There are about 100,000 active missing persons cases in the U.S. at any given time. With the exception of high-profile Natalee Holloway-esque cases— luridly tragic instances of kidnapping that capture national interest—most people who go missing do so without much more than a blurb in a local newspaper. Meaghan Good's personal mission is to remind us that these people existed. She's the founder and sole writer and researcher of The Charley Project, which has nearly 10,000 files and bills itself as "one of the largest and most detailed online databases of American missing persons cold cases."
There is something specifically haunting about missing persons cases—a forced unfinishedness that cuts to the core of some of our worst fears. Good has spent her entire adult life so far working to bring closure to at least some of these stories. She first became interested in these cases at around age 12, when she stumbled across the site for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children while using school computers.
The amount of time Good has spent working on the database is now longer than the lifespan of most people's office jobs. Good founded The Charley Project—named after Charley Ross, the victim of one of the first highly-publicized kidnappings in the US—in 2004 when she was just 19 years old, and has worked on it almost every day since. Now 31, she continues to work on the database described as a "publicity vehicle" for the missing, which continues to attract interest—especially from people fascinated by true crime (Good says 1,000 more people per day have started visiting the site over the past year).
"I got sucked into the stories and pictures and posters, and I was kind of obsessed after that," Good says. "I was wondering about their lives and what had happened to them. I have high-functioning autism, although I didn't know that at the time, and one of the features of autism is that you have a couple of really, really obsessive interests in some narrow, really defined topics. Autism is a pain in the neck, and I wish I didn't have it, but I wouldn't be able to run The Charley Project without it."
Good also has bipolar disorder, which in combination with autism, makes it difficult for her to work a normal job. While she mentions on multiple occasions that she wishes she weren't dealing with these mental health issues, she notes that they make her uniquely suited to bring commitment and empathy to the stories of missing people—and often serve as a connecting link to their cases. "There are so many people on my site who've got mental illnesses, and the kids on my site, the ones who disappear and they're living in unfortunate situations, a lot of times mental illness in the family is to blame," she says. Good tries to paint as full a picture as possible, writing journalistically with words that evoke a scene; details are included in such a way that lets visitors read between the lines. The resulting reports are often more detailed than those of government agencies.
One example is her report on Robin Lynn Vansickel, a 29-year-old woman who went missing in Anchorage, Alaska in 1988. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System's sparse description lists her as "a dancer in Anchorage, Alaska. [Vansickel] was last seen sometime in 1988 (the date of her disappearance) is an approximation) and has never been heard from again." Good's report, in comparison, includes the name of the strip club Vansickel was said to have worked at, as well as the fact that she was caught up in a drug bust shortly before her disappearance.
When you search the news for "The Charley Project," you find local articles from places like WYFF Greenville and PennLive.com, where Good's reports are cited to describe reopened cold cases. The database has even helped identify a couple of bodies who were previously John Does, like in the case of a man who disappeared in Texas in 2004. The man wasn't taking his prescribed medication and abandoned his car on the interstate with the engine running and all the doors open. Two days later, he turned up two states away in Arizona, and died when he was run over by a truck. Because he had no ID, he was listed as a John Doe for the next 10 years.
"Somebody who was looking at the John Does in Arizona and missing persons on the Charley Project—an Irish woman, actually—she realized that this John Doe who disappeared in Arizona just two days after the guy in Texas was wearing the same crucifix necklace as the guy in Texas," Good says. "So his family finally got him back, and it wasn't a happy ending, but it was happier than it could have been. At least they learned he wasn't murdered and didn't suffer horribly. It was an ending, and any ending is better than nothing at all."
Good gives no indications of tiring from the work she does with The Charley Project, and fears that even if she wanted to stop, few people would be able to devote the attention required to stay on top of the hundreds of new cases in her backlog. The site accepts donations, but Good isn't paid to do the work that she does. "It doesn't pay or really support itself. It's what I do to justify my existence," she said, explaining that by providing a way for her to use her talents to help people, the database gives her a sense of purpose.
"When you really think about it, imagine how unlikely it is that you exist on this planet," she said. "I think you owe the world when you're born to try to make the world a slightly better place than it was before you were born."