Seated man next to standing woman. From left: Steve Benefield and Denise O’Leary. Photo: Texas Center for the Missing
Steve Benefield, left, and Denise O’Leary. Photo: Texas Center for the Missing

By Denise Gee Peacock

For 24 years Denise O’Leary’s main goal has been helping families in the Houston-Galveston area find their missing loved ones. Now, she says, another family duty calls: Helping her aging parents. “It’s time I gave them more of my focus.”

Before leaving her current post, however, O’Leary was intent on training “the new me” – Steve Benefield, the new Emergency Alert Coordinator (EAC) for the Houston nonprofit Texas Center for the Missing (TCM). The TCM provides crisis support to the families of missing persons, training for law enforcement, and preventative safety programs to children and their parents. The TCM EAC also doubles as the Region 9 AMBER Alert coordination point for the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS).

Benefield joins the TCM after recently retiring from the Houston Police Department (HPD) after a 39-year career there. His HPD tenure was primarily youth centered. He taught Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) to school kids, investigated missing persons reports, handled child abuse/internet crimes against children cases, and child custody interference situations – “all of which makes him well suited for this job,” O’Leary says.

“It’s a big job with big responsibilities,” Benefield adds, noting the TCM’s 93 percent success rate is one of the highest in the nation. And the region he serves is the second largest in the country – covering 14 counties with more than 5 million people and 300 law enforcement agencies.

Benefield is no stranger to the challenges posed by the vast region or its youngest, most vulnerable inhabitants. “This job will allow me to continue helping kids,” he says. “I’ve always been inclined to help people who can’t help themselves.”

So far, Benefield is off to a good start. Several days into his first week, everything O’Leary had been teaching him was put to the test when the HPD requested an AMBER Alert. The call came in during the weekend, when O’Leary and Benefield were out of the office. “I reached Steve by phone, and since we both had our work laptops with us, I talked him through the process. He did great.”

“Thankfully, I had a good co-pilot,” Benefield quips.

“And thankfully we had a good outcome on the case,” O’Leary notes, providing some background:

On August 21, 2022, the HPD was contacted by the parents of a 3-year-old girl who, after waking up at 5 a.m., found their daughter missing – and the front door ajar.

Police officer shown during mounted patrol duty.
Denise O’Leary on mounted patrol duty for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Photo: Facebook

The HPD responded to the scene and began canvassing the family’s apartment complex in North Houston. Fortunately, a neighbor reported seeing the girl being placed in a vehicle that he could provide a good description of, along with its driver.

An AMBER Alert was issued, and within hours, the HPD had tracked the suspected abductor to a motel less than two miles from the girl’s home. After confirming with a manager that the man in question had checked in earlier that day, officers were able to access the room, safely recover the child, and arrest a 50-year-old man for kidnapping her.

“Neither the girl nor her parents had ever met the man,” O’Leary says.

The positive outcome “is a textbook case of why the public’s involvement is vital, and why public education is so important,” she adds.

Community education is central to the TCM’s work. Currently they are partnering with Houston Public Media, which is helping them produce short public service announcements. “We’ve created an awesome pamphlet to help the public understand how AMBER Alerts work,” O’Leary said. “We don’t want people to get annoyed and turn off their phone’s alert notification function. We need them to be our eyes and ears.”

O’Leary and Benefield also discussed what has fueled them along their career paths.

“While working HPD cases involving juvenile abuse, I began to see just how many kids grow up in difficult conditions,” Benefield says. “To see a child intentionally burned by his or her caregiver, before going with the child to the hospital and staying by his side – and then going home to my own two children – was tough. I realized that if somebody from law enforcement wasn’t there to help them, who would?” O’Leary can relate. “As the mother of two teens, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help families find their missing children.”

The TCM is one of two nonprofit organizations in Texas that help families and law enforcement search for missing children. The other is the AMBER Alert Network-Brazos Valley led by Chuck Fleeger, who also serves as TxDPS Region 3 Coordinator.

“Denise has a unique skill set,” Fleeger says. “She joined the TCM after years of experience working missing persons investigations for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), particularly long- term missing cases.” O’Leary worked for the HCSO for 12 years before ultimately working as a reserve captain. “She has always made herself available to anyone who needs her. Her dedication is remarkable.”

O’Leary says she won’t be riding off into the sunset entirely. She will continue her HCSO missing persons work as time allows. “You can’t completely leave this line of work,” she surmises. “It becomes a part of you.”

‘One-Stop Support Shop’ for Families of the Missing

The Texas Center for the Missing (TCM) is nationally recognized for its Missing in Harris County Day, a free public event held each spring. (The next will be April 29, 2023.)

“Basically, it’s a one-stop support shop for families of the missing,” O’Leary said. “We have representatives from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), the medical examiner’s office,
all regional law enforcement agencies and representatives from other resources who are available to talk with anyone who has a missing family member or friend.

Families can file a report if they haven’t already, and NamUs can take samples of their DNA to include in its national database.“The medical examiner also has booklets of photos showing unidentified remains that people can review. They’re not easy to look at, but if you’re a parent searching for a loved one, they can be a big help.”

Concerned families are encouraged to bring their missing child’s skeletal X-rays, dental records, or other identifying records, and have two biological relatives attend to provide DNA samples.

“We’ve had a number of cases solved because of the event,” O’Leary said. “It makes a difference.”

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