After 3 decades, search for missing man continues

SNOHOMISH — The memory of the teen disappearing in the Snohomish River that February afternoon has stuck with Jim Scharf for more than three decades.

Scharf was a young Snohomish police officer the day Mitchell Leslie Darlington, 17, jumped from the railroad trestle, bellyflopping into the drink on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of winter.

Witnesses said they saw him swim toward the north bank, then disappear. Searchers scoured the river, but he was not found.

Today, Scharf is a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office detective who investigates cold cases. Part of his job includes trying to find out what happened to people who have long been missing.

In recent times Scharf has been reviewing the county’s missing person files and getting them entered into national data bases. When he perused one called NamUs, Darlington’s name was nowhere to be found.

Last month, he checked with the Snohomish Police Department and the city’s records department and neither had a file on the teen, who was with friends when he vanished.

On April 18, the sheriff’s office entered Darlington’s information into the National Crime Information Center database, which includes files for missing persons.

For Scharf, it’s an important exercise.

“There is a chance that Mitch’s body was found somewhere on a beach in Puget Sound and they haven’t identified him because he hasn’t been listed as missing,” Scharf said.

Scharf has received help from Darlington’s family as he looks for answers.

Mitch’s brother, John Marson, provided DNA and filed a missing person report.

Marson is thankful his brother hasn’t been forgotten after so much time.

“They have been pulling bodies out of the river off and on over the years and basically his body hasn’t yet been found,” Marson said.

His brother was a bit of a daredevil who liked to impress his friends, Marson said. He also was a strong swimmer. Police were told at the time that Darlington had been drinking that day.

Although he concedes he’s “grasping for hope,” Marson chooses to believe his brother is alive, that he simply opted to start life anew.

“He’s my brother,” he said. “I love him.”

At the same time, Marson wants answers, including whether his brother died that day.

Scharf has reached out to NamUs, shorthand for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons system. Its website, which includes names and dates when people went missing, is free and accessible to anyone. The program gets its money from the National Institute of Justice and is managed by the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

NamUs helps track down the missing and identify the dead.

Nationwide, 4,400 unidentified remains are found every year and more than 1,000 are unidentified after one year.

Across the country, there may be up to 40,000 human remains that are unidentified, NamUs reports. At the same time, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases at a given time.

The DNA from Darlington’s family will be turned over to NamUs researchers.

For Scharf, each case like the Darlingtons’ is not about closure, a word he questions is truly accurate.

Rather, it is about families finally knowing.

“They would love to find some answers, to find out what happened to them,” he said. “There are always questions people have about the circumstances of what really happened.”

Scharf has been spreading the word and getting help from different agencies, including the Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit.

The state Attorney General’s Office has sent out a bulletin to law enforcement agencies around Puget Sound and into western Canada that might be aware of unidentified remains.

Scharf recalled the case of a woman who drowned in the Snohomish River near the spot Darlington jumped in. Her body was found floating off the ferry dock at Clinton a few months later.

“Mitch easily could have been carried out to Puget Sound,” the detective said. “Once he’s out there who knows what could cause him to move in any direction.”

Janet Franson is a retired homicide detective from Florida who works for NamUs overseeing several states, including Washington.

Franson believes answers are still possible in the Darlington case.

“He could very well be recorded and nobody knows who he is,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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