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Without a trace: Meet the volunteers who dedicate their days to finding missing people in Hampton Roads

Investigators track as many cases as possible, while Water Team Inc. also covers ground. The goal, to reunite as many families as possible.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — On any given day, there are more than 900 people missing in Virginia. That number, according to Virginia State Police, reflects current missing children and adult cases, including cases that span decades. 

Investigators track as many cases as possible, while a Hampton Roads-based volunteer group also covers ground.

13News Now has introduced the community to Water Team Inc. before. The group has spent more than a year searching for missing Hampton four-year-old Codi Bigsby. But the group is constantly training to bring families across the region answers. 

Founder Joe Slabinski showed 13News Now how his team stays sharp through search and rescue drills.

A team of 12 volunteers dedicates their days to finding missing people in Hampton Roads. Grants and donations fund operations.

“These folks come out here and do this with me because of their desire to help the next family and then the next after that,” Slabinski said.

For volunteer Buddy Norris, the searches are personal.

Unfortunately, my stepson went missing,” Norris said.

Slabinski started his nonprofit in 2018 as a water search group but took on his first land mission to find Norris’ stepson, Steven Cleaton. Sadly, they found his remains, but the experience motivated Norris to join the team.

“It is very important work, I feel like, and whatever we can do to bring closure to other families like this group did for our family, I am more than happy to keep doing it,” Norris said.

He’s turning 80 soon but is still looking for others.

“The man has logged probably close to 100 miles with me," Slabinski said. "He does not stop, he does not quit."

The group is constantly training to make their missions as successful as possible.

“Radios and communications, identification of the bones, the skeletal remains, decompositions rates, what to expect when you come across somebody,” said volunteer Rob Stubblefield.

Newcomers like Stubblefield started learning the ropes in August. He said volunteers are ready to search at a moment’s notice.

“This is a team," Stubblefield said. "What we did today is what we do when we show up on site." 

They’ve spent countless hours on high-profile missing persons cases like trying to find four-year-old Codi Bigsby. But the little boy is not the only one on their radar. 

“Unfortunately, right now, we are over 500 people still actively missing,” Slabinski said. “There is the ability to search every day somewhere for somebody.”

The team has experienced a lot of lows.

“There are many, many people missing, so we are more than happy to find anybody that we can,” Norris said.

But Slabinski said it's the highs that keep his team covering mile after mile to bring people home.

“We have found six living, and that is what we strive for, to find the living,” Slabinski said. “Once you wrap up that case and you see a family get reunited, it just pushes you harder for the next case. I got to get this done so that maybe we can give this family the same kind of story that the last family had.”

Slabinski is adding to Water Team’s resources. He is now creating a night search team and applying for grants to equip his volunteers with night vision gear to keep searches for missing people going long after the sun sets. Recently, that team had their first deployment to help with an Amber Alert. 

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