From flowers to DVDs to the Internet, family of missing Plainfield woman turn to multiple media for help in search
By Jo Napolitano
Tribune staff reporter
May 21, 2007
“One, two, three,” Melanie Greenberg counted aloud in a sound check for a weekend news conference in Plainfield.
Greenberg looked the part of seasoned newsmaker, but the stay-at-home mom knew little about television or the press just three weeks ago, before her family was hit by the awful news that cousin Lisa Stebic had vanished. Greenberg immediately reached out to a group of media-savvy women she had befriended online two years ago.
From helping navigate the media to charting a public relations strategy involving fliers, vigils, flowers and magnets, the group became a lifeline. Stebic’s family employed virtually every modern form of information-sharing, from a Web site and discussion boards to music videos and a YouTube.com campaign.
The well-orchestrated blitz, as well as the news media’s captivation with these kinds of stories, resulted in three weeks of almost daily local coverage, several national TV appearances and hundreds of volunteers searching for Stebic, the mother of two who was last seen in her Plainfield home April 30.
Greenberg said one woman in particular, a former news producer and assignment editor at a CBS affiliate in Phoenix, was vital to getting the campaign off the ground.
Leigh Harris, who now works in production at KPHO, coached Greenberg on every imaginable topic, telling her to wear a jacket with a lapel so she could have a microphone fitted during interviews, to lean forward when talking into the camera and to wear primary colors because they pop on screen.
Harris drafted the family’s first news release a day after Stebic went missing.
“She was the one who told me you have to keep announcing things, that the media is like a shark you have to keep feeding,” Greenberg said.
They handed out carnations with Stebic’s picture on Mother’s Day. On Saturday, Stebic’s birthday, they released balloons with her image, hoping the message would reach a wide audience.
Harris even recommended the background color for the family’s Web site (dark blue) because it would look better on TV. She told Greenberg to remain accessible to the media and to provide pictures whenever possible in hopes that a two-line blurb could become a three-minute story.
“These are things I would never know,” Greenberg said. “My mind doesn’t think like that. I never would have thought I could handle stuff like this, but when you have to, you just do it. Leigh said to me, ‘Diamonds are made under pressure.’”
Within days, family posted videos on YouTube.com and later LiveVideo.com. Among them is a home movie of Stebic lighting Hanukkah candles with her children, reading to them and singing with her family.
The extended family solicited help from anyone who would listen, encouraging viewers from across the globe to post pictures of themselves holding signs that read findlisastebic.com. Photos came from Greece, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Another friend of Greenberg’s, Kara Crisp of Oregon, helped set images to music, using the melancholy song “Here With Me” by Dido to create a poignant montage.
“Kara’s videos touch people’s hearts,” Greenberg said. “I’ve heard hardened reporters say they cried watching it. We are not trying to manipulate. It just makes that connection where people see her as a real person, not a two-dimensional driver’s license picture.”
Greenberg said the women met on a Web site for fans of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“My husband turned to me and said, ‘Who would have guessed that out of something like that, you would know somebody who could help us in a situation like this?’” she said.
She knows the family has only a brief window of time to draw national attention and intends to ride it out as long as she can, as long as her duties to her own family will allow.
“We were just trying to get Chicago’s attention,” she said. “I never expected it would be on CNN and MSNBC and FOX national.”
Greenberg didn’t get home until 10:30 p.m. one night after an interview with Greta Van Susteren on FOX News. She had to turn down an interview with CNN’s Nancy Grace because it conflicted with a school meeting. When a FOX correspondent wanted to fly out, Greenberg asked if the reporter could work around her child’s field trip and Cub Scout meeting. She hadn’t gone food shopping in more than a week.
Though Greenberg wasn’t familiar with the duties of spokeswoman, she was well-versed in the Internet. She wasn’t surprised when a message board connected with the family’s Web site turned into a forum for speculation and accusations about the case. Another friend offered to monitor it and discourage people from leaving negative messages.
Plainfield Police Chief Don Bennett said the Web site has been helpful. Police check it to search for tips or clues.
FBI spokesman Ross Rice said it’s important to keep Stebic’s face fresh in viewers’ minds.
“Public cooperation is the cornerstone of law enforcement in this country,” he said.
Kelly Bennett, spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing Adults, has seen the Web play a greater role in missing-persons cases recently.
The press corps for the weekend news conference was smaller than the others and is bound to shrink further if there are no new developments in the case.
Greenberg said the family is lucky in that no other national news events have pushed the story off the media radar. She can’t help but think of Laci Peterson when she recalls the last time a missing wife got so much attention. Peterson went missing from her California home for eight months in 2002 and was eventually found dead.
Bits of information seeping out about the case — the midnight search warrant last week on the family’s home, the letter Stebic sent to her lawyer seeking her husband’s eviction — have kept the story in the press and on the airwaves longer than Greenberg could have hoped.
Stebic’s story was mentioned on the show “America’s Most Wanted” on Saturday. Michelle Sigona, a correspondent with the show, has done several news show interviews about the Stebic case. She said she isn’t surprised to see more families turn to YouTube and other venues to post information about loved ones. She said the idea was popularized with the case of Natalee Holloway, a still-missing Alabama teen who disappeared in 2005 during a school trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba.
“YouTube is not just for kids anymore,” Sigona said. “It is used to help solve cases now in conjunction with television shows and newspapers. It’s fantastic.”
Stebic disappeared three weeks ago, last seen by her husband, Craig, whom she was divorcing. No activity has been reported on her cell phone or credit cards. Police say there are no suspects in the case.