More than 600,000 people go missing in the United States each year though only a small portion of these gain media attention. Side note, missing persons cases have declined by nearly half since 1997 & 90% are recovered. In 2019, 609,000 people were reported missing & police eventually canceled 607,000 of those entries, meaning that 2,000 cases were left unresolved at the end of the year.
On July 18, 2005, LaToyia Figueroa went missing in Philadelphia. 24-year-old LaToyia had a seven-year-old daughter named Izhanae & she was also five-months pregnant at the time of her disappearance. Earlier that day, she & her partner, the father of her unborn baby, Stephen Poaches, attended a prenatal appointment at Pennsylvania Hospital. A few months after the couple started dating, LaToyia discovered she was pregnant. When LaToyia failed to pick her daughter up at daycare that day & later, didn’t show up to her waitressing shift at TGI Fridays, her family began to worry. She was a reliable person & this was totally out of character.
LaToyia was of African American & Hispanic descent & was born on January 26, 1981. She grew up fearing that her own life would end tragically as her mother’s did. When LaToyia was about four-years-old, her mother, Ann Taylor was 22-years-old & was found murdered on a Philadelphia street on April 13, 1984 with a slash wound to her throat. LaToyia had a tough time growing up without her mom; she was raised by her grandma as well as other members of her mom’s family though LaToyia’s grandma died when LaToyia was still in high school so she went on to live with her uncle. Her father, Melvin Figueroa lived in another part of the city & the two were not close during her childhood.
LaToyia never learned to drive & although she dreamed of being a nurse, she wasn’t able to afford college tuition. In 2005, she was waitressing at TGIFridays. She had a close relationship with Anthony Williams, the father of her first child. The two met at West Philadelphia High School in choir practice & were instantly attracted to each other. At age 17, LaToyia discovered she was pregnant & gave birth to a baby girl. Being a mom became her most important role. Anthony & LaToyia ended up breaking up, but as time went on, they spoke about the possibility of rekindling their relationship.
LaToyia eventually met Stephen & discovered she was pregnant with her second child. Their relationship was described as rocky.
On the morning of July 18, 2005, LaToyia & Stephen left his red-brick row house in the morning & went for the check-up. Neither was able to afford the $35 insurance co-pay so they left without seeing the doctor & headed back to southwest Philadelphia. They stopped off for lunch at a fast food restaurant & then went back to Stephen’s house.
Police began their investigation by speaking with 25-year-old Stephen, since he was the last known person to see LaToyia. He told police that LaToyia left his place “peaceably” about 5pm & he was uncertain where she was. Investigators looked into her phone records & credit cards though found no activity. LaToyia was listed as a missing person.
Anthony tried calling LaToyia that day though she didn’t answer, which was odd for her since she always had her phone with her. When he went to the home the next day where LaToyia was living with her daughter, uncle & cousin, their 7-year-old told him that LaToyia hadn’t come home the day before. Anthony contacted TGIFridays & was told she hadn’t come in for her shift which solidified that something was very wrong.
On July 21, family & friends became aware of her disappearance & a missing persons report was filed & investigation began. The last time anyone had spoken with LaToyia was July 18.
Family & friends became frustrated over the lack of media attention that her case was receiving. LaToyia’s case was very similar to the Laci Peterson case which was a national media story, saturating the airwaves; Laci was 7 ½ months pregnant when she went missing on Christmas Eve in 2002. Her husband, Scott Peterson was convicted of her murder. Several weeks before LaToyia went missing, 18-year-old Natalee Holloway mysteriously disappeared from her high school graduation trip to Aruba; she disappeared on May 30, 2005 & the media became instantly fixated on her story.
LaToyia’s friend & coworker from TGI Fridays commented, “The Holloway disappearance was getting all the press, while Toya was getting what the family could gather. I attended a rally in her neighborhood because local news organizations were barely covering her story.”
In 2004, before LaToyia went missing, late journalist & PBS news anchor, Gwen Ifill, first used the phrase, “missing white woman syndrome.” This term is used in reference to media coverage, especially television, of missing-person cases involving young, attractive, white, upper middle class women or girls compared to the lack of attention towards missing women who are not white or those of lower social classes as well as missing men & boys.
Zach Sommers, an affiliated scholar at the American Bar Foundation said, “white women tend to be overrepresented as victims in crime news stories.” In a 2016 study, Sommers examined news coverage of missing persons & found that the media gave a disproportionate amount of news coverage to white women compared to women of color and men. Black people make up 13% of the US population & 31% of missing persons. White people make up 76% of the population & 54% of missing persons. American journalist, Charles Blow penned: “It is not that these white women should matter less, but rather that all missing people should matter equally. Race should not determine how newsroom leaders assign coverage, especially because those decisions often lead to disproportionate allocation of government resources, as investigators try to solve the highest-profile cases.” Families of color feel that the lack of media attention signal that their loved ones’ lives matter less & can also discourage police from using their resources to solve these cases.
The FBI doesn’t break down missing persons information by race & gender combinations which makes it harder to compare how many black women vs. white women are missing. In 2019, more than 600,000 people were reported missing; 359,768 were white & 205,802 were black, but the FBI groups white and Hispanic numbers together so coverage comparisons are muddled. The FBI estimates that the number of missing black women & girls is around 64,000.
No scientific studies have been conducted to explain “missing white woman syndrome” though some theories suggest the American public might be more willing to identify with white crime victims since, according to the U.S. Census Data, white people comprise a majority of the population. Of course, equitable coverage matters, though there is no scientific evidence suggesting that media attention helps solve crimes.
LaToyia’s case began to gain national media attention after a blogger, Richard Blair, sent an email to Nancy Grace, host of a nightly show on CNN Headline News, stating, “Latoyia Figueroa is still missing after 8 days. And as tragic as the Natalee Holloway case might be, Natalee doesn’t have a 7-year-old child wondering where she is, nor was Natalee 5 months pregnant.” Blair posted the email to his site as well as other websites; the email was noticed by a CNN producer & the results were immediate & dramatic.
Relatives & friends placed fliers throughout the city & a reward fund reached $100k for information, including donations from the restaurant where LaToyia worked.
A co-worker from TGI Fridays, described LaToyia as warmhearted & sassy, someone who loved to joke around, a doting mom who often spoke of her little daughter & the love she had for her.
In addition to Stephen Poaches, police also questioned other men that LaToyia had dated, but kept their focus on Stephen since he was the last known person to see her; they searched his home & car though they came up with no evidence. It was discovered that another woman’s name was on the lease of his apartment. At the time of LaToyia’s disappearance, she & Stephen were not a couple; he had gotten another woman pregnant a few months before LaToyia found out that she was pregnant & had actually given birth around the time that she vanished.
A month later this would all change; a friend of Stephen’s called the police to tell them that LaToyia was murdered by Stephen. He said he helped him dump her body in Chester, just outside of Philadelphia. He claimed that on the night of July 19th, Stephen picked him up & told him that he needed help moving a body from the trunk of his car. He said Stephen was armed with a gun, so he went along with it. When Stephen opened the trunk; he saw the body of naked woman in a trash bag. Her face was covered, her arms were bound behind her back with duct tape & he noted that she was pregnant. Stephen threatened to “put a hole in his head” if he didn’t move the body from the trunk. He told Stephen he couldn’t do it so Stephen pulled the body from the trunk, dragging her by the feet to the wooded lot, leaving her there. He said that fear prevented him from coming forward with the information sooner.
Stephen had also told another man about murdering LaToyia & asked this person for help in moving the body. He feared that his first friend would call the police & let them know where LaToyia’s body could be found. This person called the police immediately. Police asked this person to call Stephen & agree to go with him to move the body & he agreed. On August 20, 2005, police followed Stephen & this man to Chester, straight to LaToyia’s body. He was arrested; armed with a .45 caliber handgun, wearing a bulletproof vest.
After being questioned, he admitted he killed LaToyia, saying that the two were arguing only hours after her doctor’s appointment because he wanted LaToyia to have an abortion & she refused. He said their argument got physical & he ended up strangling her to death. An autopsy proved that her cause of death was strangulation. He said, “I kind of freaked out when she stopped hitting. She was dead. That was it.”
In a non-jury trial, Poaches was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of LaToyia & her unborn baby. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Poaches’ defense attorney felt he should have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder, saying that he acted out of “sudden and intense passion” and not “malice, ill will, or hardness of heart.” Stephen remains incarcerated at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution.
LaToyia was buried with her unborn child; her baby girl that she planned to name Nyla. Nyla’s ultrasound picture was displayed at the funeral.
- News & Record: Missing Woman May Share Fate of Her Mother in ‘85
- Wikipedia: Murder of Laci Peterson
- The Seattle Times: Blogger draws attention to case of missing mom
- Wave3.com: Philadelphia Man Caught Trying to Move Corpse Convicted Of Killing Pregnant Girlfriend
- A&E: Why the Media Ignored the Disappearance and Murder of LaToyia Figueroa
- CBS News: Pregnant Woman Found Dead
- Wikipedia: Missing white woman syndrome
- Black Girl Gone: A True Crime Podcast with Amara Cofer. Murdered: The Murder of LaToyia Figueroa
- The Guardian: The ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ still plagues America
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