BRENTWOOD, L.I. — It’s been nearly ten years since 46-year old Dennis Shepherd vanished after being left unsupervised in a van outside Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, Long Island.
He was last seen running into the massive woods near the huge complex, dodging a 9:30 a.m. court hearing where he was supposed to fight his “involuntary commitment” to a Stony Brook psychiatric unit.
His mother, Joan Kiesow, remembered calling Stony Brook at 12:30 p.m. on May 18, 2012.
“And the manager of psych said, ‘Didn’t you know? He ran away at 9:30 this morning,'” the mom recounted.
It was the last time anyone saw Shepherd, a smart and fun-loving man who once owned a limousine company and later served as a personal driver to executives, until a job loss sent him into a depression that developed into psychosis.
“We lived together for nine years,” Shepherd’s former girlfriend, Joanne Villani, told PIX11 News. “And then he started to experience some depression.”
Shepherd’s mental decline was heartbreaking for Villani and his entire family to watch.
“He was very, very smart,” Villani recalled. “He had an incredible memory. He could problem solve any problem a person had with their car,” she added. “He remembers the numbers on every part.”
“All of his life, he was a good kid,” his mother, Joan, said.
Shepherd’s father had suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that was diagnosed when the dad was in his 20s.
In Shepherd’s case, he was living a relatively typical life–enjoying sports, travel, and the ocean–until the trauma of his job loss apparently triggered depression.
It was downhill from there.
“He was picked up by the police,” his mother recalled, “because he was knocking on doors in Lake Ronkonkoma and wanting to speak to the FBI.”
Villani visited her ex-boyfriend twice a week at the Stony Brook psychiatric unit, because they still had a connection.
“I think he was paranoid and he had fear that he was going to end up in jail the rest of his life,” Villani said, “even though it wasn’t true.”
“They had him on one medication, and he was doing better,” she said.
But Villani recalled that after Dennis Shepherd had a brief setback, he started to refuse medication and would only eat food in sealed packages.
“He had gotten an attorney,” Shepherd’s mother said. “He wanted to have them release him.”
On the morning of May 18, 2012, a hospital van was supposed to take Shepherd to a court hearing at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood.
“They left him in a van unsupervised, and then he fled from the van,” Villani said.
Both Shepherd’s mother and Villani recalled critical hours were lost, as hospital personnel tried to search for Shepherd on their own, without calling the police at first.
“The police, I don’t think, were notified until about two in the afternoon,” Kiesow said.
Professor Joseph Giacalone of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a retired NYPD detective who worked on cold cases, said it was absolutely essential that police be notified in Shepherd’s case.
“That first hour or so is very important when someone goes missing,” Giacalone said.
Villani said she was told a Gold Alert for a missing, vulnerable adult was never put out.
“I was told it was only for people over the age of 65, and it was not used for Dennis,” Villani noted.
That was a misconception, because a Silver Alert is utilized when an older person goes missing.
“You get that information out,” Giacalone said. “Because someone driving on the Sunken Meadow Parkway might have seen something and called 911.”
The family was disappointed to learn the Missing Persons Unit was disbanded in the Suffolk County Police Department not long after Shepherd’s disappearance, with Shepherd’s file going to the Third Precinct in Brentwood.
Shepherd’s mother and sister submitted their DNA to the national database known as NamUs, which contains DNA from unidentified deceased persons.
There has never been a match.
This year, Shepherd’s sister, Vicky, sent e-mails to the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office, after reading an article that some unidentified remains were found in Suffolk County in April 2021.
The Deputy Medical Examiner, Dr. Ruth Kohlmeier, wrote back to her.
“We thank you for your patience,” the e-mail began.
The e-mail continued, “We don’t have any cases from April 2021 that remain unidentified. All the human remains from that time frame have been identified.”
“From what I understand, your family has submitted DNA and other information about your brother that has been been entered in CODIS and NamUs. At this point, I can’t think of anything else you or our office can do from a scientific standpoint,” the doctor said.
“However, we can always hope and never give up trying to find Dennis.”
So the pain of not knowing remains for Shepherd’s family and ex-girlfriend, who called the missing man the love of her life.
Shepherd’s mother can only theorize about her son’s fate.
“You wonder whatever happened to him,” Kiesow said. “Is he homeless? Is he cold?”
The mom claimed Suffolk County detectives don’t want to take her calls anymore on the anniversary of her son’s disappearance.
“They said, ‘I’m sorry, we told you, if something comes up…we’ll call you,'” she recalled.
Villani said the police response was too delayed, because of late notification from the hospital.
“They did send out the police helicopter, but that was done late,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that they left someone who was in such a fragile state, unsupervised,” she added.