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How a poker game in jail could solve a missing person case in Ohio

A group of Ohio activists is betting on an unusual tool to help find new leads in missing persons cases – playing-card sets that will be distributed to local jail inmates.

Cleveland Missing, a nonprofit focused on helping families of missing persons, created a deck of cards featuring 52 cases from northern Ohio.

“We picked cold cases, and tried to stay between (year) 2000 to 2017 or 2019. We wanted them to be older cases that don’t have a lot of traction anymore,” Devan Althen told Fox News Digital.

“And so from there, we narrowed it down by the ones that had the most details to be able to give out there and then picked ones where the families are still actively looking for them… I really wanted to honor those families as much as I could.”

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Althen, the law enforcement liaison for Cleveland Missing, spearheaded the project – applying for the grant, creating the deck and distributing the sets to northern Ohio jails near the incident locations.

Each card includes a picture of the missing person, their age, when they went missing and the latest information law enforcement released, along with Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s tip line.

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The playing cards are free and given to inmates because they likely either know about crimes that happened in their community, or even got away with a crime, Althen said.

“We all know that inmates love to talk, and so the hope is that while inmates are playing with these cards, it triggers memories that they might have surrounding cases in these cards,” Althen said.

“And a lot of times too, it’s not (the inmate saying), ‘I know what happened to the girl on Jack of Hearts.’ It’s hearing other inmates make comments about a case on a card and sharing what the other inmates said with the hope of getting time off their sentence.”

The greater Cleveland area, including the city’s suburbs, has seen high numbers of missing persons this year, including children and teenagers who inexplicably don’t even have pictures on file.

Over 900 children are currently reported as missing from the Cleveland-Akron area, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office’s missing children website. 

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Cleveland authorities have downplayed the numbers in recent interviews and press releases. “We know that law enforcement recovers 90% of the children that go missing,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told the Columbus Dispatch.

About 18,000 children are reported missing on average each year over the past decade, but the number of cases declined each year since 2017, with the exception of 2022, the newspaper reported. That year reportedly saw a slight increase from the prior year.

In 2022, the Columbus metropolitan area led the state in missing children reports, the Columbus Dispatch reported based on information from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

That’s the region where Cleveland Missing is focusing its attention with the playing cards, Althen said. “Columbus and north,” she said.

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“Our hope is that while they’re playing these cards, they start talking,” Althen said. “And then inmates start relaying these messages to law enforcement, and tips are being generated, so we’re able to start solving some of these cases that are on these cards.”

For Althen, and the volunteer nonprofit’s co-founder, Sylvia Colon, finding these missing kids is a personal mission. 

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“The important thing to remember is they’re (the families) looking every single day for their loved one,” Colon told Fox News Digital. “Just because the case isn’t in the new doesn’t mean they’re not searching… There’s still an empty place at the dinner table.”

Colon rattled off several families that she knows personally who haven’t given up looking for their loved ones who have been missing for a decade or more.

BODYCAM CAPTURES DRAMATIC SHOOT-OUT WITH MAN ACCUSED OF SLAUGHTERING FAMILY BEFORE VANISHINGf

“These families’ emotions are very raw. To this day, it’s like it happened today,” Colon said. “They don’t stop looking. They don’t stop caring. They don’t stop being sad. But they also have to keep living life because other people depend on them.

“So it’s that great balancing act. And then there’s guilt about the fact that you’re continuing to live a life. So it’s all those crazy emotions.”

Althen said the card effort also lets families know “that their loved one wasn’t forgotten.

“There’s at least 52 families now that know that their cold case might not being talked about because time has past, but people are still trying to be able to help solve these cases for them,” she said.

To leave tips for police on missing persons in and around Cleveland, call 216-623-7697 or email helpfindthemissing@city.cleveland.oh.us.

Cleveland Missing is located at 2937 West 25th St. in Cleveland and can be reached at 216-232-6470. 

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