When Does the FBI Investigate Missing Adults?

I have received several inquiries from readers and listeners asking why the FBI is leading the Gabby Petito missing person, 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 person 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 person 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 person 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 Response Teams 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*


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 200 episodes available for free subscription on all popular podcast apps.

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