SAN ANTONIO — Samantha Houghton is one of 20 civilian investigators with the San Antonio Police Department's Missing Person Unit.
"It's very high-paced," she said.
With the unit for just over a year, Houghton said every day looks different. But the mission remains the same.
"Our entire mission is to locate missing individuals, so, you know, under overall. Yes, we want every case that we can to be cleared," she said.
Under the sworn command of SAPD, the investigators work around the clock in three shifts digging through details to find missing people from children to the elderly.
"We go off of any information that we can; any leads that we can," she said. "It could be a location, a phone number, things like that."
Most of their caseload are runaways who frequently get reported missing multiple times. But, a runaway case is not a slam dunk closure.
"When you're dealing with runaway cases, it's not necessarily easier. It really just kind of depends on how much information you're getting from the beginning," Houghton said.
Those runaways can evolve into human trafficking, sex crimes, or worse. In those cases, other specialized divisions within SAPD take over the investigation.
The missing person unit got 495 calls for the unfound in January and February. Houghton said some of that number is habitual behavior. They cleared 479 of those cases, leaving 16 unsolved.
The department admits the numbers feel like an uptick in missing person cases from previous years. But they could not explain why more people are missing in San Antonio.
"Everyone's case is going to be so different," Houghton said. "I can't really speak for the people that are being reported or their families and why they're reporting them."
SAPD has 150 active missing person cases to date. In 2019, they got 4,148 reported missing, clearing 4,115. The numbers dropped during the pandemic; 2020 shows 3,571 calls for missing people, with 2,940 cleared. 3,308 people were reported missing in 2021, and 3,285 of those cases got solved.
The unit doesn't use time frames to decide if a case has gone cold. Instead, the flow of information drives that designation.
"A case can be considered cold when the leads have slowed down to a certain extent," Houghton said. "But even if those leads have slowed down and it's considered cold, it's still going to be continued to be worked."
Investigators said they could not talk about active cases--which would nearly cover their entire caseload. They were trying to discourage questions about Lina Sardar Khil.
The four-year-old girl went missing on December 20 from her Northwest San Antonio apartment complex. She was three at the time.
Even the joint powers of SAPD and the FBI have not been able to locate her. Investigators have said the public shouldn't mistake silence for a non-active investigation.
Houghton said unsolved cases bother their unit.
"Because it matters," she said. "That these people matter, their families matter; the reasons that they're being reported matter."
Cases like Sardar Khil are a high priority due to their suspicious and possibly threatening nature. Investigators said when there's a development, the importance will rise in any case.
If you have information about a missing person case, call the SAPD missing person unit at 210-207-7660.