The fliers for a missing Erie teen have been scattered around Gannon University’s campus for the past couple weeks, but it wasn’t until two recent search attempts on Feb. 12 and Feb. 17 that Gannon students began to get involved.
David Okienko, a senior criminal justice major, said he had seen the fliers with 17-year-old Bethel Christian High School senior Jacob Samusenko’s picture hanging in the Palumbo Academic Center and had seen the Facebook group Samusenko’s family had created, which Okienko joined of his own volition.
“I was surprised that nobody on campus was really doing anything,” he said. “It’s part of our community, and his sister is a student here.”
Okienko has made it a personal mission to involve fellow Gannon students in the recent searches for Samusenko, who has been missing since Jan. 29.
“What his family told me is that he got home from basketball practice and he took out the trash, and that was about 9 p.m.,” he said. “After he took out the trash, he never came back in. They said he was known to go for runs, and that was the day it was like 60 degrees out, so they didn’t think anything of it at first.”
Okienko said that when Samusenko still hadn’t returned by morning, his family called the authorities.
Since his disappearance, two searches have been conducted throughout the Erie community, both of which Okienko has attended.
The first search was on Tuesday, Feb. 12, and Okienko said he passed along the information to fellow members of Alpha Phi Sigma, the Criminal Justice Honor Society.
“I just said, ‘I know it’s last minute, but this young man’s been missing – there’s a search party being organized by his family, let me know if you want to come,’” he said.
Okienko added that, as criminal justice majors, he thinks he and his peers should find a special investment in helping the Samusenko family in any way they can.
“There are things we can offer that other people can’t,” he said. “And we’re always looking for ways to give back to the community. I thought this was the perfect way to get us involved helping this family.”
During the Feb. 12 search, the party was comprised mainly of Samusenko’s family and friends, and their goal was to cover Samusenko’s immediate neighborhood on the lower east side.
Okienko said he was part of a group during the search that included some of Samusenko’s closest friends.
He said that although they were out of the shock phase and were going about their lives, they were still very worried about Samusenko.
“They were all very eager – they were finding anything on the ground and wondering if it could be connected, so that was hard to watch them do that,” he said. “But they just wanted to be thorough and they were definitely concerned.”
Okienko also attended the most recent search on Sunday that covered a larger area on Erie’s west side.
The scope of the search was from State Street to Pittsburgh Avenue, and from 26th Street to Lake Erie.
He said he reached out again to Alpha Phi Sigma’s adviser and criminal justice program director Chris Magno, Ph.D., who sent out an email to members of the honor society.
Due to these efforts, Okienko was joined by Stevie Lombardoni, a junior criminal justice major, Bobby DiPlacido, a senior engineering major who heard about the search through Lombardoni, and several other Gannon students.
“I wanted to help the family find closure,” Lombardoni said. “If I were to ever go missing, I would hope people would be doing the same for me.”
DiPlacido also said that he chose to help out with the search because he recognized that the family needed and still needs help.
“I couldn’t imagine that happening to a friend or family member,” he said.
DiPlacido said that Samusenko’s mother was at the search and that she maintained her composure during the emotional day.
“She said the family is leaving it up to God and asked us to keep him in our prayers,” he said.
Okienko added that she was very thankful for the volunteers and brought them candy and snacks.
DiPlacido, Lombardoni and Okienko all said that the main goal on Sunday was to increase the scope of the search and simply to spread awareness.
“Anything, even if it was little, helps the family,” Lombardoni said. “The people who helped were doing anything they could to try and help bring him home one way or another.”
Okienko said the searches were necessary in part because there was never an Amber Alert issued for Samusenko, being that he is older than 16 and that he was not confirmed to have been abducted.
“It was important to get his face out there for anybody who didn’t already know about what happened,” he said.
For DiPlacido, an Erie native and Cathedral Preparatory School alumnus, the issue hits especially close to home.
“These things happen but it’s weird knowing he’s from Erie,” he said.
Okienko said that currently there are no future searches planned, and that if more are planned they will probably take place after the lake has thawed. He added that no matter where Samusenko may be, closure for his family will be extremely important.
“That’s something I’ve learned in class – even if they do find out that he did die, they would have the closure of knowing what happened,” he said. “They wouldn’t have to worry about, where’s my son, where’s my best friend. It’s not easy to hear those things, but at least it takes away the wondering and they would have closure in that sense.”