WILMINGTON — The Wilmington Police Department has publicly defended how it handled the missing persons case of two Wilmington women — a defense that is at odds with family members, close friends, and roommates of the victims who have sharply criticized the investigation.
The decomposed bodies of Paige Escalera and Stephanie Mayorga were found on May 4 in a wooded marsh about 150 feet from the intersection of River Road and Independence Boulevard, nearly three weeks after they were last seen leaving their Wilmington apartment on April 15.
For many, frustration with the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) peaked when it was revealed that a 911 caller had reported a high-speed accident the night they were last seen. Responding officers and emergency crews stayed on the scene only eight minutes and failed to return the next morning to search more thoroughly in daylight.
But interviews with two roommates of the women have also suggested that the department did not seriously begin looking for the two women until nine days after a missing persons report was filed.
A day before officers finally searched the apartment and obtained surveillance footage, one of the roommates, Natalie, said Escalera’s parents traveled from Fayetteville and demanded answers from the department, including why they hadn’t yet been contacted.
“The mother told me that they had not assigned a detective to the case yet,” Natalie said. “And, at this point, the girls had been missing for more than ten days. So she was furious.”
[Editor’s Note: Due to the level of local and national interest in the story and fear of any backlash, Natalie asked that only her first name be used.]
Timeline suggests delays from start
According to interviews with both roommates, press releases, and a review of phone records, a timeline of events surrounding the investigation shows key delays throughout the process: delays in assigning an officer to the case, searching for clues, notifying parents, publicizing the missing persons case, beginning a large-scale search for the women, finding the 911 call, and ultimately discovering their bodies in Escalera’s crashed car.
A WPD spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions about these delays. She also didn’t address whether there is a department protocol in place to compare 911 records with a missing persons report, and if so, why such protocols were not successfully followed until the 911 call was unearthed, leading to the discovery of the crashed vehicle on May 4.
“We have provided ample information regarding this investigation,” WPD spokesperson Linda Thompson said in an email on Friday. “If the family members of either of these women have questions or concerns about our investigation, we have offered our assistance and continue to make ourselves available to them.”
Days earlier, she addressed questions of whether there were any concerns that the initial search of the reported accident scene were not as thorough as it should have been.
“We believe that the officers who responded to the crash call on April 15 acted appropriately. We did not return to the crash site the following day because there was no evidence to show that there was a crash,” Thompson said.
She also said the department doesn’t have a protocol to determine how extensively officers must search the scene of an accident reported as serious and high speed in nature.
Following the release of a pre-recorded press conference announcing the conclusion of the investigation on May 14, another WPD spokesperson told WECT that an internal investigation into the handling of the 911 call showed no wrongdoing.
Below, read the timeline of events surrounding the investigation, according to roommates of the missing women, press releases, and prior reporting (dates are ‘month/day’):
|4/15||Women disappear, accident reported: Women last seen leaving their apartment in midtown Wilmington; 911 caller reports a car traveling at high speed, failing to stop at intersection of Independence Blvd. and River Rd. before “disappearing into the trees”; WPD officers and emergency crews stay on scene for eight minutes before departing.|
|4/19||Report filed: Roommate files missing persons report with the WPD.|
|4/21||WPD informed of surveillance footage: Roommate calls WPD and is told a detective was assigned to the case but “was focused on domestic things” and says another detective would likely take over; roommate informs WPD there is surveillance footage at the apartment and invites officers to search the missing women’s room.|
|4/23||Cell phone turned over: After finding Escalera’s phone, roommate turns it over to the WPD.|
|4/25||Parents first notified by roommate: Roommate confirms with WPD that parents had not been notified; after finding phone numbers for the parents online and in Escalera’s phone, she informs families that their daughters are missing; roommate informs WPD officer who lives in apartment complex of surveillance footage.|
|4/27||Parents demand answers: Escalera’s parents demand answers from the WPD, including why they had not yet been notified; WPD issues first public announcement of missing women via Facebook.|
|4/28||Officers search apartment: Story receives national attention from People.com (followed on 4/30 by NBC News and other outlets); WPD officers search apartment, recover surveillance footage, and discover the make and model of the car the women were seen driving away in.|
|4/29||Extensive regional search announced: WPD Captain Thomas Tilmon holds a press conference; announces disappearance was “suspicious” in nature; says there has been an extensive regional search using helicopters and nearby agencies; uncorroborated information shows car may be somewhere in Brunswick County.|
|5/4||Car, bodies found: WPD officer finds Escalera’s car in a wooded marsh near the intersection of River Rd. and Independence Blvd. with two severely decomposed bodies inside; rumors begin to circulate that there was a 911 call on the night of the women’s disappearance.|
|5/6||911 call obtained: After a public records request, Port City Daily receives call logs and recorded conversation between 911 caller and a dispatcher; call logs show WPD officers and emergency crews stayed on scene for eight minutes.|
|5/14||Press conference, but no press: WPD holds virtual press conference, closed to members of the press; says alcohol and speed were “major factors” in death; promised the department “worked diligently to find the missing couple”; claims officers left the scene because there were no visible signs of an accident and needed to respond to an armed robbery and reports of shots fired.|
“Investigators got to work,” but when?
At a virtual press conference announcing the conclusion of the investigation, one that was closed to members of the press, Deputy Police Chief Alex Sotelo said “investigators got to work” after the report was filed on April 19, four days after their disappearance.
“Over the course of the next two weeks, the Wilmington Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division worked diligently to find the missing couple,” Sotelo said.
But she didn’t specify exactly when they began a diligent search. According to a second roommate, Andrew Blackwell, he called the department’s non-emergency number on April 21, two days after the report was filed, after learning no detectives had yet reached out to Natalie. He said he was told “a detective was assigned to it but he was focused on domestic things,” and that a different investigator would likely be assigned to it.
At this time, Blackwell informed the officer there was surveillance footage at the apartment that could be helpful, and officers were welcome to come search the apartment.
Blackwell recalled saying, “‘If they want to search the room, give me a call; we’ll make sure they can get in as fast as they need to do what they need to do,” but noted that in response he heard, “Nothing. No response; nobody ever called me.”
The two roommates discovered Escalera’s cell phone and turned it over to the original responding officer on Thursday, April 23. He said an officer first called to ask about surveillance footage on April 25 — six days after the report was filed and two days after he informed the WPD that such footage existed.
“A day or two went by after turning over the phone. I called and asked, ‘Have you guys contacted the parents? Have you gotten any information out of the cell phone?’ No, they didn’t contact the parents,” Natalie recalled the WPD telling her.
Because the department had not yet notified parents of the missing women, Natalie said she found contact information for parents of the missing women after researching online and looking through Escalera’s phone. She called the WPD to ask about adding the families’ phone numbers to the report, but the officer who answered said the detective working the case wasn’t in the office. He said to try again the next day.
When Natalie informed the parents of their missing daughters on Sunday, April 26, she said the WPD suddenly began taking the case seriously.
“After I contacted the parents, the ball got rolling really quick,” Natalie said.
The WPD first publicized the missing persons case the following day, on Monday, April 27, through a Facebook post. That same day Escalera’s parents searched the apartment, looking for clues as to where their daughter could be. They also went to WPD headquarters to voice their frustration on being left in the dark.
“They made a big tussle with the police department, and the next day we had six officers in our apartment,” Natalie said. “No [personal protective equipment], looking through one bedroom and one bathroom. Up until this point they had been telling us: Because of COVID, we’ve had a lot of officers on leave or off-duty or working from home. And all of the sudden we have six cops standing in my apartment to go through one bedroom.”
She said the search took place sometime on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 28. Just after noon, the missing couple first received national attention when People.com published a story, adding pressure to the department to step up its search for the women.
At the apartment, officers found paperwork the families had already forwarded to the WPD — tax returns, bank statements, a car manual for the missing 2013 Dodge Dart — and a laptop, iPad, clothes, makeup, and toothbrushes all left behind, according to Natalie.
When Captain Thomas Tilmon addressed the investigation with reporters at the front steps of the department the following day, he was asked why parents were first notified a full week after Natalie had filed the missing persons report. He replied that the “normal bureaucratic process that takes place” when filing a report into the system may have been delayed by Covid-19 work restrictions at the department.
“That doesn’t mean our officers and detectives aren’t out here working the cases, but the other bureaucrats who work within the police department are working under different conditions,” Tilmon told reporters. “And I’m not sure how that’s affecting how the reports process through the system, and whether that was part of the delay. I have no idea.”
‘I think the ball was dropped’
Both roommates believe the WPD did not take the case seriously until the parents were notified, but Blackwell said his anger toward the department peaked when he first saw the accident scene.
“I was upset after finding out that somebody called about an accident right here the night they disappeared,” he said. “To see where the car ended up — I’m having lots of issues on how nobody found anything that night when they went out there.”
For Natalie, a senior at UNCW, the investigation was flawed from beginning to end.
“I think that mistakes were made in the beginning of the process, they were made in the middle of the process, and they were made in the end of the process,” she said. “I don’t think there was ever a correct foothold made by the police.”
“I think the ball was dropped quite a few times,” he said. “And I don’t think it was just one person. This just never should’ve happened the way it did.”
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