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2019 Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Medium Newsroom finalist

Mayberry Texas: A Catalyst Project

About the Project

The name “Mayberry” might have you whistling a familiar tune, recalling an iconic hometown — an American illusion full of neighborly warmth and absolute trust. But, in reality, every town is full of secrets. In Kenedy, Texas, they include the whereabouts of a “cross-dresser” bearing that wistful appellation — James “Jamie” Mayberry. On April 1, 1999, the 35-year-old vanished from his home with a stranger. Local law enforcement almost immediately suggested Jamie simply wanted to leave, but his family’s suspicions drew a massive search of the area that only ended with more questions.

Two decades later, a KXAN investigation sparked a fresh look at the case, uncovering possible missteps by police in those early days. Our 10-month analysis of data on more than 5,600 missing persons and hundreds of other related records acquired through public information requests also reveals shortfalls in the way Texas tackles those cases and has prompted a state lawmaker’s promise to improve the system, helping families looking for their loved ones.

KXAN discovered a patchwork of police and public systems that make determining how many people are missing in Texas today challenging. While the state’s Department of Public Safety and Federal Bureau of Investigation both have robust numbers, their case details are sparse and privileged. Citizen sleuths must rely on a handful of web-based public portals – like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) – that are anything but complete, meaning many cases may never be seen by the public. Our research exposed the information submitted to those sites is often limited and – like with the state’s own missing persons bulletin – incorrect. We found errors in some age and race data, as family and experts suggest those errors could hurt the chances of matching unidentified bodies with unsolved disappearances.

And though the taxpayer-funded NamUs system is housed in Fort Worth, we learned Texas law enforcement is not required to use it, unlike a handful of other states that have passed laws to ensure agencies utilize this federal tool – something that’s already brought closure to thousands of families across the nation.

– The resulting “Mayberry Texas” project included a five-part digital mini-docuseries designed to be binge-watched and an accompanying weekly investigative podcast called “Catalyst,” which supplemented the main investigation
– The multi-page digital investigation contained several interactive map, timeline and photo gallery elements, customized for both desktop and mobile users.
– KXAN researched missing persons cases for each of Texas’ other 11 Nexstar television markets, aiding those outlets’ own reporters in localizing stories to serve as companion pieces to the on-air version of the project. These were also highlighted in a custom-designed and created interactive video gallery map online.