It was Janet Barra and her daughter, Rebecca, against the world.
That’s how Rebecca, now 33, will always remember her relationship with mom, a Navy veteran, who went missing in Medford one year ago.
Janet, 58, was last seen the morning of June 5, observed via security footage parking her car in a strip mall on Route 112 in Medford and taking off north on foot. Inside of the 1998 Oldsmobile, Janet left behind all of her possessions: her purse, wallet, keys and wig. “I thought it was strange,” Rebecca admits. “What woman would leave behind her purse?”
The previous weekend, Rebecca stopped by mom’s job at a gated community security booth to deliver her coffee. Janet hadn’t shown up to work that day, which worried Rebecca. Later that day, she found her mother’s Patchogue apartment empty, save for large furniture items. Everything else — clothes, photos, family heirlooms — was gone.
In a text message, Janet told Rebecca that she had found a new apartment — and though she couldn’t talk now, she promised to call.
It’s a phone call Rebecca will never receive.
Suffolk County Police confirmed that Janet Barra’s body was found on Feb. 16 in an abandoned home on Route 112 in Medford.
Rebecca said that according to a detective, a homeless man attempting to seek shelter in the home over the winter found the body and called police. “Whoever he is, I’m thankful for him,” she said in a phone call last week. She kept the horrifying discovery between close friends and family, but is now hoping to speak out about her mom’s disappearance, depression and resources for veterans.
“It wasn’t exactly a shock to me,” Rebecca admitted, since her mother’s body was found not far from where she took off walking. “I was the lead detective in this case.”
There’s truth to her seemingly sarcastic comment.
Rebecca scanned security footage from any business that was willing to show her, following her mother’s approximately 20-minute walk. “Then I lose her, because there are no more businesses after that,” she said. Past that point, she said, are woods and abandoned homes.
Documents from the Suffolk County Police Department show that Rebecca filed a missing persons report on June 4, immediately after finding the empty apartment. “They told me she wasn’t old enough for a Silver Alert and I believed them,” she said. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that more should be done.
A trip to police headquarters in Yaphank revealed that Janet was, in fact, eligible for a Silver Alert, described by Rebecca as a “manic depressive,” who had attempted suicide in the past. Ultimately, the office of public information for the police department sent out a Silver Alert for Janet Barra on June 19. A Silver Alert is a memo shared with media outlets “about [adult] individuals with special needs who have been reported missing.”
“It’s not a special classification within our department,” a spokesperson for the department explained last week. “If someone isn’t where they’re supposed to be and you’re concerned, you can file a missing persons report right away. It automatically becomes a Silver Alert when the missing person — regardless of age — has some type of special need, whether that’s mental or physical.”
The department declined to discuss individual cases, citing confidentiality.
Rebecca said she wasn’t taken seriously at first. “[An officer] told me, ‘she’s an adult — she’s allowed to do what she wants,’ because there was no struggle,” she said.
At first, she said, they weren’t taking into account her mental anguish. Janet struggled with depression for most of her life, Rebecca says, and had stopped taking antidepressants. She said her mother never spoke in detail about her post-traumatic stress disorder, but it was linked to a sexual assault that occurred during boot camp. Janet Barra served in the U.S. Navy from 1993 to 1997, her daughter said, and didn’t have much of a social life afterward. “I was her best friend,” she said.
In a six-minute tribute video Rebecca created and posted to YouTube, the two seem more like sisters than mother and daughter, laughing at home, while shopping, or trying on Snapchat’s silly face filters. “No one made me laugh the way she did,” Rebecca said. “I’m glad I took [the videos]. They are all I have left.”
According to Rebecca, a detective told her they would send a canine unit — her mother’s wig left behind in the car would be a perfect scent detector. But, due to heavy rains, the dog unit was never deployed. The police department spokesperson noted that canines are used only when detectives feel they are necessary and are usually dependent on the time frame.
Private investigator Jason Molloy said the first 24 to 48 hours in any disappearance case are the most critical. Molloy offered his services pro bono after being tagged in a Facebook post about Janet’s disappearance. “I wasn’t able to do much,” Molloy said, adding that he traced Janet’s steps from her vehicle and knocked on a few doors, asking neighbors if she looked familiar. “We didn’t find anything from that.”
In spite of her grief and frustration, Rebecca is hoping for positive change. “I’m not against the police, but I feel there were some critical mistakes that could have potentially saved my mom’s life,” she said, calling for the department to review policies, especially when it comes to mental illness. “I think given [Janet’s] history of mental health issues and the steps she took to disappear should have given officers probable cause to initiate an investigation,” Molloy said. “They have a lot of cases and given the circumstances, I’m not sure they would have found her before [her death]. Still, Rebecca could have gotten closure a lot sooner.”
There is a wealth of resources available for those struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts and PTSD, both veterans and civilians. Rebecca is hoping to get the word out about such organizations, including the National Suicide Hotline, but also more local ones as well. Dave Rogers, commander of VFW Post 2913 in Patchogue, said that though a large number of veterans experience PTSD, many fly under the radar “due to a military culture that ignores many of the warning signs.” He added that there are a multitude of organizations available in Suffolk County, home to the largest population of veterans in the state, including the VA in Northport.
Though not all veterans are eligible for VA services, Rogers said that any veteran affected by military sexual trauma can receive counseling and treatment. The coordinator for that program can be reached at 631-261-4400 ext. 7012.
“Would I hesitate telling people if my mom died of cancer?” is a question Rebecca has struggled with for the last three months. “Depression is just as bad a disease. Our brain is a real organ, and it malfunctions just like a heart can,” she said, finally finding the bravery to speak out against societal stigma related to depression, PTSD and suicide.
After a small memorial and funeral Rebecca held for her mother in mid-March, she left Long Island behind for the mountains of Conifer, Colo. “It feels like rehab for the soul,” she admits, her smile almost audible through a cell phone. Staying on the Island was too painful and Rebecca says being surrounded by family out West is a big hug that she’s needed for nearly a year.
In the weeks immediately following her mother’s disappearance, Rebecca took to canvas to express her emotions, creating ethereal ink and water paintings depicting fairytale-like themes of loss. One piece shows a deep indigo sky and a girl perched atop a swing. “I called it ‘Hang in There,’ since that’s what everyone kept saying to me,” she said.
She’s taken a hiatus from creating, but said the arts community and blocks and blocks of art galleries have inspired her once again.
Mom’s still with her. Her ashes, her wig, a pair of pajama pants, a couple of personal items. It’s all that was left behind in her car last June. Rebecca kept her mother’s angel charm bracelet. “She loved angels, and she’s my angel now,” she said.
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