Hunt for missing man routine, police say

But 20-year-old's family insists media coverage motivated heavy search effort


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Ben Gelinas, The Edmonton Journal

Published: Saturday, August 19, 2006

EDMONTON - After calling off an extensive search for Robert Barrington Leigh on Friday, police insist that media attention played no part in their reaction to the 20-year-old Edmonton man's disappearance.

While Edmonton Police Service spokeswoman Lisa Lammi credited Barrington Leigh's "astute" family with helping to bring attention to the case, she said each of the estimated 7,000 missing persons reports received by the department is treated the same.

"What we're doing is going through what we normally do," Lammi said on Friday. Barrington Leigh was last seen leaving his parents home by mountain bike on Aug. 13, bound for the closing night of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival at Gallagher Park.

The University of Toronto math student planned to meet friends outside the Folk Fest gates, his family said. When he still hadn't shown up on Monday, his family reported him missing. They also set up a website and gathered friends and volunteers. On Thursday, the crew of volunteers were joined by police officers who knocked on doors, searched Mill Creek ravine with dogs and scoured the city from aboard the police department's helicopter, Air 1. The searches turned up no sign of the missing student.

Barrington Leigh's older brother, Christopher, said media attention was a primary motivator for the police and the "hundreds" of volunteers.

His brother is an adult male missing for less than a week and there are no signs of violence, Christopher said.

A case like Robert's is unlikely to draw too many resources from a police force that concerns itself with so many people.

"The large media attention, hand-in-hand with the outpouring of community support is absolutely what gets the attention of the police," Christopher said.

Some missing persons cases are detailed in press releases, and sent out to media.

Often they will be ignored completely, Lammi said.

"For whatever reason, this one has captured the media attention."

She cited a complete lack of bank and cellular activity as a reason for increasing concern and the police-led search.

Lammi said Robert's family is particularly media-savvy, and well-organized.

"They might have more (resources at their disposal) than another family," she said.

The police force's role now shifts to investigation, gathering information from the public.

Any physical search for Barrington Leigh will now be organized by family, friends and concerned volunteers, much like it was when his absence was first reported to police.

The headquarters for the search effort is based out of the Barrington Leigh household.

Christopher and sister Rosalind maintain, where they've posted a description and biography.

There are phone numbers to dial for tips, posters to print, and a news section that is frequently updated.

"Obviously this is a very special individual, and he's loved by family, and obviously they've been able to reach out through the media and connect with people, often strangers who just want to help," Lammi said.

EPS has been inundated with calls from people who think they have spotted Robert's bike, Lammi said.

"We rely on the public, and we rely on the media to get the information out," she said.

© The Edmonton Journal 2006

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