Mental health issues of all kinds are serious matters. They are due a heightened level of sensitivity when they involve a mental health professional who once counseled patients of their own. Please consider both of these factors when making comments on the disappearance of Karla.
In November 2021, Karla Joy Hillen went missing in Bryan County, having last been seen in Fort McAllister State Park in Richmond Hill. Seventeen days later, her body was discovered not far from where authorities set up the search command point. Her disappearance, the search, and what happened in the days that followed left lingering questions by the community which followed the case intently for more than two weeks.
In this piece, The Georgia Virtue set out to answer some of those brewing questions.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
End of Oct. 2021 – Karla leaves Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and returns to the US.
Oct. 30, 2021 – Karla is in Jacksonville, Florida.
Saturday, Nov. 20 (LATE p.m.) – Karla is last seen before bed by the family friends with whom she is staying. Since returning to the US, Hillen has stayed in a number of places, but as is the case with most adults, Hillen does not ‘report’ her whereabouts to any individual or check-in frequently.
Sunday, Nov. 21 (before noon) – Video surveillance shows Hillen leaving the neighborhood where she was staying. She is driving her own vehicle and heads to Fort McAllister in Richmond Hill. Karla arrives at the park, then leaves for a short period of time, and returns to the park. (This information is not known until later when surveillance footage is provided to authorities). Her phone, purse, and other personal belongings are left behind in her vehicle.
Monday, Nov. 22 – A state park Ranger notices that a vehicle has not moved from its location and begins agency protocol of contacting the Law Enforcement Division of DNR to assist, as Rangers are not POST-certified peace officers. DNR does not contact any other agency.
Tuesday, Nov. 23 (7:00 p.m.) – Karla is reported missing to the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office begins contacting her close contacts, friends, and family members.
Wednesday, Nov. 24 (3:00 p.m.) – Unaware that the vehicle has been in the same place since Sunday, BCSO deputies locate Karla’s vehicle at Ft. McAllister. BCSO investigators, deputies, and Sheriff Mark Crowe continue efforts to locate Hillen, but are limited in scope as it pertains to the state park itself. DNR is overseeing the investigation and conducts a ‘hasty search,’ conducting a search of the 1,725 acre park on foot and ATV but does not locate Karla.
Thursday, Nov. 25 (12:00 p.m.) – Thanksgiving Day – Given that DNR’s protocol merely searches for lost persons in the general thoroughfares of the park, DNR ceases its search and passes off the entire missing persons case to BCSO.
Friday, Nov. 26 – Authorities continue the search for Hillen on foot. Sheriff Crowe obtains consent to open Hillen’s vehicle and search it. Deputies and Park Rangers sift through video footage to evaluate whether or not Karla left the park on foot.
Saturday, Nov. 27 – A GSP chopper assists in the search while BCSO deputies search on foot and by boat in the waterways.
Sunday, Nov. 28 – BCSO brings in a K9 team from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and conducts a search based on an article of Karla’s. The area canvassed is the vicinity of the 3-mile Red Bird Trail. Foot searches by BCSO of the 1,725 acre park continue, this time, with approximately 25 volunteers from the public.
Monday, Nov. 29 – Homeowners and business owners continue to comb through video footage and offer it to law enforcement.
Thursday, Dec. 2 – Search continues. A GSP helicopter returns at the request of BCSO for several hours in an attempt to locate Karla in a more thorough search of the marshlands. Marine patrol also searched the waterways once again. A K9 team from South Carolina also assisted in the search.
Friday, Dec. 3 – A press conference is held by Sheriff Mark Crowe and Karla’s family. Her husband states he is concerned that Karla, who is diabetic, may have been impacted by an insulin imbalance. “None of this – none of this makes any sense to us,” he said. He thanked the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement for the efforts made thus far.
Sheriff Crowe announces that K9 teams from South Carolina will arrive the following week to assist in a dense grid search in the wooded areas and teams from Florida will follow with K9s trained to search bodies of water. Crowe states that foul play is not suspected.
Every day did not include a gridded ground search, but each day included some investigatory act related to the effort to locate Hillen was conducted, according to family and authorities. Though it is never stated, after a certain point, there is a realization by the public that the effort to locate Karla is a ‘recovery,’ not a ‘rescue,’ merely based on the amount of time that has passed.
Tuesday, Dec. 7 – Law enforcement officials discover what they believed to be the body of Karla Hillen – still inside Ft. McAllister.
The disappearance of Hillen, the social media campaign to locate her, and the statements made by authorities have left many questions for Bryan County residents about what would happen if they, too, went missing inside the boundaries of Bryan County.
In an effort to evaluate both the successes and shortcomings of the search, TheGeorgiaVirtue researched the whereabouts of Hillen using public records, press conference statements from authorities, social media posts, and the laws and procedures of both Bryan County and the State of Georgia to compile a timeline of her disappearance and the circumstances surrounding it.
Here are the findings:
How are missing persons investigated in the state of Georgia?
While it is a myth that 48 hours must pass before an adult can be reported ‘missing,’ it is not a crime for an adult to “go missing.”
According to Macon County, Ga Sheriff Leonard Johnson, “A legally competent adult can decide to disappear with no notice whatsoever to anyone and has every legal right to do so. Occasionally the police will locate a long-lost missing person but all they can legally do is report back to the person that originally reported them missing is that they have been located and they are okay. Legally they cannot even disclose where it is they were found.” This explains why the Sheriff’s Office did not release details immediately following the discovery of Hillen’s body.
Additionally, Georgia appears to be lax on uniformity of missing persons protocols. Florida, for example, requires all law enforcement agencies to have a protocol in place and to report to a state database within 2 hours of receiving a report. It also has a statewide ‘clearinghouse’ for information on those reported missing.
Georgia law only requires that an agency take a report if an individual is reported missing. How an investigation proceeds from there is up to the agency receiving the report. Information provided to the agency about the missing person is allowed to be used in determining the urgency of a search and how it is conducted.
The difference between Georgia DNR/State Parks/Law Enforcement Division
Fort McAllister is a state park located within Bryan County. Bryan County is in the Region 6 Law Enforcement Division based in Brunswick. The limited officers cover 19 counties.
DNR’s Law Enforcement Division has a number of resources, but they aren’t utilized for traditional law enforcement purposes as the primary responsibility of the agency is protecting wildlife. For instance, the K9 team is only used for apprehending individuals who break the law and the Body Recovery Team is activated after natural disasters. There are almost no resources for the state agencies in the event that someone goes missing or a crime is committed in a state park.
Who had jurisdiction?
OCGA § 12-3-31 dictates that state parks are “under the immediate control and management of [DNR].”
There is no formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between DNR (or its subdivisions) and BCSO for investigation of cases. BCSO does not respond to calls at Fort McAllister and state pamphlets and websites instruct calling the Park Manager for emergencies. Park Managers and Rangers are not certified peace officers and have no policing authority.
Previous investigations at Fort McAllister are a result of the state agency formally requesting assistance from the Sheriff’s Office. Any deputy who patrols the state park does so at their discretion, not because BCSO requires it or has a formal agreement in place.
Because DNR was notified first, in accordance with OCGA § 35-1-8(a)(3), it had the duty to contact the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office about the vehicle and potential missing persons, not the other way around. Additionally, requests for assistance from other agencies would have been left up to DNR, not BCSO.
Further, while DNR turned the case over to BCSO on Thursday, November 25, the local agency still had no authority to ‘close’ the state park, in whole or in part.
Was the GBI called?
The GBI was not asked to assist with the investigation into the disappearance of Karla Hillen.
The GBI does not investigate missing persons cases in the absence of suspected foul play.
TGV confirmed that the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office has a working relationship with the GBI and an agent shares office space with the county agency at the Richmond Hill office for BCSO.
Had the Law Enforcement Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources felt there was a need to do so, it also could have contacted the GBI (or the Georgia State Patrol) to handle the case. It did not.
What about Karla Hillen’s car?
Law enforcement may only cite ‘exigent circumstances’ and enter private property without a search warrant when there is a preservation of life issue or probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Due to neither of those being present, Hillen’s rights were still intact and BCSO could not enter her vehicle until consent was given by her husband. Similarly, the belongings from inside the vehicle – such as a cell phone- could only be examined with the consent of Karla or her family.
The BCSO did not ever have the authority to give DNR or Park Rangers consent to open the vehicle or search any of Karla’s possessions.
It was erroneously stated that the Sheriff’s Office had the vehicle towed from the state park, however, the Sheriff’s Office did not ever “take possession” of Hillen’s car. The vehicle was searched while it was still on Fort McAllister property and then went straight to Karla’s family.
Did Karla Hillen experience a Mental Health Episode?
- Karla was in the United States, home from Guantanamo Bay, without her husband and outside the presence of other family during the Thanksgiving holiday. She had been home for more than three weeks at the time of her disappearance.
- During the press conference on Dec. 3, Sheriff Crowe said no foul play was suspected.
- BCSO said they were not investigating Karla’s disappearance as a ‘criminal matter.’
- While it is known that Karla did take her keys and did not take her purse or phone when she left the vehicle, it is not yet known if she took any other items with her.
- When Karla’s body was located, the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office said on social media that there were ‘no concerns of any public safety.’
- A previously scheduled press conference ultimately did not take place after Karla’s body was discovered, which likely would not have been the case had the suspected cause of death been a medical issue or foul play.
- Karla’s family has not criticized the search efforts by BCSO and has largely remained quiet and behind the scenes.
- Karla’s obituary asked for donations to be made to the PTSD Foundation of America in lieu of flowers.
- When arriving in the US from Cuba, there are a limited number of entry points through which a person can travel. Through social media comments, it is known that Karla spent time in Florida before making her way to Georgia. TGV filed public records requests with a number of entities to see if Karla had interactions of any kind with other law enforcement officials before her disappearance.
- A report from the Jacksonville, FL Sheriff’s Office obtained by TGV indicates that not only did Karla interact with authorities, following her own admittances and statements, she was taken into custody and held under The Baker Act for an involuntary mental examination.
- Under Florida law, only the preliminary and accompanying police report is available for public disclosure. Any specific documents pertaining to the mental health evaluation or an order signed by a judge are sealed.
- Preliminary reports from other agencies suggest that the October 30, 2021 incident was not the first time Karla was held involuntarily for a mental health issue.
Story continues below.
The autopsy is still pending with the GBI lab, but it could be 9-12 months before results are returned due to an ongoing backlog by the state.
Why wasn’t a Mattie’s Call alert sent out?
There is very specific criteria for when a Mattie’s Call may be issued: disabled adults and medically endangered persons.
OCGA § 35-3-176 defines “medically endangered” as “a person with a known medical condition that might reasonably cause such person to become incapacitated or that may result in life-threatening physiological conditions likely to lead to serious bodily injury or death if not immediately treated.”
At the time the Sheriff’s Office began investigating the disappearance, the diabetic component was known, but no mention was ever made that Karla was without her medications – merely that an insulin imbalance was possible.
Additionally, mental health episodes are not covered as ‘medically endangered,’ nor is possible foul play or a voluntary departure. There is no ‘adult equivalent’ of an Amber Alert/Levi’s Call (for missing children) in Georgia for the mere act of going missing.
Could the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office have done more?
The obvious answer in hindsight is always ‘yes.’
But given the laws in Georgia, the facts and circumstances of Karla’s disappearance, the jurisdictional problems, and what was likely known to law enforcement based on conversation with friends and family, the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office not only met the standard for missing persons protocols when it took the report and assigned it to the investigations division, but it exceeded those standards for a full 14 days.
In a December 7 post detailing the recovery of Karla’s body, BCSO stated that the office “learned a lot during this time and plan[s] on changing some of our procedures in the event of possible similar future occurrences…”
The Georgia Virtue contacted Sheriff Crowe to inquire about reforms that have been instituted following the disappearance of Karla.
For starters, Crowe is actively working to secure a MOU with Georgia DNR. He told TGV that it’s important to him that some sort of formal agreement with the state agency be in place so no time is wasted in the event that something similar happens again. “Whether that’s DNR taking the lead for the duration or us handling the cases from the get go, we’ll definitely take it. We’re not trying to push it off on anybody. We just need to know – I want to know what they expect from the Sheriff’s Office,” Crowe said.
But not knowing what plans and partnerships exist has been one of Crowe’s greatest hurdles since taking office in January 2021. Prior to him becoming Sheriff, there were no Standard Operating Procedures for the office. Every policy has had to be crafted, approved, and instituted for deputies. How the agency works with other agencies has been something Crowe has been working on since he took over and one he says he will continue to see through.
As far as communication with the public goes, the Office relied on Facebook for the updates it was able to provide. Crowe said the Office is in the process of unveiling a new Bryan County-centric mobile app that will allow law enforcement officials to communicate directly with citizens in nearly-real time. It will also have a number of resources available to the public
Specifically to Karla’s case, Crowe is taking a somewhat unprecedented approach: once the case is officially closed, he said he’s turning over the file to a few retired law enforcement officials from other agencies. The purpose? Their counsel and feedback on how the investigation is handled, what was done right, what could be done better, and anything in between.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free and confidential.
- Contact local law enforcement as soon as possible. In Georgia, law enforcement agencies are prohibited from instituting “waiting periods.”
- Contact the US Department of Justice which operates the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Here, you can upload information about a missing person so law enforcement officials, agencies, and individuals across the country can aid in your search.
- Register with specific missing person’s databases that are geared toward specific groups such as children and those who have mental illnesses. These databases also provide you with free services and resources that can aid in your search.