As the chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue (GPSAR), you’d think Mark Hopkins would be easy to find. He’s not. The location of his office wasn’t discovered until a lost reporter made three loops around the suburban property.
It is almost happened upon, when a cluster of vehicles and the small sign on the brick building is noticed. But one door is locked. The other opens to a stairwell where the options are up or down. Following where it appears to be lit, down the steps to a seemingly empty hallway where you make a quick left and finally see a door to an office with people inside.
Hopkins steps forward out of a small group and in that instant you feel like you have discovered the prize at the end of a maze. He is surprised you found him, amused at your effort of the search. He has, after all, been a part of solving much more difficult cases.
Hopkins has been with GSPAR since 1995. Members travel up to 90 minutes outside their base to provide assistance to families and law enforcement. He easily rattles off details of some of Delaware County’s missing person cases; Tommy Booth, Teresa Mastracola, Cayman Naib, Melissa Rodriguez.
“As I do this more, I get desensitized to it in some ways but everything that bothers me, bothers me more. All the Delco searches have bothered me. I feel some aspect of life cheated the person that could have possibly been avoided,” said Hopkins.
His words become slower and more measured when he speaks of Naib, the 13 year-old Newtown Square boy whose body was discovered by GSPAR led by Hopkins.
“With Cayman… it was just difficult because he was so young,” Hopkins says, pausing. “All of my training says at that age, you statistically don’t have the knowledge to make that decision. To see it made by someone; made by some so young, messes you up even worse.”
Hopkins sees a difference with Delaware County compared to other suburbs he works with mainly in the notable transitioning from neighborhood-to-neighborhood and the insight local law enforcement has regarding the dynamics of their constituency.
He lauded the instincts of Collingdale Police Chief Bob Adams, Clifton Heights Police Chief Tim Rockenbach, and especially District Attorney Jack Whelan.
“There is a lot of drive in the law enforcement community in Delco to see things finished. They are dedicated to people and it has nothing to do with skin color or economics. You never get a hint of that,” Hopkins observed.
Whelan spoke highly of GSPAR and Hopkins calling them instrumental in many cases, especially Naib’s where they located the body within hours and Rodriguez’s to see what factors could have created a false-positive or false-negative from a dog’s “positive hit” a few days prior.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to use them in any case where there was a missing person or if we needed to find a body,” Whelan noted. “Mark is thorough, dedicated, and understands it could potentially be a crime scene and isolates it so none of the other areas is disturbed. He understands the law enforcement aspect,” added Whelan.
Each case is different and Hopkins adjusts to the situation but his foundation is based in facts and logic. He cites team, training and continued exposure to search and rescue for the reputation and respect GSPAR has earned.
“A lot of people search the entire world for somebody. I try to narrow it down based on their behavior. The simplest answer is usually the answer,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins makes a point to not judge based on backgrounds of the people he is searching for and gives them all the same consideration he would whether they are, as some descriptions read, “a beautiful 22 year-old” or a “loving mother of two.” He does believe the majority of the missing is performing at a diminished capacity either from mental health problems or drugs.
“Families have to stop staring at tiny screens and pay attention to each other. Look around. You can’t outsource the maintenance of your planet to other people. You have to participate,” he said.
There are times in the middle of a search the person turns up wondering what all the fuss is about or, like in a recent case, are not missing but in Disney World. Then there are conclusions like Naib’s.
“It’s almost an honor to be part of bearing witness to the closure. This team is a group of loners who comes together to do one thing, help families have closure,” Hopkins said.
When something is lost and cannot be found, it is common among Catholics to pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of all things lost, from car keys to souls.
St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around…something is lost and cannot be found…
At times described as gruff, (but should there be smiles all around at potential crime scenes?), Hopkins brushes off the correlation insisting he curses too much to be canonized.
Mark Hopkins is not a saint despite the work he does.
“Or,” he offers giving it more thought, “the work of a sinner who is hedging his bets on the afterlife,” he said followed by a hearty laugh. “I never found this. This found me. It appears I have some acclimation toward it so I’m riding with it. We are our brother’s keeper to a degree.”
GSPAR is self-funded and does not get state, local or federal support. For more information about the organization, call 877-598-5618 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If someone goes missing….
Here’s what to do if a loved one is missing, according to Mark Hopkins, chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue:
DO – Treat it like a crime scene.
DO – Make a timeline of everything you can remember from the last time you saw the person. If there are five people in the room, make five timelines.
DO – Start getting together names and phone numbers of contacts.
DO NOT touch their stuff.
DO NOT clean anything.
DO NOT rely on social media. It is easy to leave a false trail.