If you hear about the search for a missing person in the Philadelphia area, chances are Mark Hopkins is involved somehow. The 52-year-old Mount Airy native has been the chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue (GPSAR), an organization that aids in the search for lost and missing people, for over a decade and has been involved in the group for 20 years. Throughout his career Hopkins has investigated some of the most high-profile missing persons cases in our region, including Shane Montgomery, Cayman Naib and Christopher Tully.
During his time as the GPSAR chief, Hopkins has developed a reputation of someone extremely good at his job but not particularly fond of the attention that brings, particularly from the media. Yet his image as a grumpy misanthrope with little patience or time for anything outside of finding missing people, is just that, an image. NBC10 spoke with Hopkins about the misconceptions people have about him, the most memorable cases of his career and what he believes the media, police and the general public can do to improve the way we search for missing people.
1. What were you doing before you joined Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue?
I was involved in the Red Cross, firefighting and EMS. Different aspects of emergency services. I still do Fire and EMS on top of this but this[GPSAR] is my main thing.
2. How did you first get involved with Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue?
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I didn’t find it, it found me. I was at another organization and I found out about [GPSAR]. It seemed interesting but I didn’t realize it would be this interesting. It kind of became more of a calling. The more I did it the more I got addicted to doing it. It was a way to give something back and not just sit back and complain about the world without trying to affect some kind of change.
3. How did you eventually become the chief of GPSAR?
I worked my way up and down. I got promoted and demoted. Originally I was just a member and I got assigned responsibilities over time. As I moved my way up I became known as reliable and I got additional responsibilities. I developed some expertise and after some time that turned into experience and I could reproduce results and at that point I was elected to chief. Then I got re-elected then after I was at term limit and couldn’t be re-elected anymore I got appointed by the board to keep the job. I guess I'm there as long as I do the job and continue to deliver results. The instant I start slurring my words or staring at the sun too much I’m sure I'm done.
4. Do you think your reputation as a misanthrope is a misrepresentation of who you really are?
I don’t think it’s a misrepresentation on anybody’s part. I think sometimes you take snapshots of people. You can come up and see me at the point where I’m just exhausted with the way the process is being handled and I’m going at it with somebody about a case that we’re trying to get traction on and it’s been building up for weeks. In general I think we overcompensate with political correctness and niceness to the point where it’s become debilitating. We need to have some social sensitivity but you shouldn’t have to weigh every word you say because you may lose your job at the cost of performance.
5. What are some of the most memorable missing persons cases you’ve been assigned to?
It’s tough. There’s one guy that says the most interesting case is the current case. And there’s some truth to that. Because it is the current case. It’s the one that’s on your mind.
There was a Bucks County man who was interesting to me because you have all the data but you don’t have the end result. Last year we did so much more with so much less data. I don’t know if the data, and we’ve gone back over to look at it, is distracting or if it’s too much of a shiny thing. We have a lot of people that try to conceal themselves. He wasn't one of those people.
There was a local teacher that was interesting. Never met the guy but he really seemed like a likeable guy. You look at how the people around him responded to his loss. If that response is so sincere and authentic you can almost feel like this person must’ve been a really good human being.
There was a local college student that was interesting because of the amount of community outpouring and the amount of support. If you live in Philadelphia, you have a love hate relationship, the only relationship you can have with it. But to see that amount of outpouring gives you a little bit of hope that it’s not all bad. And when you’re doing this for so long you grasp for anything that helps you believe it’s not all bad.
6. How has your job affected you?
It affects you but you can't let it debilitate you. As far as do you drink or do you do this or that? I don’t do any of that stuff. I don’t sleep so good. I didn’t sleep good before this but this certainly doesn’t help you sleep better. It’s not conducive to a normal sleep cycle.
[The job] makes you become cynical. You see so many people wasting opportunities. You see so many missed chances. But I think that cynics are actually the ones that have the most hope. I think the people who are always cheerful live in an unrealistic fantasy land. They’re disappointed if things aren’t perfect whereas we’re happy if things get better. And we want them to get better. I want to be proved wrong. They don’t.
One thing I have to say is that I continue to be impressed by the dedication of friends and family to the missing. There have been more than a few cases that were driven by a strong family presence.
7. What are your biggest issues with the way police handle missing persons cases?
I’d like to see [police] do a little more of a background check into the person. We have an urgency scale. I’d like to see a realistic urgency assigned to the person. It’s based on factors that would have to be modernized and adapted and I’ve worked on that for a while. It’s based on how long you were missing. Calling us sooner even for a consult can impact the outcome of many incidents.
8. What are things that the public can do better to aid in the search for missing people?
Pay attention. Engage people directly, eye to eye. If there’s a question, don’t resolve it over anything digital. Eye to eye, face to face. Or at least get on the phone. If you’re worried, talk to somebody else and then both of you talk to the person.
If somebody does go missing, treat it like a crime scene because you could be contaminating valuable evidence. Get all the facts down. Go to law enforcement with a clear timeline of what happened.
It would be nice to see people be accountable. I see this ongoing in the 20-something age group where they do not take responsibility for another person in their party when they’re out. And it’s this thing where you just leave somebody. We have cases where people are found deceased that I felt would’ve been impacted had their friends initially said, “David’s not here. Where’s he at? Oh, he’ll get back home. No, it’s not like him. We need to look around or something.” Do something. Don’t come back hours later because he still didn’t show up at home. I’m not saying you have to be responsible for the world. Start out by being responsible for the people close to you, the people you love.
It would be nice if there was a way to put the information out there without soliciting comments from people. This malicious, verbal diarrhea and mindless empathy that doesn’t do anything. It makes people feel better about themselves. [People say] “Prayers, prayers, so sad.” But they won’t get off their butts and do anything. They won’t pick up a piece of trash on the side of the road but they want people to think they’re a good person. Those are the two extremes that are out there. I would like less conversation, more action.
9. Do you believe there’s a bias in regards to race, economic background or gender when it comes to the kinds of missing persons cases that get more attention?
I used to feel strongly it was race. To a degree I still do. But overall I have to say it’s popularity. Social media has turned it into high school. Popularity turns it to the pretty girl or the pretty guy. In reality it’s no less a tragedy, one person versus the other. It’s still a life. I think everybody deserves their fair share.
I would like to see people judged by the severity of their situation and not the color of their skin, their beauty on their face or their age. Think about the statement we often hear. "Missing, beautiful 18-year-old." Why is the word “beautiful” even in play? Do the most where we can help the most.
Sometimes you make choices, like a surgeon. You help this person more than this person. But I don’t see a fair balance. And the media doesn’t control it. The media is riding a wave. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I think the media wants to be better than they are they can’t because the populace is still eating the chum. By the time you retool the machine and you acquire a taste for better foods we will be overtaken and put out of business. So keep throwing them chum. And I really think that the media would like to do better stories but if you put up a story, A, B, and C, and nobody’s going after C and they’re all on A, you’re focusing on A more. I’d say that A is kind of self-sustaining. Try and channel a little bit of A to C somehow you know? With a hashtag or something. Find some way to link that non popular person with that popular person to raise them up.
10. Looking at your career with GPSAR, what do you believe your legacy is?
I don’t know. I know that there are people that were on the team when they were younger and went on to become police, firemen and emergency services people and that always makes me happy. Nothing will make me happier than you calling and saying my buddy is having a problem, I talked to him, found out he was going to do something, and it never happened. That will make me happy. The call I don’t get, that you had some impact in directing.
I think you help more by teaching people. Education is always the key whether you’re fighting poverty, bigotry or whatever. I don’t think you have the right to come down on people unless you tried to talk to them and show them the way. I don’t know about legacy. I don’t know if I’m a legacy kind of guy. I would hope that when I’m gone, more people smile than cry. Some will smile for the wrong reasons, but they’ll be smiling.
I just pick the one thing and I do the one thing. I think if everybody does that, if you want to restore violins, and that’s your passion, then do it. I think the most worthless thing that you can produce or make in this world is money. What does that say? You make money. You use money to buy stuff that other more talented people make. But if you just make money, what does that leave? I think you have to do more than just produce. That’s why the world is the way it is. You’ve got to do more. I would hope that there’s somebody after me that continues what I’m doing and they carry it forward.