After a chaotic saga unfolded Tuesday centering around two missing teenage girls and a Washington Park home suspected of being a sex trafficking hub, Milwaukee police said Wednesday there is no indication the girls were ever there — or that the house was used for such activity.
The girls, ages 13 and 15, were found by one of their mothers more than three miles away, police said, and have since been reunited with their families after interviews with investigators.
The developments come after a civilian-led search for the girls evolved over several hours Tuesday into civil unrest and a clash between a gathered crowd and police in tactical gear in the 2100 block of North 40th Street.
Left in the wake of the events were three people shot — including two 14-year-olds — plus 10 officers and a firefighter injured, a house set on fire twice and an unknown number of others hurt by the tear gas and rubber bullets police fired into a scattered crowd.
It was an extraordinary example of just how deeply rooted the frustration and mistrust in the police can be in Milwaukee’s communities of color. Prominent local activists accused the police of not trying hard enough to find missing persons. Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales described the crowd’s actions as “vigilantism.”
“People have to understand, we have to allow the police and the firefighters to do their jobs,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who stopped by the scene Tuesday night. “The police had been to that house earlier in the day, and the girls weren’t there. And the firefighters need to be able to put out fires without worrying about their own safety.”
But questions still remain about what exactly happened, and how a missing-persons investigation led to such an outcome.
What we know about how the situation unfolded
According to accounts from Milwaukee police and fire departments, along with hours of videos posted to social media:
Around 5 p.m. Sunday, two girls, ages 13 and 15, were last seen in the 2900 block of North 21st Street. They were reported missing four hours later, Sgt. Efrain Cornejo said.
Morales said police responded to the 2100 block of North 40th Street on Monday in reference to the report of the missing girls. MPD call logs show police twice went to the block that night, at 10:11 p.m. for a “trouble with subject” call and again one hour later for a report of a threat.
Police searched the house but did not find the missing girls. Multiple MPD officials said the girls did not fit the criteria for an Amber Alert and they were not labeled as “critically missing” because police were not given information leading them to believe their lives were in danger.
That rankled some members of the public who felt the police were not doing all they could to find the girls.
On Tuesday morning, a group of people congregated outside a specific home in the 2100 block of North 40th Street after seeing social media posts about the house and the two missing girls. Police were called to the house shortly after 10 a.m. after several people allegedly tried entering the home to look for them.
About 10:15 a.m., Vaun Mayes, a highly visible community activist, arrived at the scene, shortly after police. Perhaps two dozen people were already there when Mayes began an hours-long livestream video over Facebook, which soon grabbed the attention of several thousand viewers.
In the opening minutes of the video, he addresses the camera and spoke about the difficulty of “getting a missing person’s report going” and that community members had set up their own system via social media for listing missing people.
He said he went to North 40th Street because a home there had a reputation for housing missing children and he intended to help find them.
“People feel like the police don’t do (expletive),” Mayes said. “So a lot of this (expletive) is us taking our own (expletive) into our own hands.”
While police searched the home on North 40th Street, Mayes and others walked around the neighborhood, knocking on doors in search of the girls. When they returned about 11 a.m., police had left the scene and the crowd had grown larger.
Police said later that the girls were not located there, just as they had not been the night before.
Minutes later, members of the crowd began poking around the backyard of the house. Mayes is heard saying that people are again trying to enter the house. Three or four gunshots were then heard, followed by a pause. Then came six more shots.
Even before the gunshots, Mayes repeatedly made remarks about how a potentially chaotic situation was brewing.
“This house is going to come down,” Mayes said. “I’m telling ya’ll, it’s too many people.”
About 11:15 a.m., police returned to the scene and later determined that someone in the house and someone in the crowd had exchanged gunfire. No injuries were reported.
Over the next several hours, police established a perimeter around the house while the crowd grew in size and tension built. One of the people who joined was Frank “Nitty” Sensabaugh, one of the most prominent organizers of recent protests against police brutality in Milwaukee, who also began his own hours-long livestream video.
In his video, Nitty can be seen trying to deescalate things as the crowd jawed at police in close proximity. But eventually — it is unclear when exactly, and was not seen on video — police said members of the crowd threw bricks and pieces of concrete at officers.
Staff with the Milwaukee Health Department’s Office of Violence Prevention, and its 414LIFE team, were also at the scene working to ease tension.
About 3:15 p.m., the perimeter police established around the house vanished and crowd members can be seen entering the home and breaking windows. One person ran up to Nitty’s camera, claiming that a bloody pair of shorts he found in the home was evidence of a child being harmed there.
By 3:50 p.m., police wearing riot gear and holding batons arrived at the scene and stood between the crowd and the home.
Police said they called for additional backup, but before it could arrive, the crowd surrounded the rear of the house and set fire to it, along with a nearby car and a couch.
Firefighters were called to the scene at 5:22 p.m. and had to be escorted by officers in order to fight the flames.
Just as they arrived, however, gunshots were fired from the crowd, injuring a boy and girl, both 14 years old, police said.
“We now had to go out there and do a rescue in the middle of an angry crowd,” Morales said afterward. “Imagine how difficult that was. Imagine how difficult that was for the Fire Department to put out a fire when there’s bricks and projectiles being thrown not only at the police but the Fire Department.
“This was a pretty chaotic scene.”
Morales said no officers fired a gun during the incident, but he did confirm the department used nonlethal munitions on the crowd. He did not specify what munitions were used, but Nitty said tear gas was deployed.
By 6:21 p.m., crowd members and police were still clashing as fire crews worked on the house. Nitty’s livestream captured shoving between the crowd and a group of officers standing in front of a fire engine until police used some kind of chemical irritant.
Nitty asserted that rubber bullets were also fired.
By 7:08 p.m. someone handed Nitty a bullhorn and he rallied a sizeable portion of the crowd to march with him, which seemed to largely quell the unrest.
But the violence didn’t end there. Another shooting was reported at 7:36 p.m. in the 4000 block of West Lloyd Street, near the scene. Several shots were fired at a vehicle, injuring a 24-year-old inside.
Then, shortly before 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, police and fire crews were again called to the 2100 block of North 40th Street when the house in question was set on fire once again. During the ensuing emergency response, police said three officers were injured by people throwing bricks.
It’s unclear when the two girls were found, but police said they were located by one of their mothers in the 3200 block of North 9th Street, more than three miles northeast of the house that was set aflame.
During his Tuesday night news conference, Morales noted that officers did not receive “the cooperation we would expect from family.”
The two girls denied ever being at the 40th Street house and ever knowing anyone who lived there, police said. No evidence of human trafficking at the house was discovered.
Social media fueled rumors
Rumors spread on social media as people livestreamed from the scene to thousands of viewers, sharing unconfirmed information.
Like a game of telephone, the details morphed over time: How many children were missing? Could they be in houses nearby? And what, if any, evidence was found in the home at the center of the conflict to support allegations of sex trafficking?
Police on Wednesday said many of the assumptions made Tuesday were untrue:
“The preliminary investigation revealed that no information has been provided to MPD to suggest that the teenagers were at the residence that was set on fire or that any foul play occurred at that location,” a statement reads.
The rumor mill whipped up a similar story in October in Milwaukee, when police were called to a home after reports of human remains in the backyard.
The allegations kicked around on social media were shocking: Five female victims of sex trafficking were buried in the backyard, some said. But after an extensive search — and hours of digging documented on social media by onlookers — police found only the remains of a dog.
Missing children investigations have long been a source of tension
Police did not consider the two girls to be “critical missing” children and said the case did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.
Under Milwaukee’s policy, a missing person must meet at least one of a set of criteria to be designated as a “critical missing” and the missing person’s information distributed to the news media.
If a child is abducted — defined as unwillingly removed from their home or a guardian’s custody — that can trigger an Amber Alert, with descriptions of the child going out on highway billboards, sent to cell phones and put out to media.
An Amber Alert goes out if the child is known to be in danger of serious harm or death and if the police have descriptive information about the child, the suspect or the suspect’s vehicle. It is not used for family abductions and runaways unless the child’s life is in immediate danger.
Families of missing women and girls of color and activists have repeatedly criticized the Milwaukee Police Department in recent years for its response to these kinds of cases. Frustrated families have increasingly turned to social media and activists for help in missing persons cases, using online platforms to demand accountability when they feel ignored by police and media outlets.
Those search parties, often livestreamed for thousands of people to see, can be effective. In 2018, prominent activist Tory Lowe helped track down a missing 16-year-old girl who had been lured to Chicago by a stranger she met online and suffered weeks of abuse before being found.
The livestreams can broaden the number of people looking for a missing person, but it also can help rumors spread quickly and draw people to a volatile situation.
Families often have an understandable fear that their loved ones may have been trafficked for sex. Milwaukee has a reputation as a hub for sex trafficking — though the crime is vastly under-reported and there is no reliable way to accurately compare the scope of the problem across cities — and experts have said there is a connection between girls who are reported missing and those who are sexually exploited.
A 2018 report estimated that 340 young adults and children were victims of sex trafficking in Milwaukee in a four-year period, and about a quarter of those victims had been at one point reported missing from foster care and group homes.
Questions about police response
State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, arrived at the scene Tuesday afternoon after hearing about it on social media. In an interview Wednesday, he questioned why police responded in tactical gear and an armored vehicle. It inflamed tensions and was not effective in deescalating the situation, he said.
“They had all that stuff out there, and what? People still got hurt, buildings still got burned,” Brostoff said.
Black residents’ interactions with police are largely more negative and more violent than anything he’s experienced as a white man, Brostoff said, and that’s traumatizing for many.
“The mere presence of heavily armored police coming into a residential neighborhood, bringing tank-like gear … it even further escalates the situation, and especially when there are other ways to handle this,” he said.
And as the national conversation around law enforcement funding centers around possible alternatives to police, Brostoff said Tuesday’s unrest provided a chance for more scrutiny in Milwaukee on the Police Department budget.
“Having more money for those preventative measures, and less money for a heavily militarized police force that’s going to escalate the situation, cost more money, upset more people, get more people hurt — yes, that’s the conversation we need to have right now,” he said.
Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Elliot Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-704-8958. Follow him on Twitter @elliothughes12.