FRIDAY FOCUS: Private Investigators Join Forces to Help Families of the Missing

Marki Davis and Dave Wolfskill parlay their passion and detective skills into national nonprofit

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Apr 07, 2023

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Dave Wolfskill and Marki Davis have spent a lot of time together in the trenches. The two met  in 2012 on a social media platform centered on locating missing youth. At the time, both were private investigators in their own practices and a shared passion for helping bring missing people home.

Two years later, Wolfskill and Davis broadened their scope to find missing people of all ages, which led them to launch their own nonprofit, We Help the Missing (WHTM). They finally met in person on a live search in 2015 in Idaho for Jeramy Carl Burt, a 33-year-old veteran, who had disappeared in February 2007.  

Dave Wolfskill, a retired law enforcement officer and private investigator, co-founded the nonprofit We Help the Missing. He also is a rancher living in Hulett. (Courtesy photo from Dave Wolfskill)

Today, Wolfskill and Davis’ Utah-based organization consists of over 200 private investigators and other volunteers nationwide who do everything from making posters and acting as a liaison for families to performing shoe-leather detective work to assist law enforcement. They also actively recruit and train want-to-be private detectives with an interest in finding missing persons.  

Davis, who lives outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, began interning as a private investigator in 2003. Five years later, she earned her private investigator license and started A-Team Investigative Services. She holds a degree in criminal justice and has served as a victim’s advocate in Utah. Now 66, Davis is president of WHTM and remains active in missing person investigations.

Wolfskill, 69, is a rancher and retired Laramie and Crook County Sheriff Deputy. He ran a criminal defense investigations business for 17 years before retiring in 2020. Today, Wolfskill serves on the board of WHTM and conducts missing person investigations.

The Wyoming Truth recently spoke with Davis and Wolfskill about their experiences and passion for finding the missing. What follows are excerpts from that conversation:

How did you both get interested in searching for the missing? 

Davis: As a private investigative intern, I was assigned to try to find out what happened to a woman, a mother of four children, who disappeared in 1939. While searching for her, I found an old article from 1955 in a West Virginia newspaper about an unidentified, murdered woman who matched the physical description. I downloaded the picture of the murdered woman from the newspaper and compared the facial structure to the missing woman. I digitally transposed the two pictures…this led me to sending the pictures to three different forensic artists who all agreed it was a probable match. I sent the pictures, along with the statements of the forensic artists to the officer in charge of the case. He thought it was a good possibility of a match and contacted the FBI, who exhumed the remains. DNA was collected from the remains as well as the oldest daughter. It was a match. Case closed. 

Wolfskill: Marki was part of a missing group and used our friendship to get me involved. Actually, with my experiences with missing kids and having my own children, I was an easy sale.

How does WHTM assist in finding missing people?

Davis: We offer support to the loved ones of the missing. We also utilize a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, who call themselves Road Warriors for the Missing, as a rapid response team. They go to the area of interest, where the missing person was last seen, and put up posters and canvas the neighborhood. Then they report back to the private investigator and the investigative team. The private investigators talk to witnesses, family members, go to areas of interest and investigate. We also use vast social media platforms to get the word out, as well as maintain our website to show active missing, located safe persons and a tribute to missing persons who are ultimately located deceased.

Where do your searches take you, and how many people have you located safely or deceased?

Utah-based private investigator Marki Davis has dedicated her life to finding missing people. She continues this work as president and co-founder of We Help the Missing. (Courtesy photo from Marki Davis)

Davis: We have, or have had, cases in all states except Delaware and Vermont. We even had a case out of the Dominican Republic where it was suspected the girl may have ended up in the states. We also have searched for a missing girl in Mexico and three in Canada. We currently have 302 active cases. Of all our cases to date, 299 people have been located safe. And sadly, 120 more were located deceased. We haven’t kept track of how many per year, so I don’t have that estimate.

Dave, as a private detective and former law enforcement officer, how does WHTM work with law enforcement on missing person cases?

Wolfskill: WHTM strives to work with law enforcement in a cooperative manner. Sometimes law enforcement takes advantage of the resources we have, and other times, it seems they think of us as competition. We do not do their job. We just use social media and our PIs to add to what law enforcement can do. We understand they have limited manpower, so our hope is to provide what they cannot.

Is there a particular case that sticks with you?

Davis: I think my first case with the murdered woman in West Virginia was one of the many that stuck with me. There was also a girl that went missing from high school and ended up being killed by a male that picked her up from the school. Then more recently, the Gabby Petito case, where she was murdered by her fiancé in Wyoming. There are too many cases to count that are happy endings, where we were ecstatic that they were located safe. This outcome is what we hope for in each case.  

Wolfskill: Two missing cases will always be with me: Jeramy Burt and Ken Van Buskirk.  Jeramy’s case is so personal. I spent time in Idaho searching for him. His family and friends came out in force. That was one of the finest group of people I’ve ever worked with. Ken Van Buskirk, although deceased and no longer missing, is a sore place in my heart. Too many questions I believe could have been answered with a competent investigation were never answered. His father Ernie and I still communicate.

What’s next for WHTM, and how does the organization continue to evolve?

Wolfskill: WHTM seemed to have a lot of support from the beginning, mostly due to our contacts in the world of the missing. But it was still a lot of work. I think the changes have been mostly in the amount of volunteers who have come and gone. Working missing cases is emotionally draining, and the burnout rate is high. There were many evenings when I had to just walk away for a while or take a day without looking at our cases.

Davis: We have replaced some board members that were inactive and brought in four more. All of our seven board members are strong, reputable and get involved with WHTM and our mission. Many of the board members, as well as the vice president, are private investigators. We are delegating many of the tasks to specific advocates, so we can concentrate on getting as much awareness and investigation as possible for each case. We will be implementing a SAR [Search and Rescue] unit who will bring in SAR teams for each state. We will also be adding digital forensics. We are redoing our website to make it more professional and easier to navigate. We also want to bring on more human trafficking cases and offer after care for those victims.  Our concentration on missing persons will also include missing and murdered indigenous persons. There, I am sure, will be many advances to come. 

How can people help?

Davis: People can go to our website and volunteer. We always need people in all areas. From awareness, social media, media, searching, putting up posters, candlelight vigils, events, fundraising, grant writing, researching, NamUs advocates and much more. Private Investigators can sign up to help.

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