matthews who serves as the Director of Case Management, is not many people, including some law enforcement agencies, are using it.

For example, in Tennessee "There are close to 2,000 missing persons in NCIC and there's just a little over 250 in NamUs. "We've got, like, a quarter of the cases in there," Matthews said.

But last year, Tennessee legislators passed a bill to hopefully change that.

The "Help Find the Missing Act" now requires law enforcement agencies to enter missing persons cases into NamUs after 30 days.

"I think it puts a little more urgency on a missing adult," he said.

The law also requires coroners to enter DNA, fingerprints and dental records for unidentified bodies.

"If they see the missing person sooner, they have a chance to identify somebody sooner," Matthews said.

The Memphis Police Department is one of the agencies with a lot of cases in NamUs.

Lieutenant Capps says the new law does create another challenge for already overloaded departments, but that doesn't matter to her as a veteran police officer who keeps photos of the missing on her desktop.

"I literally stare at their pictures. I want to find them so much and be able to make that phone call to that sister, mom, daughter or family member and let them know we can finally bring their loved one home," the Lieutenant said.

It's a phone call Pritchard is waiting on.

"I want he to be able to go home. Her mother will have closure, we will have closure. We'll have closure," she said.

If you have any details about the disappearance of Ricarda Tillman-Lockett, or any missing persons case, call (901)-636-4479. If you have a missing loved one, click here to be sure their case is in NamUs.

The law also requires the TBI to maintain files on missing persons cases that they receive. If a missing person is found alive, law enforcement has 24 hours to report it to NamUs and the TBI.