Cathy James, last seen by police, was confused on bodycam

Missing

TONKAWA, Okla. (NewsNation Now) — On Sept. 4, Cathy Ann James had an odd interaction with police in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Despite confusion captured on camera, police said they had no grounds to detain her.

It was the last time anyone has seen James.

Police say they responded to a call involving James after the 60-year-old woman repeatedly walked into the wrong house, confused about where she was. Her family says she has schizophrenia and was likely having a mental health episode.

Body camera footage captured the encounter. James’ confusion is evident as police questioned her inside her Dodge Charger.

“She thought she was in Muskogee. She kept saying Okmulgee, Muskogee, and that is two hours away,” said Chief Nicholas Payne with the Tonkawa Police Department.

Chief Nicholas Payne with the Tonkawa Police Department (NewsNation)

Payne said James was convinced she heard voices and was being watched by cameras. They questioned her for almost two hours, even looping in an on-call mental health specialist to evaluate James’ well-being.

Yet, despite pushback from police, the mental health specialist on call deemed James well enough to keep driving.

“She knew her name. She could produce credentials saying who she is. She had an itinerary for where she’s going: ‘I’m going to my friend’s house in Muskogee,’ (and) she thought she was here,” Payne said. “You can’t take away someone’s freedom because they got lost.”

But James’ family wishes police had done so, because that was the last known contact anyone had with her. About a week later, James’ car was found abandoned on the side of a highway with her phone, wallet, cash and ID still inside.

James’ family is wondering how she was allowed to keep driving.

“They knew she was not in her right mind; they knew,” said Britany Beal, James’ niece. “I’ve gotten calls from the hospital saying that they’ve picked her up, they’ve got her there. But never, she just leaves her car somewhere with her wallet inside of it. and her money.”

Beal believes something criminal took place and blames law enforcement, who she claims didn’t make an effort to call enough family members.

“I would have picked her up; I always do,” Beal said.

But, in the body cam video, each officer is seen jotting down numbers, making several attempts to reach out to James’ contacts.

In one text message exchange, an officer wrote, “Hey, are you Cathy James’ sister?” James’ sister replied, “I’m her sister. And I’m not gonna handle it because I’m 68-year-old, and I done handled it too long.”

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is now investigating it as a missing person case. James’ last known location was the town of Blackwell, just north of Tonkawa. She was seen on surveillance video loitering at a gas station for four hours before disappearing into the night.

Payne said these cases are complicated. Authorities on the scene might know something is wrong, but legally, their hands are tied.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know where she’s at now. But everything that we did that day is the proper protocol set in place; everything we did that day is meant to keep this from happening,” Payne said.

Until the family gets more answers, Beal returns to the voicemail from her aunt every day to hear her voice — a gentle reminder of the women she misses.

Britany Beal, James’ niece

“I have literally dreamt of her knocking on my door,” Beal said. “It’s getting cold. What if she is lost? What if she is cold? All I can do is wonder, so I’ve got to just keep asking questions.”

James talked to a therapist over the phone and filled out a lot of information on a tablet, which is a very impersonal tactic. Payne said many rural departments can’t afford a mental health specialist out in the field to conduct evaluations in-person. However, he did say that would likely save families from a lot of heartache.

Payne told NewsNation all James had to do was say she needed help or admit she shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

Anyone with tips or information about Cathy James is urged to contact the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation at 405-848-6724.

NewsNation asked viewers to send us cases that we should be featuring on “Missing in America.” Our team is already sifting through hundreds of tips we have received.

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