INDIANAPOLIS – Cierra McCaleb remembers her mother, Chenell Gilbert, as the planner of the family, always finding some way to bring everyone together.
“Anytime we had any cousins come over, she was the one that had all of the cousins coming over,” McCaleb said. “She loved making, planning, events for people. That was kind of like her newest project she was doing at the time.”
A teacher, writer and family event planner, McCaleb says despite her numerous titles, her mother always put her children first. But, for nearly two years, McCaleb has tried to navigate life without her mother.“It hurts because you don’t want anyone’s family to go through anything like this,” she said.
On June 9, 2020, Chenell Gilbert was last seen on Indy’s west side, near Rockville and South Girls School Road. Based on our previous and extensive reporting on Gilbert’s case, her car was last seen in the driveway of her ex-boyfriend’s home in the Sungate subdivision.
IMPD has presumed she is dead, and investigators are currently looking at the case as a homicide. Today, her whereabouts are still unknown.
Along with her daughters, Gilbert also leaves behind a grandson, who was only a couple months old at the time of her disappearance.
“Me and my sister basically raised my nephew,” McCaleb said. “It was a lot of both of us sacrificing a lot and having to kind of just navigate through life without our mom.”
McCaleb was also entering her senior year of college when her mother disappeared. She says it’s been a blur trying to piece together all that’s happened since then.
However, one thing that remains in focus is trying to get answers as to what happened to her mother.
“At this point, me and my sister just want closure,” McCaleb said. “We want to know what happened. We are tired of creating these scenarios in our minds.”
Chenell Gilbert is among the missing Black women reported in Indianapolis
As of July 2020, when Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department implemented its Motorola Records System, 11,872 people (including juvenile runaways) were reported as missing.
Black females, with 3,727 reported, made up 31% of the total. White females made up nearly 24% with 2,827 reported.
When it comes to the nearly 12,000 people reported as missing, IMPD says that count could also include cases that are no longer active, or the missing person was located. However, due to limitations within the Motorola System, IMPD says it’s difficult to pull that information in bulk.
The disappearances of Chenell Gilbert, Nakyla Williams and Paris Williamson, who was later found safe, are some of the cases involving missing Black women that received significant local attention within the last couple of years.
“We want all persons, who are reported missing, to be covered and treated equally,” said Captain Christopher Boomershine with IMPD.
Boomershine says IMPD tries to work in hand with media by issuing press releases and assistance from the public in missing persons cases.
“I find that our media partners, like yourself at the local level, are very good at highlighting missing persons cases,” said Boomershine.
“Where we see cases glamorized, in my opinion and this is my opinion, is at the national level,” he added. “I see them glamorized certain type, call it a ‘beauty queen’ type, missing persons case.”
Sparking a national conversation
In September 2021, the nation would see the story of 22-year-old Gabby Petito unfold. The social media vlogger disappeared while on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Petito was later found dead, sparking a manhunt search for Laundrie, who later killed himself.
In that same year, numbers from the National Crime Information Center show more than 200,000 women and girls reported as missing in the U.S. Among those, nearly 35%, were Black.
Extensive and weeks-long coverage of Petito’s story took over national platforms that not only captivated the country but became a springboard for conversation.
“As a Black woman, I feel that if anything were to happen to me… Would I be able to be found?” said McCaleb, whose mother is still missing.
That same question is what ultimately fueled the mission of the Black and Missing Foundation, which came to be 14 years ago and is now based out of Maryland.
Co-Founder Natalie Wilson and her sister-in-law, Derrica, started the organization after learning about the disappearance of Tamika Huston, a 24-year-old Black woman, who disappeared from South Carolina in 2004.
Wilson says she and Derrica read how Huston’s family struggled to get national media coverage.
“A couple of weeks after Tamika disappeared, Lori Hacking disappeared. A year later, Natalee Holloway disappeared, and they dominated the news cycle,” said Wilson. “Tamika’s aunt reached out to those same networks, same programs, same reporters and there was no interest in Tamika’s story at all.”
After doing their own research, Wilson says they noticed discrepancies when it came to missing people of color.
“At the time, we found that 30% of all persons missing were of color, mostly Black males,” she said. “If you fast forward to today, 40% of the missing population are people of color.”
Despite the numbers, Wilson says the media attention and resources surrounding the cases are disproportionate. Using the powers of their professional backgrounds, with Wilson in media relations and Derrica in law enforcement, they made expertise an opportunity for change in getting cases heard and investigated.
Wilson says misconceptions and harsh stereotypes are often a barrier to getting media, law enforcement or the community to take these cases seriously.
“There’s a stereotype that these missing individuals, they have a criminal background, or what’s going on in that sector of the community, they deserve it or that behavior is normal,” she said. “They’re not seen as victims.”
It’s a narrative the Black and Missing Foundation has worked to change for a little more than a decade, while helping reunite hundreds of families along the way.
With thousands of inquiries requesting their help, Wilson says they continue to work tirelessly in helping provide a voice for missing minority families and aid in their search for answers. The group has helped put more of these cases into the national spotlight from television shows, like The View, to working alongside Soledad O’Brien on an HBO docuseries, highlighting their work in action.
While the organization has seen success, Wilson says it’s about leveling the playing field for all families, no matter who they are or what they look like, in getting the needed resources and attention they deserve.
“The color of your skin should not be a barrier. Your bank account should not be a barrier. Your zip code, where you live, these factors should not affect the resources that are applied to the case,” she said.
Representing Black and minority cases in the true-crime sector
Along with the Black and Missing Foundation, others are also taking it upon themselves to help amplify minority cases.
Amara Cofer, creator, host and executive producer of ‘Black Girl Gone: A True Crime Podcast’, says it’s why she started her show a little more than a year ago.
“True crime has started to serve a purpose in other ways,” said Cofer. “The attention that these stories get either from true crime podcasts, or documentaries, can sometimes make the difference in some people being found or cases being solved.”
Since the start, Cofer, who is based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says the show has more than 1 million downloads, averaging about 150,000 monthly. The show is available on all podcasting platforms.
“Family members of victims started reaching out to me, and that created a different desire in me to tell these stories and a different kind of goal for the show,” she said.
Cofer profiles cases of missing and murdered Black women in each episode. Using information from previous news coverage of the cases, she takes listeners on a journey from how the investigation started to where it stands present day.
“I think that there are instances in which the local media did cover the case, and that’s literally the only reason why there is any information about it because they’re the ones that have stayed on the case,” she said, “but sometimes there’s been cases where families have said they’ve gone to the media, and maybe not even the local media, but they’ve gone to the national media and they’ve said ‘oh no, this case is not interesting to us’.”
Cofer has profiled cases from across the country, as well as Indiana. She recently did an episode on the disappearance of Karena McClerkin, who disappeared from Kokomo, Indiana nearly six years ago.
Cofer says taking on the task of sharing these stories is a full-time job, but it’s one she doesn’t mind doing if it means exposing them to new eyes and ears.
“I think that the fact that I am in this space, and that there are families that have reached out to me, and I’ve covered their stories and they’ve just been thankful and grateful for that,” she said. “Just being in that space and being able to give them that voice, I hope that it’s helpful.”
What families can do, and what you can do to help?
“We have to remain vigilant and persistent to fight for these families,” said Wilson.
Wilson says there’s power in media as visibility and awareness remain key in getting answers.
“I remember there was a mother out of St. Louis, who contacted us, because her daughter was missing,” said Wilson, “and I called every single media station in that area, and no one would cover the story, but I was persistent and finally an assignment editor said, ‘you know what just send me the information and I’ll cover it’, and then the other news outlets picked up the story.”
When it comes to helping cases get media exposure, families can also ask the investigating detective to request media coverage.
Even on social media, Wilson says a simple share or repost can go a long way, along with sharing them directly to news outlets.
“See who’s missing from your state, your community, and like the post on social media, share it,” she said. “Don’t wait for the cases to go viral, we need the media to help us to make these cases go viral.”
On the law enforcement side, Boomershine says a common roadblock in missing persons cases is lack of details on a missing loved one. He says it’s important families share everything, good and bad, as it can help piece together the circumstances of that person’s disappearance, and it’s important they get it as soon as possible.
“Every person has a public, private and secret life,” said Boomershine. “In many instances, we never learn about that person’s secret life, and that secret life is what we need access to to know what’s really going on with a person who’s gone missing.”
“Please do not hold back because you think that some information may be embarrassing or disparaging to the family,” he added. “We’re going to hold that information as close to the vest as possible. We are not here to judge, but we need that kind of information to know who was the last person that saw them, who may have wanted to do harm to them or exploit them. All those things are very important to us.”
As many cases result in being solved or with loved ones reunited, Boomershine says he understands the frustration families have as time passes without answers.
“Some of the things that go on in those cases are beyond our control until we have the information we need to solve the case,” he said. “It’s very difficult, and it’s hard, on our detectives to deal with that.”
With nearly 12,000 people reported as missing from IMPD’s numbers, Boomershine says IMPD has only seven missing persons detectives, one lieutenant and one sergeant. Based on their numbers, Boomershine says Indiana State Police have said they should have 23 detectives.
“It can be overwhelming at times,” Boomershine said.
“Even though we have unsolved missing persons cases, new ones are coming every hour,” he added. “We have to stop and deal with what’s in front of us before we can get back to what maybe hasn’t been completed in a prior investigation.”
Boomershine says the department meets weekly on the progress of cases and what can be done to complete tasks within them.
When it comes to investigations, Boomershine says it’s important to note that missing persons cases cross all worlds and are often a symptom of much bigger factors, including but not limited to physical/sexual/mental abuse, drug abuse/addiction, human trafficking/prostitution, mental illness or a general lack of a good support system.
In other instances, he says there are also challenges in finding those who don’t want to be found.
“Unfortunately, in a lot of instances, we have people that go missing that want to missing,” he said. “That’s another big roadblock because they’re in a lifestyle that they’re trying to escape.”
“Remember, on the surface, a missing persons case is not a crime under Indiana code,” he said. “So that limits our investigative reach compared to other major crimes.”
For anyone with information on a missing persons case featured in this story or in the area, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS. You can also report tips and information anonymously.