Fumbled Investigations Have Brought Few Answers in Disappearance of Jonathan Bandabaila

Posted on May 4, 2020

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On May 21, 2019, members of the Bandabaila family took the podium at an Oakland City Council meeting, pleading for Council intercession into the investigation of the disappearance of their 19-year-old son and brother, Jonathan Bandabaila. Jonathan had been missing for nearly three weeks, and after a slow start to the investigation, the Oakand Police Department was ready to rule the disappearance a suicide and close the case.

To Harrison Bandabaila, who spoke that night on behalf of the family, the idea that his brother would take his own life was out of the question. “He was happy, it makes no sense,” Harrison told Council Members. It was a critical moment for the family. Jonathan had left home with a busy weekend ahead of him. His overnight bags were packed with his soccer uniform and a suit for a dance with his new girlfriend. Weeks later, there were still few answers about what had happened. What the family did know is that police and authorities had never regarded Jonathan’s disappearance as an urgent matter of life and death.

 

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The investigation of Jonathan’s disappearance has been fraught with careless missteps—and the puzzling sequence of errors began even before Jonathan went missing. In the early morning hours of May 4th, CHP units responded to at least four 911 calls from drivers on the San Mateo Bridge, according to CAD documentation the family acquired from CHP [CAD is a dispatch log that maintains an ongoing record of incoming and outgoing dispatch communications].

The callers advised there was a car parked in the westbound slow lane of the San Mateo Bridge—and at least two claimed there was a person sitting or standing on the guard rail overlooking the Bay. All the calls were received within minutes of one another. When CHP units arrived twenty minutes after the first call, however, they found no one in or around the car. An officer drove west across the bridge to Foster City and visually checked the remainder of the westbound lanes and found nothing—but there’s no record that they visually checked eastbound on either side of the bridge. CHP found no emergency call boxes had been activated on the bridge. Surveillance showed no one had walked off the bridge in either direction, according to the CAD—but as the family found out later, surveillance was limited and only two camera zones recorded footage.

Jonathan had bought the 1998 Honda Accord from Craigslist, but hadn’t registered it—thus, the car lacked registration, although ownership documents with Jonathan’s name were in the glove box, according to Harrison. Jonathan’s passport was found in duffel bags recovered from the car weeks later. But the CHP officers on the scene apparently didn’t search the car or the items in it. Though it’s difficult to believe, the CAD documentation from the morning of May 4 shows that CHP closed the case a little more than an hour after responding to the calls. The officers called a tow-truck to take the car away to a private lot. The CAD log reads: “problem changed from traffic hazard to storage.”

By Monday, May 7, Jonathan’s family had begun to worry that something was wrong. He’d stayed overnight with friends before, but never this long. Sia, Jonathan’s sister, remembers trying to text him and getting an inactive return from his phone. The family called the Oakland Police Department and an officer arrived at 1am, when they took a report.

But much of the OPD response going forward mirrored the bewildering indifference and incompetence of the CHP. It took two days for the case to be transferred from the initial reporting officer to OPD’s Missing Persons Unit investigators. The investigators obtained the Accord’s VIN number from Jonathan’s father, Fallah, and tracked Jonathan’s vehicle back to the CHP impound on the San Mateo Bridge. On May 10, the investigators called the family and told them they had found the Accord. The investigators did a cursory vehicle search at the private lot, but didn’t bring a technician.

It’s clear that even after tracking the vehicle back to CHP, OPD investigators didn’t know about the 911 calls—as investigators admitted during a taped meeting with family members and an advocate several months later. The CAD shows that on May 10, OPD’s investigator agreed to send a public records request via email for the CAD logs that showed the 911 calls and CHP actions—it’s unclear how long that process took. During the same recorded meeting, an investigator admitted that he could not initially decipher CHP’s CAD log once he’d received it.

OPD would later tell the family that a helicopter search of the area around the bridge was conducted on May 13. That search turned up nothing. The next day, an Alameda County marine unit searched the area under the bridge and again found nothing. By that date, May 14, Jonathan had been missing 10 days.

Shortly thereafter, Harrison says, OPD wanted to close the case and rule Jonathan’s disappearance a suicide. Harrison says he was stunned at the cursory investigation given how bizarre the disappearance was and how many unanswered questions remained. “This kid is missing, the circumstances are just weird.” The investigators made a bee-line to the determination of suicide and never bothered to dig deeper in the first weeks. “Negligence was just there from day one,” Harrison says.

One reason Harrison was skeptical of the suicide theory, he told OPD, is that Jonathan had a brush with death just months earlier. Jonathan contracted malaria on a family trip to visit relatives in Sierra Leone in December 2018. The family was in a remote area with only a rural clinic available. Even after they were able to get him to a larger facility, doctors were on strike and the hospital was under-staffed. It was touch and go, and after appearing to recover, Jonathan had a worrisome relapse. “I told them that look, he just had a near-death experience and I saw the fear in his eyes and we talked about it, and so for him to experience something like that and then a few months later commit suicide, it does not add up.”

With no physical evidence that Jonathan had committed suicide, OPD’s investigators failed to use the resources they did possess to find leads in the case. According to family members and advocates, investigators secured cell records, but had trouble both interpreting them and putting them to use. OPD didn’t seriously pursue the 911 callers as possible witnesses and didn’t move to preserve the 911 calls—which were subsequently purged by CHP according to internal policies. OPD engaged no social media or mass media in the weeks after Jonathan went missing– they posted no alerts to their twitter or Facebook accounts and never sent out a Nixle alert or a bulletin to local media on Jonathan’s behalf. The first Twitter post about Jonathan’s disappearance from the OPD account is dated June 21, 2019, 6 weeks after Jonathan had last been heard from.

OPD also made poor use of the only evidence they did have—Jonathan’s vehicle. According to Michele Lazaneo, a volunteer who has helped the family navigate the investigation, conversations with the tow lot owner reveal that OPD was disinterested in Jonathan’s car. Indeed, OPD never took custody of the Accord. After a forensic search of the vehicle on the private tow lot later in May, OPD told the lot owner that the family didn’t want the vehicle and that the lot owner could sell it. That wasn’t true, according to Sia. “They told us it would cost thousands of dollars to reclaim the car.” Fallah recalls that Chief Anne Kirkpatrick swore to the family that she would handle the fees. “She promised in front of many people,” Fallah says. But that never happened—when the family called the tow-owner to follow up on the vehicle, the tow operator told them he’d sold it already.

During the first two weeks of Jonathan’s disappearance, Oakland police failed to share critical information about the investigation with the family. Harrison learned from a friend who works at Caltrans that authorities were searching the bridge area by helicopter in mid-May. But the lack of communication was par for the course with OPD. Harrison says that calls to the investigators went to a “voicemail full” message. It was nearly impossible to reach the MPU.

Family members and advocates are hesitant to heap all the blame on the investigators, however. They acknowledge the burden that all of Oakland’s missing persons cases fall on the small and under-resourced MPU staff. Though a detective, the main investigator had graduated from the academy just four years earlier. Months into the investigation, Harrison says, Deputy Chief Oliver Cunningham revealed to the family that the investigators had hundreds of missing persons cases between them. “It gave almost a new understanding of why they would just come and say, this case is getting closed,” Harrison says, acknowledging the pressure the investigators must work under. “But it’s like even if that’s the case, you still have to have concrete information.” An April 2020 report from Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer to City Council states clearly that Oakland’s MPU has only two police investigators and one civilian investigator. Regardless, according to the report, the OPD’s enfeebled MPU has had an investigative load of 3,000 missing persons since 2015 and 88 cases involving adults are still open, like Jonathan’s.

Family members suspect that there are also other factors at play that go beyond under-staffing. “As soon as they said that Jonathan was missing, the first thought I had was, oh crap, I have to deal with OPD. I was born and raised here. I already knew that it was going to be a struggle with OPD.” Harrison, who’d been playing professional basketball in Spain when Jonathan went missing, arrived several days after the investigation had begun and sensed that OPD wasn’t respecting the family. “I felt like they were giving my parents the run-around, maybe because they come from a different country.”

Sia feels even more strongly that the fundamental problem in the OPD’s approach to the investigation was institutional racism. “They weren’t looking for a human being,” she says, “this was just another Black person to them.”

There’s little in OPD’s missing person’s case statistics to combat these impressions. In 60% of the MPU’s 88 open cases, the missing person is African American, even though African Americans constitute 23% of Oakland’s population, according to Manheimer’s report. Non-white victims make up 80% of OPD’s open missing person’s cases, and the majority of the missing are male.

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The statistics break down similarly across the nation. Thirty percent of missing persons nationally are African American, well over double the population of African Americans. When the case involves missing Black and non-white people, advocates contend that police tend to treat them as runaways and rarely engage a physical search or ask for federal or state help. That authorities relax their concern when the victim is non-white or Black in case after case has been a subject of concern and study for decades. “We have to ask if Jonathan hadn’t been a Black man from an immigrant family whether we could have seen a different response and in turn a different outcome than this tragedy,” said local organizer Cat Brooks, an early advocate for the Bandabaila family.

To make matters worse, Oakland’s MPU relies on outdated standards to conduct missing persons investigations. The Departmental General Order that governs OPD’s procedures and policies hasn’t been updated since 2009—it still carries the digital signature of Anthony Batts, a former police chief who resigned in 2011. Despite the many communications technologies that have become standard in police work since—including the use of Amber Alerts, Nixle, Nextdoor, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—OPD has no standard procedure for utilizing social media in a missing persons case.

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Though OPD has used social media bulletins and media advisories in other missing persons cases with due speed and diligence, there was no timely use of these tools for Jonathan. Michele—who has years of experience as a 911 dispatcher at CHP and as a 911 operator at the BART Police Department—was shocked at the state of OPD’s general orders, which govern police procedures. “OPD hasn’t updated any of their general orders in years, and they don’t have a social media policy. That’s how they can put out an alert for a missing dog this year in 2 days, but don’t have any policy or set standard for people.”

After the initial fruitless search of water under and around the San Mateo Bridge, and the family’s resistance to rule Jonathan’s disappearance a suicide without a serious investigation, OPD activity in the case flagged, according to family members. Finally, weeks after Jonathan’s disappearance, and stymied by the Oakland police disinterest, Harrison and his parents took their case to other powers. At the City Council, members reacted with compassion in May and June when the family pleaded for help during the Council’s open forum. But though the family gained the support and advocacy from community leaders like Cat Brooks, Carroll Fife, Tur-ha Ak, and Asata Oldibala, council members didn’t follow up.

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Isata, Harrison and Fallah Bandabaila at the 5/21/2019 Oakland City Council Mtg

Later, Fallah visited his Council person Noel Gallo, but Gallo kept him waiting and tried to put off the appointment through his assistant, Fallah recalled. He met briefly with Gallo who seemed sympathetic, but Gallo never returned Fallah’s subsequent calls. The family also called a press conference with supporters on May 31, asking for public support and answers about the disappearance.

But it wasn’t until the family began to attend Police Commission meetings months later that there was any significant movement in the investigation. After several weeks of attending the Commission meetings with some hope of getting traction, the Bandabaila family met OPD’s Public Information Officer Johnna Watson, who—ironically—was at the meeting to give a report on OPD’s social media work and policies.

Watson made contact with the family, and subsequently OPD held a press conference with them, alerting the public about Bandabaila’s disappearance and treating it like an active missing persons case. It was the first time the family felt hopeful, seen and respected by the OPD. The September press conference would mark the beginning of what the family members now consider to be a largely performative public relations operation for OPD. But for the time being, the press conference coincided with other changes that sparked hope.

Oakland Police Commissioner Ginale Harris agreed to become a liaison for the family with the OPD, and began attending meetings and reaching out to police in an attempt to foster accountability on the case. Around this time, as well, Cunningham, who had been overseeing the investigation, retired. Family members and advocates hadn’t felt comfortable with Cunningham’s style. According to Fallah, Cunningham was evasive and defensive about the investigation, and even lashed out at Commissioner Harris during a meeting with the family. “She asked him questions and he didn’t know the answers,” Fallah says, “and that threw him off.”

Family members were also dissatisfied with Cunningham because of dismissive and misleading remarks he’d made at the September press conference that weren’t in line with evidence. Cunningham bizarrely implied that Jonathan might have disappeared of his own accord, musing that Jonathan could be “playing soccer in Europe, maybe he’s traveling on the East Coast, maybe he needed some time away.” Jonathan’s passport had been found in the car. OPD knew he wasn’t spending money; his bank account was untouched. Jonathan’s phone hadn’t pinged since the night he had disappeared. Cunningham’s remarks undermined the sense of urgency the family had hoped to impart through the press conference.

Acting Deputy Chief Drennon Lindsey stepped into Cunningham’s role, which for the Bandabailas and their supporters brought a welcome change in tone, empathy and urgency in the case. Lindsay came into the case with renewed energy, bringing the department’s investigative capacity to bear with greater effect, and turning up new areas of investigation—for example, phone records information that had gone overlooked was suddenly brought into use.

But as time has gone on, even Lindsay’s oversight of the investigation began to make the Bandabaila family feel manipulated. More and more, OPD appeared to be going through the public motions of a belated investigation. Michele recounts the experience of having a press conference on January 5 announcing a public canvassing in the area where Jonathan’s phone had been pinged last at the San Leandro/Hayward border. The family had little faith that such an action 8 months later would create any concrete leads, but went along hoping that things would begin to improve. Major media had been invited by OPD to boost the efforts and bring attention to the investigation, but shortly after they’d begun, the family was informed by an OPD public information officer that the media were all relocating to a press conference at the vigil for a Montclair robbery victim who had been injured, and later died, after pursuing laptop thieves.

Just as this article was being written, OPD reached out after weeks of silence to ask the family to participate in an interview for a press and media operation on the one year anniversary of Jonathan’s disappearance. But family members declined to be involved. “Why have a press conference when you haven’t even been doing your job?” Sia says. Family members say they’re tired of what appears to be repeated public performances of searching the waters and sending out social media messaging. After a year, they feel that the late performances are only an attempt to hide the poor investigation that was carried out when timing mattered. “A lot of it is saving face,” Harrison says.

The puzzling actions of CHP and the fumbled OPD investigation have caused the family months of stress and emotional turmoil. Fallah says that an immediate water search would have changed everything. “There were two calls that said someone was standing on the railing and the last said there wasn’t. The CHP should have known that someone could have fallen. If they had searched the water immediately, it would have changed the way we feel, it would have changed the investigation.”

“If we knew what had happened to him, even if it was the worst-case scenario, it would bring some peace,” Harrison says. “It would be extremely painful, but if the worst were to happen we know that we can pray on it and know that he’s up there safe.”

Life has become only more fraught with anxiety and worry as the anniversary of Jonathan’s disappearance arrives during the Covid-19 pandemic. Isata, Jonathan’s mother, contracted Covid-19 at the beginning of April and had to self-quarantine in the house for three weeks. “It was really difficult. It’s been one thing after the other for our parents for, like, the past year and a half, and as a family we’ve never had to go through anything like this before.”

Isata recovered and is doing well now, but she declined to speak for this article because it’s difficult for her to talk about Jonathan’s disappearance. Sia worries about the toll on the family’s health and emotional well-being. Her mother’s bout with Covid-19 only highlights the pressures the family has lived through. “We just hope Jonathan is found so we can all have peace and settle within whatever that is.” she says.

 

*OPD’s Media Department was contacted for this article–the response claimed the reply window was too short for a reply, but would not respond to attempts to negotiate a longer time-frame. Paul Chambers and Johnna Watson, OPD spokespersons, were cc’d on the response.

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