Retired police officer credits ‘higher force’ for success at tracking missing children

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 2, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Virginia Hill, of Walnut Hill Estates just off East Washington Street, is mother to four children and grandmother to 13, but she’s not the typical cookie-baking homemaker. Instead, she is a former police officer with memories that could crush a grandmother’s heart.

Standing in her living room, surrounded by photos of &uot;her kids,&uot; Hill reels off the names of dozens of missing kids like any loving mother would name her children.


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Hill is a former investigator with the Philadelphia, Pa. Police Department who had one of the toughest assignments in the department; finding lost, abandoned, and murdered children.

In 1984 Hill’s excellent investigative skills prompted officials to designated her as the department’s lead investigator of cases involving children missing for more than 30 days. She received these cases only after citywide teams of highly skilled detectives had exhausted their resources. With a caseload as high as 100 on any given day, Officer Hill was able to close some of the city’s oldest cases regarding missing children.

&uot;You just don’t give up on these cases and you don’t close them until you find the child, or in some cases; identify their bodies at the morgue,&uot; said Hill. &uot;The cases I investigated are the kind that haunts you… they keep you up at night, but you can’t let it make you fall apart. You have to…you are driven to find these kids.&uot;

Hill is nationally recognized for finding a youth missing for 25 years and another young girl 16 years after she’d disappeared.

&uot;Those kids were mine just as surely as if I’d given birth to them,&uot; said Hill. &uot;I cared for them because I’d talked with their families and I had grown to know them. It feels good to find a missing child but it also makes you feel sad. They should not have died so young… they should have had a life.&uot;

Hill is not given to tears when she speaks of her investigation into the disappearance of a young Philadelphia girl, Latanya Reese, who became known as &uot;Box-Car Jane Doe.&uot; Reese disappeared from a foster home in 1996 and after police had exhausted every lead, the case was handed over to Hill who now sits on the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Hill found the young girl, acting on a hunch after chatting with an FBI agent who told her about a Florida investigation into the discovery of a body in that state. Five years after the girl went missing, Hill found her. She was praised by the girl’s family for bringing closure.

&uot;A missing foster child is a child who wants love,&uot; said Hill. &uot;They are more easily led because they are looking for love and they go to anybody.&uot;

In another case, Hill was the investigator who identified the body of another Philadelphia teen, Jacqueline Gough, who disappeared in the ’70’s. Hill was haunted by this girl until she was able to find her only a short time after she began investigating the case.

It was the case of Martin Burkle, reported missing Oct. 13, 1975, that was Hill’s most challenging. Even though his body was found only three days after he disappeared, Burkle’s body was never identified until Hill became actively involved in the investigation 25 years later.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney commended Hills success in solving the case.

&uot;I am proud of the tireless efforts put forth by her,&uot; said Timoney. &uot;Her dedication to duty and faithful service during this investigation are indeed praiseworthy and I commend her for a job well done.&uot;

Hill’s home is a shrine to many missing children. The walls, furniture and floors are covered in plaques, certificates, and all manner of awards for the work in which she has immersed herself since she was assigned to the Juvenile Aid Division in 1984.

She began her career in 1977, when she and a girlfriend answered an ad in the Philadelphia newspaper.

&uot;I took the test and passed with flying colors and she flunked,&uot; said Hill. &uot;I thought I would take the training because I would get paid for that and if I didn’t like the job, I would quit. Little did I know where that would lead me.&uot;

How could she know it would lead her to becoming one of the most highly recognized members of law enforcement in the nation? Hill has been recognized as &uot;Cop of the Week,&uot; and as the National Law Enforcement Officer of the Month January 2002. Her photograph will soon grace that organization’s January 2004 calendar. On the calendar, Hill is cited as having earned a &uot;stellar reputation tracking down missing children.&uot; She was also included in author Connie Fletcher’s book, &uot;Breaking and Entering,&uot;

Hill has been on many television programs including &uot;Sightings,&uot; where she shared the limelight with a man she considers &uot;inspirational;&uot; forensic artist Frank Bender. She has also appeared in Police Magazine, the New York Times, NOBLE (National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Officers) Magazine, and Who’s Who in Management, to name a few.

Whenever there is a need to train other officers in missing children investigations; it’s Hill who conducts many of those courses. She is so highly recognized by organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that they chose her as the national representative for the Project Alert steering committee.

Hill is also the first woman ever to be honored at the Vidocq Society, one of the world’s most unusual crime solving organizations. Her determination and professionalism were cited as earning her select membership in the organization. It was named for Eugene Francois Vidocq, an 18th century French Police Officer, by applying their collective forensic skills and experience to &uot;cold&uot; cases involving murders. Like all Vidocq members, Hill accepts no fees for her valuable services.

Hill attributes her astonishing success as an investigator to &uot;a higher force that puts her in the right place at the right time.&uot; She is also quick to note that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children should also receive praise, as well as the medical examiners and Haskell Atkins, an odentologist specializing in dental work that has assisted her in identifying bodies.

Now retired, Hill still makes regular appearances on radio and television shows like &uot;Most Wanted,&uot; with John Walsh. She is also a regular speaker at public schools across the nation and a guest speaker at area universities and colleges. Her message is always to &uot;her kids,&uot; and it’s simple and concise; &uot;be street smart to avoid becoming a victim.&uot;

In fact, Hill conducts seminars and workshops on her program, &uot;Street Smart Kids,&uot; and she’s spoken at the Lincoln Law University and many other schools.

The 2004 National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund calendar calls Hill &uot;a living legend.&uot; She modestly says she is just doing her job. But it is obvious that Hill has always been an achiever. She’s not only completed her college education, but also been certified as a cosmetology teacher in three states. She is a member of the National Black Police Association, the Guardian Civic League, the Berean Institute, and the NAACP. She is also the recipient of the Donald M. Gravatt award which is presented to non-command level officers for distinguished acts that contribute to the betterment of law enforcement and the welfare of citizens.

Hill enjoys living in Suffolk, the city where she has retired to be near her children, and she’s most often found at the YMCA.

&uot;I’ve got to stay fit and ready,&uot; she said. &uot;Since I’ve retired, I’ve put on this weight; about 50 pounds. I’m getting antsy now… bored with retirement. I’m starting to feel like I want to get back to doing what I do best; finding my kids.&uot;

Hill added that she is available to speak to any group by appointment by calling 934-1868.