‘Find Our Missing': Searching for the Black, Disappeared, and Forgotten by the Press

TV One series debuts tonight: “Maybe the mass media will look at it and say, ‘We can do a much better job than what we're doing here'”

You've heard of Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, and Natalee Holloway. But this is probably the first you've read of Pamela Butler, an African-American woman who disappeared near Valentine's Day of 2009.

"Find Our Missing" would like to tell you more about Butler, and America's other black and missing. The 47-year-old Washington, D.C. woman is among the missing people featured in the first episode of the 10-part series, which premiered Wednesday on TV One.

African-Americans represent 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, but 33 percent of its missing people, according to 2010 Census and FBI statistics. You would never know it from news stories about missing people that focus almost exclusively on young, white women.

Pamela Butler's brother, Derrick Butler, says he sympathizes with the families of those who have dominated headlines in the last decade. But he wishes the media considered his sister's case as newsworthy as theirs.

(Pictured above: Derrick Butler, left; Pamela Butler, right; and their mother, Thelma Butler; center.)

"They should get coverage. But we all should get coverage. No life is not more important than anybody else's," he said. "My heart goes out to their families. But African-Americans should get coverage also."

The show, hosted by "Law & Order" star S. Epatha Merkerson, works with the non-profit Black and Missing Foundation, which includes a clearing house of cases involving missing African-Americans. Nearly 70 people featured on its website have been found, though some were deceased.

Pamela Butler's case would seem as compelling a mystery as any.

The EPA analyst and real estate investor vanished from her home in a middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C. It was wired with home security cameras she installed after a string of arsons, but they yielded no clues. She kept her home meticulously clean, and nothing stood out when police searched it for clues.

Suspicion fell, as it often does, on the man most recently in her life.

Jose Rodriguez-Cruz has repeatedly denied harming her, and police say they lack the evidence to make an arrest. Rodriguez-Cruz told the Washington Post, one of the few news outlets to cover Butler's disappearance, that she broke up with him on the last night he last saw her.

No one is known to have seen her since.

Derrick Butler believes Rodriguez-Cruz killed his sister.  He said he hopes "Find Our Missing" might draw witnesses by reaching a broader audience than the Washington news outlets that have covered it so far.

"If we get equal coverage – national coverage – a person who rode through her neighborhood who lives in Ohio might say, 'You know what? I saw something that didn't look right that day, right around that time."

TV One, which debuted in 2004 and reaches 56 million households, targets African-American viewers 25 and older. The show is its first entry into a category it calls justice, mystery, and survival. The move makes sense, network executives say, because African-Americans typically over-index in their viewing of procedurals like "NCIS,""CSI," and "Law & Order."

"Find Our Missing" is similar to "48 Hour Mysteries" and "America's Most Wanted" in its attempt to combine mystery and public service.

"When this program was suggested, and it came to light how disproportionately African-Americans are reported missing in the country, we thought, hey, this is a great opportunity for us to bring light to these stories and give these people a voice," said Craig Henry, the network's producer for the show.  

He said the show will hopefully provide a new source of clues and information for police and families — "and at the same time, give people some tools and direction if they're dealing with these types of problems themselves."

Derrick Butler says he has two hopes for the show.

"Hopefully someone will come forward who saw something," he said. "But if not… it gets the story out and it lets people know that we're not getting coverage. And hopefully somebody else's family will be helped by it. Maybe the mass media will look at it and say, 'We can do a much better job than what we're doing here.'"

"Find Our Missing" airs at 10 p.m. on TV One.