Published in Nacional number 432, 2004-02-24

Autor: Melisa Skender, Nikola Plančić


Over 1500 people go missing in Croatia each year

The murder of pregnant Lucija Topalović is one of the rare cases in which the missing person was the victim of a crime: the majority return home on their own or are found alive

The recent case reported in the newspaper has focused the public attention on the little known phenomenon of missing persons in Croatia. On December 17, Lucija Topalović disappeared from her home near Velika Gorica. Two months later, her body was found in the forest near the town of Orla, only lightly covered with soil. For two months, her family and the police searched for her. Her family had been convinced that she had left home for personal reasons and they were hoping she would return. However, their search ended in tragedy.

This is not typical of the problem of missing persons in Croatia, as the majority of such cases have a happy ending. The number of persons the police are looking for at any one time is quite variable. New cases are reported daily, however, they also frequently find those people reported missing. Last year in Croatia, 1639 people were reported as missing, with 1570 of those cases resolved by the beginning of this year. According to Gojko Marković, head of the general crime division, most of those people get lost and return home after 2-3 days. However, there are those who vanish without a trace.

The oldest such search began back in 1962 and has been ongoing for 42 years. Missing persons are sought until they are found alive or dead, to a maximum of 50 years. Currently in Croatia, police are looking for 149 missing persons – 96 men and 53 women. The majority of those reported missing leave home voluntarily, some of whom have the intention of never returning, either to start a new life or to commit suicide. Often times the person is the victim of an accident, however, the majority are found alive. Only 2-3 cases per year, according to Marković, include indications of criminal activity, and those investigations are considered as persons missing under suspicious circumstances.

It was under suspicious circumstances that Lucija Topalović disappeared on December 17. At about 10 a.m. on December 18, her friend came by the house where Lucija lived alone, as her parents worked in Austria. The friend was surprised to find the front door ajar, with no trace of Lucija inside. She contacted Lucija’s aunt, who then reported the case to police in the event. The next day, Lucija’s brother and his family came home from France to help with the search. Nothing was missing from the house, and Lucija left home without a jacket, even though it was a cold December day. Her car was still parked out front and they assumed that she had gone off with someone she knew. Considering that she took nothing with her, it appeared that she had not planned to leave her home. The only suspicious thing was a medical report left on the table, which showed that Lucija was four months pregnant.

After a two month search, police found Lucija’s body on Valentine’s Day, buried in a forest. The girl had only asked her killer, Davor Celčić, to admit he was the father, but he refused. The police received his confessions only after they showed him proof that he had called the girl the night of her disappearance, even though he had claimed they had last spoken in October. He began to cry and confessed to the murder, but only on the conditions that the police let him tell his side of the story. Nacional is the first to release the entire testimony given to the police and signed as an authentic copy of his testimony.

On that Wednesday night that Lucija disappeared, Celčić had come to get her. She got into his Renault Megane and drove for a short time, while her mobile phone rang several times. He proposed that they stop by the football field and that she turn off her phone so that they could talk in peace. After a short argument in the car, he grabbed her by the neck and began to choke her. She fought back, hitting him and scratching, at which point he grabbed a metal bar from under the seat and began to hit her arms. Tired from the struggle, the 23 year old criminology student likely passed out. Her attacker noticed that she had stopped resisting, and used that opportunity to get a rope out of the trunk. Considering that there are frequently people around the football field, Celčić stopped to see if there were any witnesses to his crime before he got back into the car and tightened the rope around Lucija’s neck. Then he put her seatbelt on her and drove home, not 500 meters away from the football field, where he lived with his parents and younger brother. He left the car in the drive, and took an axe, shovel, rope and old training suit from the garage. He headed towards the town of Orle, and tried to hang her body from a tree to make it look like suicide. However, the girl’s body was too heavy for him. He got back into the car and continued driving down back roads to avoid too much traffic. On the gravel road, the rope around her neck gave way slightly and air began to come out of her lungs, giving her murderer a fright, as he though she was still alive. Not stopping, he grabbed the ax and hit her in the head several times while still driving. When he arrived at the edge of the forest near the house where his grandfather lived and where he frequently played as a boy, he parked the car and pushed his way through the brush to about 20 meters into the forest. He dug a hole barely 70 cm deep and the length of the body and went back to get the body he had left in the car. He began to drag her to the grave. Alone, through the brush, through which the police had to use a chainsaw just to get to the girl’s body. He remembered that if they did find her, the police would be able to identify him from the skin cells under her nails, so he left the body in the forest and went back to the car. He cut off her fingers and put them in a plastic bag, which he tied to ensure he couldn’t lose any of them. He pulled the body into the hole and turned her on her belly. He hit her on the head several more times with the ax before he buried her in the hole. Then he went to the town of Drnek and headed to the Sava River with the bag full of fingers and her purse. He through the bag into the river and waited to hear the splash. He also threw in her cell phone, documents and other things she had in her purse. She returned the girl’s house keys and the pregnancy report into her purse and headed towards Micevac along the riverbank, when after about a kilometer he realized he had not gotten rid of the ax, shovel and clothing. He walked to the river and threw in the bloody tools, changed into his training suit and got rid of the bloody murder clothes. Then he returned to the house where Lucija Topalović lived alone, left the pregnancy report on the table, checked all the rooms to make sure there were no witnesses, wiped his fingerprints off the keys and returned home, only 600 metres away from the home of the girl that he brutally murdered. When he sat in the car, he realized her purse was still behind the seat. He wrapped it up and threw it into a garbage bin near the house, as he knew that it was collection day. That afternoon, he went to university, and acted as though nothing had happened. No one from his family noticed anything odd about his behaviour. His friends from school did however, notice that his hands were scratched up. He was called in for questioning several times and persistently refused to take a lie-detector test.

“Davor Celčić went to elementary school with Lucija. For years we drove in the same school bus from Micevac to Velika Mlaka. That is why I do not believe that he was capable of doing this alone, without anyone’s help. I am certain that his parents and family had to have known what he did and covered up the crime,” said Vinko Topalović , brother of the murdered girl, who has not backed down on his request that the police continue their investigation until they reveal all those involved.

“I have concrete arguments and will initiate an investigation against the Celčić family for aiding and covering up the crime for a full two months. I cannot believe that his mother did not notice that which his friends from school managed to notice, that his hands were scratched up,” concluded the brother, who hoped to find his sister alive to the very last moment. He thought that she had gone somewhere to have and raise her baby. Even when he was called into the police station to identify what police thought was her body, he pushed aside the police officer’s hand, offered in condolence. He refused to accept that it was her, until the DNA results came back with the tragic news.

Lucija Topalović was killed on the evening of December 17. On Thursday morning, her killer, according to his own statement, had not even had the time to wash his care. However, her disappearance was not reported until Thursday evening, and by that time, he had succeeded in getting rid of most of the traces of the crime. The general belief that missing persons can only be reported after 48 hours is a dangerous myth according to Marijan Kraljević, former chief of police and owner of a private detective agency. He also warns that in order to succeed in finding someone, they have to be reported missing as soon as possible.

“Missing persons cases are always the same, whether we are searching for a missing child or Ante Gotovina. The only difference is in the quantity of material resources invested in the search. Or rather, how many people can be out in the field and how much money can be spent,” said Kraljević. He stated that the recent kidnapping of Jelena Gudeljević, the daughter of a well-known Zagreb businessman, is an excellent example of that. The police were informed not 15 minutes after the girl was kidnapped in her car, one of two such cars in the entire Zagreb area. The search began immediately. Reports on the missing girl were repeated in all police patrol cars every fifteen minutes and a search helicopter was sent out to patrol from the air. When the girl was returned safely home, the question was raised whether the police would have responded similarly had she not been from such an influential family.

“Be sure that the police will always take all available measures when a human life is at stake. This case was special, as it was a kidnapping with a ransom request, which is very rare in Croatia. The police, therefore, were acting under severe pressures,” responded Gojko Marković, head of the general crime division. The headlines in the newspapers which covered the police spectacle certainly did not reduce that pressure.

Marijan Kraljević did not want to talk about how the police conduct these investigations today because, as he stated, he left the police force in 1982 and can only talk about how the police should lead investigative proceedings. According to Kraljević, each search must begin with interviews with family members and close friends, in order to collect as much information as possible on the person and possible reasons for their disappearance. Then their residence is searched in detail, they look for information on places the missing person frequently went to, and try to figure out what and who the person loved. The police then confirm the collected information. Previously, the law permitted wiretapping and following persons thought to have potential contact with the missing person or were under criminal investigation if the case was thought to be under suspicious circumstances. As Marković explains, when the case is lead under such circumstances, there is a justified suspicion that someone wants the missing person to not reappear. Now wiretapping and tracking suspects is only permissible in murder cases, where there is a body. In such cases, the tracking request has to be signed by a judge. Previously, all missing persons cases were lead as potential murder cases.

“In any missing persons case, the police first need to collect as much information on the missing person as possible, as well as all possible motives for their disappearance. If it can be ascertained in that investigation that there are suspicious circumstances, then more is planned, be that a criminal investigation or polygraph testing of potential suspects. However, each missing persons case is specific and, as such, police action differs,” responded Gojko Marković to how these cases are led by police today. In that last four years, a total of 5597 missing persons have been reported, and a thorough criminal investigation is conducted only when there are suspicious circumstances. Especially since there are only 2-3 such cases per year, in which it turns out that the missing person is the victim of a criminal act. The majority of the “lost” people return home on their own after a few days, and the reason for their disappearance in most cases is running away from home, relationship troubles, financial troubles, amnesia or sudden mental illness. Also frequent are cases such as 14 year old Z.J. from Sisak, who ran away from home due to a great number of classes cut at school. Such disappearances by teenagers are seasonal, occurring at the end of each school year. The police found the young runaway in Rijeka, thanks to a public notice on the local radio station and phonecalls from Rijeka that they had seen the young boy hanging around.

“Very infrequently we get reports saying ‘Here is the person you’re looking for’, for no one knows that we are looking for a certain person. That is why we always advise the families to turn to the media. Many refuse to do so because they do not want their neighbours to know of their problems. They report it to the police and then nothing,” commented Marković, referring to the police Internet site which posts photos of only 20 of the 149 persons currently reported as missing in Croatia. Sometimes, the missing person returns home on their own accord, and the family does not report this to the police, who continue their search. However, those are extreme cases, said Marković, and frequently are recurrent in teenagers or people inclined to run away from home. In such cases, particularly with teenagers, the police must contact the social welfare centre.

“If a child has decided to run away, that means that something is not right in the family. We cooperate well with social welfare centres, their experts check out all such reports and, depending on their assessments, send the child to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. That is no longer the jurisdiction of the police,” said Marković.

The reason why someone disappeared are most often mysterious. The worst situation is when the family does not know for years whether their loved one is alive or dead. Among the 149 missing persons, 19 have been missing for 4 years, 16 disappeared in 2001 and 20 in 2002. The parents and friends of Tomislav Capak, have never succeeded in finding out the reason for his mysterious disappearance over three years ago. He was employed, from a well to do family and everyone remembers him as a bright and cheery person. His best friends recall that he did not like to talk about his problems, as though he never had any. They are even a little angry at him for the way he left, for not turning to them for help. Tomislav Cacak, an only son, disappeared on 30 December 2000 after telephoning his parents to let them know he was on his way home. When he had still not arrived by morning, his parents reported him missing to the police.

“That was on 31 December 2000, and the police tried to convince us that he had like gone somewhere with his friends and would return after New Year’s when they were finished partying. We waited twenty minutes to file the report. I got the impression that they were waiting for us to change our minds,” said Tomislav’s mother, whose son had disappeared without a trace only days before his 21st birthday. It has now been over three years, and she and her husband Branko Capak have no idea where to look. Nor have the police found his car, a red VW Golf which he was driving on that day when he left Zapresic and headed towards his home in Gajnice. His parents continue to regularly check in with the police to see how the investigation is coming along. They are grateful to the police for continuing the search for their son, and still can not figure out what lead their son to leave the home in which he was not subjected to any pressures, nor did his parents place any great expectations upon him.

“We are just normal people. I told him so many times that there are no problems that we couldn’t resolve together. I simply cannot believe that Tomislav could be away all these years and never have called us, not even once,” said his mother, who does not how much hope there is left for her son.

Biserka Benussi, a retired police clerk, knows exactly how she feels. Six months earlier that same year, 2000, she had reported her son Emil missing. She had last heard from him by telephone on 27 June.

“Even today my phone rings. When I answer, no one is there and after a short while, they hang up. I always hope, maybe it’s my Emil. He called just to hear my voice, even though he doesn’t want to say anything. Or maybe it was just a wrong number,” said Biserka, a single mom who was left alone after the disappearance of her only child. Emil never complained of any personal problems after he left their home in Obrovac to study at university in Zagreb. The year he disappeared he had enrolled in telecommunications studies at the Faculty of Communications.

“I tried to find out from the university how he was doing with his exams, but they wouldn’t tell me. I did not learn anything from the police, nor did they tell me what state his room was in. I tried to obtain a list of phone calls he made from his mobile phone from the telephone company, to find out who had last spoken to him. But they wouldn’t give that to me,” said the mother, who tried in everyway possible to speed up the investigation. Maybe he was trying to run away from doing military service. Maybe he was having problems at school, or lost his room in the dorm. After almost four years of searching, there are too many maybes. Maybe he is still alive.

“Those people who left and have been gone a long time are usually outside of Croatia. The police will succeed in finding them only if an international report has been filed. The problem with runaways abroad is that they frequently change their name, identification information and the virtually have a whole new life. If they have so decided, it is most likely that we will not find them until they decide to show up on their own,” said Gojko Marković.

Since she left her husband and their home nine years ago, Ivanka Perić has not contacted her mother, or her son who stayed behind with his father. All traces of the woman were lost back in September 1992, when she packed her bags and went off into the unknown with an unknown man. We learned that the married couple frequently fought over scenes of jealousy that they created. According to Ivanka’s mother, the marriage fell apart after Ivanka’s husband brought his lover home.

“Why didn’t she come to me then,” said the desperate mother, who has not even seen her grandson all these years. The husband of the missing woman has since remarried.

“If she left home because of marital problems, that is not a criminal act and police hands are tied. Certainly, they spoke with the husband and the family, and if there were any suspicious details about her disappearance, a thorough criminal investigation would have taken place. However, if she, according to all indications, left on her own accord, announced that she was leaving, then we have to reason to suspect that he committed a crime. Some of those people who have been missing for so long without a trace may have committed suicide. Or perhaps they are the victim of a criminal act, but we have never found the body,” commented Gojko Marković from police experience. “There are cases where we suspect that the missing person has been killed, but cannot get to the body for many reasons. We have such cases that have been ongoing for years. It all depends on where the body was dumped, whether it was dumped in a river which could have taken it dozens of kilometers downstream, and on what the condition of the body is when we find it.”

There is virtually no family who, in desperation, will not go to a psychic to find answers to the numerous questions they have on the disappearance on their loved on. “None of them, and I talked to everyone I could get into contact with, said that my sister was dead. One told me that she was hiding near the family home and that she was laughing at the panic she had caused. Another said she was trapped in a brothel in Austria, was planning her escape and would be home soon. Only one women cautiously said that she could not feel Lucija’s energy, and she commented on other details which turned out to be true,” said Vinko Topalović of his experiences. Marković stated that the police always check out the claims made by psychics, but to date, they have not succeeded in finding a single missing person in that way. That is why the police prefer to work with scientific methods and more frequently rely on cooperation with the press.

“Italian Television weekly shows photographs and information on missing persons, and I could not even get a printout of calls to my son’s mobile phone in order to find him after all these years,” said the mother of Emil Benussi.

Croatian Television frequently asked chief of police Gojko Marković whether the police would be interested in such a show. And every time he warmly welcomed the initiative. But nothing has come of it to date. Just like the oldest missing persons report which still, after 42 years, is in police procedure.

Related articles

The affair which will seriously shake Željko Žganjer's position

“Shocked and astounded,” was the reaction by Justice Minister and President of DC Vesna Škare-Ožbolt to the first new of the arrest… Više