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Jerry Davich: When does a missing person become a ‘missing person’?

Denise Bernal Portage (right) talks with clerk Denise Mullins (left) as she drops off fliers about her missing brother his

Denise Bernal of Portage (right) talks with clerk Denise Mullins (left) as she drops off fliers about her missing brother and his girlfriend at the Hobart Police Department in Hobart, Ind. Thursday January 31, 2013. Danny Slawnikowski and his girlfriend Tammy Clark have been missing since January 12. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM



Where is Danny Slawnikowski?

The 51-year-old Portage man has been missing since Jan. 12 after telling his mother he was going to the store in her car, reportedly with his 43-year-old girlfriend, Tammy Clark.

He has not been seen or heard from since, his family says. And neither has Clark or the car.

“We don’t know if he’s alive or dead, or if he’s laying in an alley somewhere,” said Slawnikowski’s sister, Denise Bernal of Portage. “He’s a missing person.”

Or his he? It depends on the circumstances, I’m told.

Slawnikowski’s family has tried calling his cell phone, but no one picks up. They keep in contact with his workplace, Great Lakes Plant Services in Gary, but he’s a no-show there, too.

On Jan. 21, Slawnikowski’s 76-year-old mother, Margaret Mavron, contacted the Portage Police Department to file a missing person’s report. And also to alert them to her missing car, a 2004 blue two-door Chevy Cavalier (with license plate number D185FF).

The nature of the call to police was “unauthorized control of a motor vehicle,” and the responding officer did his duty that day by contacting other nearby police departments to see if Slawnikowski had popped up anywhere. He didn’t.

The officer also asked dispatch and other patrol officers to check the county jail, local hospitals, and nearby motels for Slawnikowski, Clark, or the car. But nothing turned up.

“We also sent out an SO3 (area broadcast) just in case an officer from another jurisdiction came in contact with the vehicle or the missing people,” said Portage police spokesman Sgt. Keith Hughes.

Police discovered that Clark has an outstanding Small Claims warrant in Porter County, and she is on probation in Lake County. Slawnikowski is on probation in Porter County.

He has a lengthy police record through the years, and his family said he’s a known drug user, notably crack cocaine.

“He’s been gone a few days before, but he’s never away from home for this long,” said Bernal, who was told that her brother and Clark may be at a “crack house” in Gary. But its exact location was unknown.

“Portage police told me he’s a drug addict and if I want to find him I will have to do whatever it takes to find him. They are not going to go looking,” said Bernal, who is working on posting fliers in the region.

Should we search, or care?

Slawnikowski, who’s divorced with two children living out of state, is no stranger to being in the newspapers. But it’s typically in the police blotter.

Last August, he was charged with failure to appear. Before that, he was charged with theft. Before that, he was accused of failing to pay more than $45,000 to support his two children between 1995 and 2009.

In 1998, a warrant was issued on felony D charges of theft, and a separate warrant from Lake County on check deception. He was convicted of stealing $6,000 in deposits from a Portage convenience store in 1997.

He also spent 18 months in Indiana State Prison in Michigan City for the child support charges, getting released in 2010.

You get the point. He’s not a model citizen. Neither is Clark, a mother of three with a similarly long police record. In fact, both of them have reportedly violated their probations, and new arrest warrants may now be pending.

But does that mean their families should stop caring about them? Or should they stop trying to locate them? Or stop reminding police that they’re missing?

This is the intriguing aspect of this debatable issue, which is more common than you might think. It’s also the crux of this column, which may lead to Slawnikowski’s reappearance or possibly spark a fresh dialogue on a touchy subject.

Police routinely get reports of a “missing person” only to soon discover that the person is a chronic drug user who slips out of society on a regular basis.

“If the mayor’s son was missing for 19 days, you know there would be a search party out looking for him,” Bernal said angrily.

Maybe, but when should someone’s shady reputation play a major factor in searching for a missing person? How much effort should be spent in continuing such searches for someone who may be purposely off the grid for multiple reasons?

Then again, what if harm came to Slawnikowski or his girlfriend? What if they’re being held captive somewhere or if they were killed and their bodies’ dumped?

Is it an easy decision for you to make? Or a difficult one?

I’ve heard from parents of adult children with such addictions or mental illness problems, and they’re convinced their kids have a disability of sorts. Of course a search should continue, and not simply an obligatory one.

I’ve also heard from others who believe adults of this age should take responsibility for their own actions. If they chose to steal their mother’s car and steal away from society for a month, that’s on them. Not us. And not on police.

For the rest of you, a photo of Slawnikowski accompanies this column in case you recognize him and want to contact police or his family.

“I don’t want to think the worst but I have not received any type of news to make me think anything positive,” Bernal said. “I just pray he is found and is alive.”

Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.thelakeshorefm.com.



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