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Kidnapping investigation raises new questions about reports of missing Black women

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last month, the Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit news outlet, posted a video of a local community leader who raised concerns about missing and possibly murdered Black women in the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY CALDWELL: I am a little upset right now. The reason I'm upset is because we got four young ladies that have been murdered within the last week here off of 85th and Prospect. We got a serial killer again. And ain't nobody saying nothing.

CHANG: The Kansas City, Mo., Police Department called these reports, quote, "unfounded." But a horrific discovery is now raising new questions. Last Friday, police in the nearby city of Excelsior Springs arrested a white man on multiple charges after a 22-year-old Black woman said that she had escaped his basement after being held captive for weeks.

Ryan Sorrell, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Defender, has been covering this case. He joins us now, and we should note there are disturbing details in this report. Welcome, Ryan Sorrell.

RYAN SORRELL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CHANG: So first, what can you tell us about the suspect in this case, Timothy Haslett Jr.? He's been charged with kidnapping, rape and assault, right? Can you tell us more?

SORRELL: Yeah, that's correct. And just to - also to provide some more context to this situation, we as a Black news outlet - the only Black digital news outlet in our area - reported on this story first, as you mentioned. And after the police department said that - that our reports were completely unfounded, is what they said, even though they did not take any time to look into the reports. They did not reach out to us to ask where did we get this information. They didn't reach out to the bishop that initially made that video. They didn't reach out to any community members. The Black community generally was silenced, in essence, because of that. And so that was also deeply concerning to us. And that is another just aspect that is deeply troubling about this situation.

CHANG: All of this does sound astonishing and deeply concerning. Can we talk about this woman who escaped? She's identified by just the initials T.J. in court documents. Neighbors reported finding her earlier this month screaming for help with a collar and lock around her neck. Do you have any information on how she's doing now?

SORRELL: We know that she is out of the hospital at this point. And she also - you can read this in the court documents from the prosecutor's probable cause statement - she said that two of her friends did not make it out and had been murdered by Timothy Haslett Jr. as well. So right now, the police are still looking into that, and they have opened the investigation. There's multiple agencies that are working collectively to try to investigate where other victims might be.

CHANG: Well, I understand that Excelsior Springs and Clay County authorities are looking for any possible connection between this suspect, Timothy Haslett Jr., and other victims or people who have gone missing in the area. Nothing's confirmed on the connections yet, but your publication's reporting - as you've been mentioning all along during this conversation - it's largely been about the relationship between law enforcement and marginalized communities in your area. Can you talk about, like, what is your hope now? What is the hope of the community about where this investigation is going to go from here at this point?

SORRELL: To be frank and honest, we are doing investigatory work ourselves because that's truly how this information came about - was from us in the community. There are numerous organizations that are doing incredible work in the community. And so that's kind of what our next step is, is we're working to create our own database of missing Black people in the community so that we're not relying on the police department to do this work and ensure the safety of our communities.

CHANG: That is Ryan Sorrell of the Kansas City Defender. Thank you very much for your time and for your reporting.

SORRELL: Absolutely. Thank you very much.

CHANG: And we should note, Timothy Haslett Jr. has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Kansas City PD tells NPR the department values and hears the community and that anyone with a missing loved one should file a report. The department also says it still has no reports filed about missing Black women from the city's 85th Street Prospect Avenue area. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.