September 25, 2021
INDIANAPOLIS — Cierra McCaleb doesn’t watch videos of her mom every day. That would be too painful.
“I really, really miss her,” the 22-year-old said.
When Cierra needs to hear her mom’s voice or see her smile, she knows she can, via the videos on her phone.
“I realize she taught me a lot, a lot,” Cierra said.
Everything except how to handle life without her, and not knowing where she is.
Cierra’s mom, 42-year-old Chenell Gilbert, has been missing for more than a year.
“You’re waking up over and over again with this heavy weight on your shoulder, and you just can’t get if off and it’s like there’s no closure,” Cierra said.
Her mom went out the morning of June 9, 2020 and texted Cierra’s younger sister to say she’d be home by noon. When Chenell never returned and then didn’t answer calls or texts, her daughters tracked her phone to the home of their mom’s ex-boyfriend, who they say was abusive when they were a couple years earlier.
It was at that ex-boyfriend’s house, near Rockville and Girls School roads, where Cierra says they found their mom’s car and the ex-boyfriend, who they say wouldn’t let them inside his house to look for Chenell.
Cierra says police had the same trouble when officers showed up there, after Cierra and her sister called them.
Three days later, officers finally got inside after getting a warrant, but found no sign of Chenell, whose ex-boyfriend has never been charged or named as a suspect in her disappearance.
Cierra says her mom’s case has now been ruled a homicide, even though she’s never been found.
“I feel like if it had been taken more seriously, she would have been found,” Cierra added.
Those feelings have only intensified the past several weeks, as Cierra watched national media coverage of an extensive search for 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who disappeared earlier this month on a cross country trip with her boyfriend. The boyfriend is now considered a suspect in her death after Petito’s body was found in a remote part of western Wyoming.
“Media doesn’t cover black missing persons cases like they do white people,” said Cierra.
“I knew we needed to get the community and news involved or it wouldn’t go far,” Danyette Smith said of Chenell’s case.
Danyette, who works with victims and survivors of domestic violence, has become close with Chenell’s daughters since the disappearance, helping to bring awareness about the case.
Indianapolis media, including 13News, did cover Chenell’s disappearance in the early days, as family and friends passed out flyers with her picture and description and details of her last known whereabouts.
“They’ll do a story, but they won’t continue it,” said Danyette, noting the weeks of national coverage the Petito case has received.
“The general public and the media have really been attracted to what’s called, “The Missing White Woman Syndrome,” better known as “Damsel in Distress Syndrome,” said Thomas Lauth, who investigates missing persons and is based out of Indianapolis.
Lauth says in his decades of work, he can think of several cases where white women have gone missing and received national media attention, along with large investigative resources devoted to trying to find them.
“Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Lauren Spierer and now Gabby Petito,” said Lauth.
Asked if the response would have been the same had Petito been a woman of color, Lauth said “We wouldn’t be having this interview.”
Lauth said he believes people of color who go missing get less national attention, due in part to harmful stereotypes that assume they’re missing because they did something wrong.
“They’re missing because they’re doing drugs somewhere or they’re missing because they’re in prostitution,” said Lauth. “Instead, a lot of these cases are people of color who are endangered.”
“Our cases are not taken seriously, we hear from families firsthand,” said Derrica Wilson, who co-founded The Black and Missing Foundation nearly 14 years ago in Maryland.
“There was a lady that went missing from my hometown by the name of Tamika Houston and despite the fact that her aunt was in public relations, it was very difficult trying to get media coverage,” said Wilson. “A few months later, Natalie Holloway went missing and of course, her name became a household name.”
Wilson said she’s not trying to take away from any missing persons case, whatever their race happens to be.
“We’re not trying to say or trying to dishonor any community. We just want to level the playing field,” said Wilson, who believes it starts with more diversity in police departments and newsrooms.
“It’s not the sole responsibility of one group. It’s all of us coming together, all of us having a seat at the table to implement and drive change and change the narrative,” Wilson added.
So far, according to Wilson, The Black and Missing Foundation has helped bring closure or reunions to over 400 families of color, with thousands more cases coming in every day.
According to the National Crime Information Center, a digital database that stores US crime data, 543,018 people were reported missing in 2020. Nearly 40 percent of those missing were people of color – many whose families, Wilson says, are calling her organization right now.
“They are like, ‘What is the difference with Gabby’s case? Like, why can’t my child, why can’t my sister get that same level of attention?” Wilson said.
“It’s kind of like you’re holding this sign in your hand, like, ‘Help! Help!” said Cierra, who knows what it’s like to have someone you love missing and wait for someone, anyone, to pay attention. She says she’s looking for all the help she can get, believing there needs to be more out there for missing people who look like her mom.
“My mom deserves to be found too,” said Cierra.
Photo credit: WTHR