Web Pakacki disappearance

Top left: Det. Sgt. Wes Thomas, who leads the investigation, holds the case file in Jami Megan-LaBeth Pakacki's disappearance. 

Hundreds of tips have been followed, dozens of interviews conducted and several search warrants executed.

The exhaustive efforts of Marion investigators in the search for Jami Megan-LaBeth Pakacki have led to a number of promising leads that ultimately turned into dead ends.

“We've double and triple-checked everything we have, we've worked on everything new we've gotten and we're down to those last two or three possibilities,” said Marion Police Chief John Clair. “Unfortunately, we just haven't gotten any closer.”

Tuesday marked the third anniversary of Packaki’s disappearance. The then-23-year-old was last seen leaving a party at a residence on Fern Lane in Marion on May 19, 2017. A Saltville native, Pakacki had been staying at the residence, her mother, Lori Haynes, said.

Since the beginning of the probe into Pakacki's disappearance, obstacles have mired the investigation.

Witnesses told police that Pakacki told them the night she was last seen that she was going to text a friend for a ride. They later saw her getting into a pickup truck at the end of the driveway, they said, but were unable to see the color or make of the truck in the dark.

It would be more than a week before she was reported missing.

Haynes last saw her daughter on May 14 at a Mother's Day gathering Pakacki threw in her honor at the Fern Lane residence. Mother and daughter had plans to spend the weekend together, Haynes said, but when Haynes tried to reach Pakacki on May 19 — the day she was last seen — to see when she should pick her daughter up, she got no response.

Several days later, Haynes got a message from Pakacki's number saying that she didn't want to be found, not to worry about her and that she was OK.

The messages came from Pakacki's phone number, but Haynes said she had doubts it was her daughter sending them.

“She wasn't talking to me like Meghann,” Haynes said in a 2017 interview. “She was talking about 'I'll be in Bristol hanging with my homies.' She doesn't talk to me that way.”

Slight differences in the way certain words were spelled also alerted Haynes that something might be amiss. One message read, “I love you mama,” but Haynes pointed out that Pakacki always spelled the word m-o-m-m-a.

Shortly after Haynes received those messages, Pakacki's phone was disconnected.

One of the first possibilities police looked into early in the investigation was that Pakacki may have left on her own. Several reported sightings and contacts with Pakacki seemed to support that theory. She’d also previously been known to take off for short periods of time.

In 2017, Haynes said Pakacki had taken off once as a teenager for a few days and again for about a week when she was 18, but that she’d never been known to leave for long periods of time.

In the early stages of the investigation, it seemed that may have been the case again.

Marion Police Lt. Rusty Hamm said following initial media reports of Pakacki's disappearance in early June, he was contacted by a man who said he'd talked to her on Snapchat. Hamm said a photo accompanying the Snap showed Pakacki looking as if she'd just woken up. The caption read as much, saying she just got out of bed and “I had to get out of the country. I'm in the big city now.”

Hamm, who along with Lt. Andrew Moss handled the investigation in the early stages, said the photo seemed to be new and hadn't appeared on any of Pakacki's other known social media accounts.

Not long after that, investigators heard from Haynes that she had had contact with her daughter and that she was OK.

But even with the reported contacts and sightings, Moss said Pakacki stayed on investigators’ radar and in the National Crime Information Center database. A missing person's case is not closed, Moss explained, until law enforcement lays eyes on the individual.

“Even though maybe she's OK, if she had some sort of law enforcement contact we would have eyes on a verifiable thing there,” Moss said. “That's why she stayed in NCIC. That way we could get a definite, confirmed here-she-is.”

He also pointed out the possibility that someone else could have been pretending to be Pakacki.

That turned out to be the case when Haynes thought she’d talked to her and it wouldn’t be the last she heard from someone about her daughter that turned out to be untrue.

Months later, Haynes was contacted from someone on the internet saying they had her daughter and would release her for a ransom. Moss said that contact turned out to be a scammer from Nigeria out to get reward money Haynes had put up for information on her daughter's whereabouts.

After seeing news reports on television about the scam, a woman who previously worked with Pakacki at a restaurant in Glade Spring told Hamm that she'd also talked to Pakacki on a texting app months after she'd been reported missing. The woman was certain it was Pakacki she was talking to, Hamm said, because there was mention in the conversation of things only Pakacki would know.

Other tips came in that Pakacki had been spotted at the Exxon in Chilhowie with a family member, that she was working at a Walmart in Lexington, North Carolina, and that she was working for a pastor in the same state, among countless other tips.

Investigators followed up on each one, sifting through surveillance video, making contact with reported employers and checking for activity on her known social media accounts.

Nothing.

A lack of evidence that anything suspicious had taken place limited police in their investigation, though.

“In order to get a search warrant, you have to have a criminal element,” Hamm explained. “So, you couldn't dig criminally into anything because you don't have anything in the beginning that points to anything criminal being done. That put, I think, a great hamper on the initial weeks and months of the investigation. We were literally just chasing theories and sightings because we didn't have anything criminal to go on.”

While a few search warrants were obtained to retrieve data and other information, the findings were minimal.

While it's not impossible for someone to go off the grid for short periods of time, investigators say it's unlikely to do so for longer periods. That in itself is a source of doubt for the investigators.

“It's very difficult nowadays to go off the grid,” Hamm said. “Especially if you're a 20-year-old with social media accounts and she was all over social media. It's hard just to turn that stuff off.”

“It's hard not to leave a footprint anymore if you do anything the normal way, if you have a bank account, if you use social media,” Moss agreed. “You'd have to commit. To disappear completely, you've got to be pretty committed.”

In the age of technology, the expectation to locate a missing person is pretty high, Clair said, even in a rural area where internet availability is touch-and-go.

“Is it conceivable for someone from this region who's used to that kind of lifestyle to stay off the radar for at least a while? Yes,” Clair said. “Does that get increasingly difficult as time goes on? Yes. Because eventually, you'd think you'd see some kind of bank activity or you would see job activity."

Financial information, including bank, employment or tax activity that would be attached to Pakacki's social security number after her disappearance is non-existent, Clair said. Pakacki was known to have several social media accounts under multiple names, but all accounts known to investigators went silent the first week of June 2017. There's also been no activity in the NCIC database, meaning she's had no contacts with police since her disappearance—not even a traffic violation.

“Now, I think we have an articulable argument for danger,” Clair said.

Late last summer, the Marion PD announced they would launch a complete re-investigation of the case, going back to square one re-examining information, re-interviewing witnesses and talking to those who were around Pakacki in the weeks and months leading up to her disappearance.

Word of the re-investigation jogged some memories, Clair said. People either remembered things they didn’t recall before or came forward with information they didn't think was significant at the time of her disappearance.

The investigation into Pakacki’s disappearance has taken police to areas throughout Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and North Carolina, and now it’s even led them in the direction of the Midwest.

Several new search warrants have been executed and more are in the works, but Det. Sgt. Wes Thomas, who now leads the investigation, explained obtaining information even with a search warrant can be slow-going.

“Some things take forever,” Thomas said, “especially when it comes to technology and data. Sometimes it takes these companies that you have to contact months and months and months to get back to you.”

Polygraph examinations have also been administered to several people who were connected to Pakacki in the weeks and months before her disappearance.

A usually candid man, Clair held the results of those exams close to his vest.

Inconsistencies with witness reports have also clouded the investigation.

“We talk to one person and maybe there are seven people around her and then there are five and then there are three and then these two people are here and then nope, it was two different people and then no, that dude wasn’t even here,” Clair said.

“That’s what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “It’s like an amoeba. It changes shape every time we talk to someone and this is why we keep going back to the first thing we know and all we really know is that she left a party on Fern Lane that night and hasn’t been seen since.”

Search K9’s have been deployed at Pakacki’s last known location as well as a few other places with no results.

Earlier this year, investigators thought they caught a huge break in the case when they got a lead from what they called a credible source.

“We got a lead that she was the victim of foul play and that we would find evidence of that foul play on a local property,” Clair said.

In mid-January, Marion police and Smyth County deputies descended on the property along with a representative of the Smyth County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office for the search. For the better part of the day, investigators searched the property, employing the use of search K9s and manually searching the ground.

That search came up empty, but the case isn’t cold. Not quite yet. Investigators are still chasing a few more leads they believe have merit, but they’re also keeping those close to the vest.

The idea that something may have happened to Pakacki after she left that party is just theory at this point, Clair conceded, but it’s a theory that makes sense.

“There are people out there who know where she is and what happened,” he said. “And the community should know that, too. Those people exist, there are people walking around in this community who know where she is and what happened and they won’t tell us. That’s just a piece of truth. They won’t make it right for whatever reason…You’re hanging out with them at a barbeque on a Saturday and they damn well know where Megan Pakacki is. Period. And you’re having a beer with them. And they know. And you probably know they know.”

Haynes had about as much to say on the matter.

“I just know that a person does not just vanish. Someone, somewhere knows something and anyone with a heart would come forward,” she said.

Haynes, who says she’s now in poor health, wants to see her daughter in case her health was to further diminish.

“And please tell my Meggie that she isn’t in trouble. She is just missed badly and tremendously loved.”

While the outcome looks grimmer as time passes, Clair said he still holds out hope that investigators simply overlooked something.

“In a lot of ways, my biggest hope is also my biggest fear,” he said. “My biggest fear is that somehow in all of this effort, we have overlooked a simple and obvious solution and in the end we’ll be incredibly embarrassed. But that’s also my biggest hope. I hope it’s that simple, that we just missed it. I wouldn’t be upset at all if when we will have spent thousands of hours and tracked down hundreds of leads to find her working at a Subway in Hilton Head.”

The unsolved case weighs on investigators’ minds, giving them the drive to see it through.

“We’re all pretty personally invested in this and we want to see a conclusion,” Clair said. “We talk about it all the time and we’ve met over and over again on what we may have heard or different theories that we’ve developed.”

And those theories don’t stay at the station.

Clair, who took the helm of the police department at a time when the case had begun to run stale, said he finds himself discussing certain aspects of the investigation with his wife on his off time, “just talking about the things we’ve done and bouncing it back and forth.”

“I can honestly say there’s been sleepless nights of theorizing,” Hamm agreed.

That’s especially the case when there’s been momentum in the investigation, Thomas said.

“You take it with you when you think you’re getting close and then it kind of stops and you’re left idling. You’re thinking of more ways you need to go or how to approach something or if you need to take it to a different area or a different lead, or is there something I could’ve done different.”

“It’s hard to disembark on something like that when you’re invested in it,” Moss added.

The search to find Pakacki is not likely to leave investigators’ minds anytime soon. Clair said Thomas has even been known to say he won’t retire until it’s solved.

The four men encourage anyone with information — no matter how insignificant it may seem — to contact Thomas.

To those who may have reservations about contacting police because they’re afraid of getting into trouble, Thomas said having information does not put a person at fault.

He may be reached at 276-783-8145.

“They can reach out to me anytime, day or night.”

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