When Does the FBI Investigate Missing Persons?

I have received several inquiries from readers and listeners asking why the FBI is leading the Gabby Petito missing persons, now murder case. As part of my mission to show you who the FBI is and what the FBI does, I want to address the general question.* When does the FBI assist or open a missing persons case? Before a discussion regarding the FBI’s involvement in a missing adult case without a demand for ransom, the term “missing person” must be defined as it pertains to a criminal matter.

Just because an adult has gone missing doesn’t make it a crime that requires a response from law enforcement.

People are allowed to just walk away from their former lives, family and friends to start a new life without telling anyone their plans. It happens. It may be difficult to accept, but our loved ones, over the age of 18, have the right to voluntarily disappeared or run away.

However, if there is evidence that indicates their disappearance may have been the result of foul play, a missing person case will be initiated by law enforcement.

The FBI will officially open and lead a missing persons investigation when foul play is suspected and…

  • The victim’s last known whereabout was on federal property, such as a federal park, an Indian reservation, or the victim was onboard a commercial ship in international waters.
  • The missing person is a US president, or other elected or appointed federal officials, such as cabinet members and members of congress or is a federal judge, a federal prosecutor, or federal law enforcement official, such as an FBI, DEA, IRS, or Secret Service agent and their missing person status is believed to be related to their official employment.

When authorized, by officially opening a case investigating agents are able to use the full resources of the FBI, including having a federal prosecutor assigned, employing the subpoena powers of a federal grand jury, distributing FBI wanted and missing persons flyers, and offering substantial reward monies. You may also want to read my blog post – When Does the FBI Investigate Murder?

The FBI initially entered the Gabby Petito missing persons case at the request of the local Florida police department investigating her disappearance. She was last seen while visiting the Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest in northern Wyoming. Her body was later discovered on park property. The FBI has primary jurisdiction for murder violations occurring on federal property.

Listen to this two-part as case review to learn more about FBI missing person investigations – Episode 126: Jeff Rinek – Yosemite Murders, In the Name of the Children (Part 1) and Episode 127: Jeff Rinek – Yosemite Park Murders, Child Predators, PTSD (Part 2).

Most often, the FBI’s participation in a missing person case is based on a request for assistance from state, local, tribal, and campus law enforcement partners.

Requests for FBI assistance are often made in multi-jurisdictional investigations. Prior to contacting the FBI, the local agency will have determined the missing adult was, more likely than not, a victim of foul play. What resources the FBI makes available are determined on a case-by-case basis. Those resources may include manpower for searches and witness interviews and investigative assistance for crime scene response, evidence analysis, consultations regarding victim and subject behavioral profiles, in addition to other specialized resources.

The nature and length of the assistance provided by the FBI depends on when notification of the missing person was made; the facts and circumstances encompassing the person going missing or being abducted; and the capabilities of the local law enforcement making the request. The FBI may offer crisis response, investigative assistance, forensic support, intelligence and information sharing, and training.

Depending on the size and resources of the requesting agency, what they may need most is manpower or “boots on the ground.”

The FBI is prepared to offer the assistance of field office and crisis management personnel for searches and interviews. With 56 field offices and several hundred resident agencies or satellite sub-offices throughout the country and 63 legal attaché offices—commonly known as Legats—and 30 smaller suboffices in key cities around the globe, providing coverage for more than 180 countries, territories, and islands, through a system of leads, FBI agents can quickly disseminate information or interview witnesses to gather testimony and evidence.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) provides criminal investigative analysis to federal, state, local, tribal, and campus law enforcement partners. Profilers review crimes from both a behavioral and investigative perspective by researching and assessing facts of a criminal act, interpreting offender behavior, and interaction with the victim, as exhibited during the commission of the crime, or as displayed in the crime scene. Specifically, the BAUs provide crime analysis, investigative suggestions, profiles of unknown offenders, threat analysis, critical incident analysis, interview strategies, major case management, search warrant assistance, prosecutive and trial strategies, and expert testimony.

Wireless intercept and tracking may be a crucial investigative tool needed to locate a missing person. Experienced and highly trained FBI Field Office Agents are available to assist with historical cell data, conduct in-depth historical cell phone analysis, as well as track cell phone data in real time to identify locations of a suspect(s)’ or a victim(s)’ cell phone. (Service Guide Chief-Sheriff.pdf (sheriffs.org)

ViCAP assists in locating missing persons and identifying unknown live and deceased persons through the comparison of physical characteristics, fingerprints and dental/body X-rays.

The Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) serves as a DNA database for missing persons. The FBI maintains the database and analysts assist investigators with case linkages and other analysis. The web-based tool is available to law enforcement agencies to connect missing persons, and unidentified human remains, as well as homicides, and sexual assaults, that may have occurred in different areas of the country, providing a way for police departments to communicate about similar cases and, possibly link crimes by connecting details, victims, and suspects. Listen to this episode to learn more about ViCAP  – Episode 176: Michael Harrigan – ViCAP, Highway Serial Killings Initiative (Part 1)

National Crime Information Center (NCIC) contains millions of records for missing persons, and unidentified persons

The FBI’s NCIC is a nationwide computerized information system containing millions of records for missing persons, and unidentified persons stolen property, wanted persons, records. Offline searches in NCIC are available to obtain information not available through an online inquiry. Local law enforcement agencies may enter information pertaining to certain categories of missing persons, including missing children, into the NCIC missing person file.

The FBI Laboratory provides, without cost, forensic examinations, technical support, facial imaging, and scientific analysis assistance, trace evidence, to law enforcement agencies.

The FBI’s Evidence Response Teams (ERT) provide assistance in all areas of evidence collection management and assist with large, complex, and complicated scenes, cases with multiple scenes, and multi-jurisdictional cases. The ERT processes crime scenes, conducts searches, and provides training courses. Specialty operational response areas include underwater search and evidence response teams and the human scent of evidence team using specially trained canines. The FBI’s Computer Analysis Response Team (CART) examiners are available to assist state, local, tribal, and campus law enforcement partners around the country and the world to provide digital forensics and technical services to support to law enforcement and intelligence organizations. The FBI’s Regional Computer Forensic Laboratories (RCFL) may offer access to FBI certified computer forensic examiners, and the most advanced computer equipment available if their missing persons cases require digital forensics examinations and consultations.

The FBI is authorized to immediately become involved in an interstate kidnapping or a missing child investigation.


The legal definition of the federal crime of kidnapping is anyone who unlawfully seizes, confines, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person.

Federal jurisdiction over kidnapping extends to the following situations:

  • Kidnapping in which the victim is willfully transported in interstate or foreign commerce
  • Kidnapping within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States
  • Kidnapping within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States
  • Kidnapping in which the victim is a foreign official, an internationally protected person, or an official guest
  • Kidnapping in which the victim is a Federal officer or employee
  • International parental kidnapping in which the victim is a child under the age of 16 years.

The FBI will monitor other kidnapping situations when there is no evidence of interstate travel, and it offers assistance from various entities, including the FBI Laboratory. On the rare occasion that an American is kidnapped and held overseas, an FBI-led network of experienced investigators, negotiators, and foreign liaisons are in place to assist.

The kidnapping offense generally does not apply to matters involving the taking of a minor by a parent, except for international parental kidnapping. Listen to these FBI Retired Case File Review episodes about kidnapping to learn more.


The FBI was given jurisdiction under the “Lindbergh Law” in 1932 to immediately investigate any reported mysterious disappearance or kidnapping involving a child of “tender age”—usually 12 or younger. However, the FBI goes one step further, any child missing under the age of 18 the FBI can become involved as an assisting agency to the local police department. Listen to these FBI Retired Case File Review episodes about missing and kidnapped children to learn more.

There does not have to be a ransom demand, the child does NOT have to cross the state lines or be missing for 24 hours.

The FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team consists of experienced and highly trained FBI Field Office Agents available for rapid deployment to assist state, local, tribal, and campus law enforcement partners with investigations during fast-moving, recently occurring child abduction matters.

If you have information on the whereabouts of a person who has been reported missing, contact your local FBI office or nearest American Embassy or Consulate.

The FBI posts photographs and other information regarding missing and kidnapped persons in the Wanted by the FBI section of the FBI.gov website.

*Unless otherwise noted, the information contained in this post was obtained directly from the FBI.gov website, Department of Justice Criminal Resource Manual, and A FBI Program,Resource, and Service Guide for Chiefs and Sheriffs*

See also – When Does the FBI Investigate Fraud?

Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 300 episodes available on all popular podcast apps and YouTube.


  1. Kellie WatkinsApril 17, 2023

    I’m not comfortable with how subjective the criteria is for FBI involvement in adult missing persons cases. I’m even less comfortable with how subjectively FBI resources are allocated in these situations.

    Take the missing person case of Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa. Despite being heartbroken by the result, I’m incredibly thankful the FBI became involved so quickly and deployed so many resources to find her. It’s not that I believe Mollie Tibbetts didn’t deserve this level of investigation, she certainly did; I just ardently believe EVERYONE deserves this level of superior investigation. I think we’re all lying to ourselves if we pretend the level of national interest didn’t play a role in how quickly the FBI were called in, and also the budget that was approved for that investigation. Of course it did.

    It feels ridiculous to me that someone has to be lucky enough to: A. Have a local law enforcement agency willing to declare likely foul play and contact the FBI quickly, and B. A sympathetic-enough victim and national interest to warrant full FBI resources.

    If the FBI needs a bigger budget to level the playing field, and make their investigations more equitable, I’d support that entirely. The system, as it stands now, simply has too many systemic inequalities. The FBI is a national resource and should be deployed more fairly.

    1. TroyMay 20, 2023

      I agree, I need help in McAlester Oklahoma I have filed a missing persons report with local police and they take the weekend off, these folks retardant please someone send help

    2. John John FaulkJune 5, 2023

      Mantawic county sheriffs department in Wisconsin really needs to be investigated on the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey murder of Teresa Halbach , if you hear the story you can see corruption everywhere and now these two innocent men are appealing but looks like the circuit court judge Angela Sutkiewiecz is corrupt also denying appears that have Merritt and not even saying why she denied , please investigate those corrupt officials .

      1. Jerri WilliamsJune 6, 2023

        Please contact the authorities near you. I no longer investigate cases.

  2. Rose SmithMarch 17, 2023

    My sister and her three children went missing over two years ago. She lived in Anderson, In. But left there and went to California with a man she married a few weeks prior. He was arrested in California and transported back to Indiana on a felony warrant of manufacturing meth. That was in October 2020. She messaged me a few times on his fb messenger, the last time was in December 2020. Nobody has heard from her since, including a son she left behind in Indiana. Anderson police department said they can’t help me with this. We just need to know that her and the kids are ok.

    1. Jerri WilliamsMarch 18, 2023

      You must be heartbroken with worry. I hope you’ll be able to locate them soon.

  3. BalamaniJanuary 16, 2023

    My daughter was kidnapped by our relative on 08/12/2022 we gave a complaint to our local police but there is no result .my daughter is only 15 years old but the kidnapper 37 years old she was not completed her studies please find her and help us

    1. Jerri WilliamsJanuary 17, 2023

      I am so sorry about your daughter. Please continue to contact your local police and the police department in the location you believe she may have been taken. Unfortunately, I cannot assist you. I am no longer involved in active investigations. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Faith PattersonApril 16, 2022

    There’s a 30 year old female missing from Anderson, SC on Jan 30, 2022. Her name is Ms. Alexis Ware. Her vehicle was found abandoned with her purse and cell phone inside. Her hair bonnet was found on the ground beside the driver’s side. Local law enforcement did one search and nothing found. After a family representative pushed for FBI assistant. Anderson County Sheriff’s Office did request assistance from their FBI field office. The FBI did a formal announcement that they would give ‘investigative support’. What does this type of support include? Everything has been quiet on the forefront. Could this young woman be in a witness protection program? I understand that law enforcement can’t tell everything, however there’s been no words from them to the public that they are still investigating her strange and unusual disappearance.

    1. Jerri WilliamsApril 16, 2022

      The type of investigative support the FBI brings to the missing persons case is primarly based on the request and needs of the local police department, who are also in charge of whatinformation will be released to the public. I hope they find Alexis soon.

  5. Heahter KitchensMarch 22, 2022

    I have a nephew that has been missing for several years. I am not sure what to do about it. What my first steps in finding him would be. I know that he is on disability and is receiving a check. Is there anyway that we can see if his SS checks are still being cashes/deposited, and if so is there activity in the account.

    1. Jerri WilliamsMarch 22, 2022

      I can’t imagine how devastating it is to not know the whereabouts of a loved one. Your idea to find out if your nephew is cashing his Social Security checks is a good one. However, I don’t know if Social Security is authorized to disclose this information with you. I suggest that you call and ask. I wish you much luck in your search for your nephew.

  6. Thomas F WilliamsMarch 12, 2022

    My daughter Shanika Williams 35 yrs old missing since Feb of last year2021 I’m her father Thomas Williams Sr. Last seen Sacramento, California I.s it OK to send a flyer of my missing daughter. My daughter was a special case. I have rmto explained in private. (707)384-4728 Dad Thomas Williams Sr.

    1. Jerri WilliamsMarch 12, 2022

      I’m sending heartfelt prayers to you and for Shanika. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Please email the flyer to me at jerriwilliamsauthor (at) gmail.com.

  7. Ann PeasleeMarch 8, 2022

    My son, Kevin Peaslee has been missing for about 2 weeks now. Heard that his company truck was confiscated at the border near Tucson and he has been arrested. Have called ALL the authorities. No luck. I need help! Just want to know he’s alright.

    1. Jerri WilliamsMarch 8, 2022

      I can’t imagine the heartache and anguish you are feeling not knowing for sure where your son is. Please keep pressing your local authorities for answers. It won’t be a pleasant thing to learn that he’s in custody, but at least you’ll know his whereabouts. You deserve to that. Good luck.

  8. Santosh MandalJanuary 27, 2022

    Last I saw my daughter in 2011 when she was a college freshman and residing in a dorm. We had some heated exchange regarding her grades. We tried to reach her while she was at college. Because of the Corona virus outbreak, we are very much concerned about her health>we were wondering if FBI can tell us if she is doing ok.

    1. Jerri WilliamsJanuary 29, 2022

      I’m so sorry to hear that you’re unable to find your daughter. The case does not appear to be an FBI matter. Please continue to work with the local police.

  9. Oscar herreraJanuary 18, 2022

    My son Oscar herrera is being missing for 29 days hes 20 yrs old i live in chaparral new mexico am the mother graciel dominguez

    1. Jerri WilliamsJanuary 18, 2022

      I’m so sorry to hear that your son is missing. I hope you find him soon.


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