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ON NBC WEDNESDAY : ‘MISSING III’: CONTINUING SEARCH FOR KIDS, ADULTS

The Roman numerals in “Missing III” may suggest a blockbuster Hollywood sequel, but to film maker John Cosgrove, the hourlong NBC special airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. is something more important.

“Missing III” is the second follow-up to “Missing: Have You Seen This Person?,” which profiled the disappearances of 10 children and adults, and aired last April 29.

Since then, 16 of the 85 persons shown or profiled on the two shows--the second was broadcast in January--have been located.

“That’s a 1-in-5 ratio,” Cosgrove said with pride. “With ‘Missing I’ we found two kids within minutes of the broadcast; their mother had been searching for seven years, and they lived only 250 miles from her. With ‘Missing II’ we found five more. How many TV programs can point to this kind of result?”

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Like its predecessors, “Missing III” is hosted by Meredith Baxter Birney and David Birney and uses re-enactments of abductions--a device Cosgrove insists is key to jogging people’s memories.

“We walk a fine line with the re-creations, but we never show anything that didn’t happen. NBC watches over us, and everything is documented. We’re trying to step forward--and if you trip once in a while, you trip. Otherwise, all you turn out is white bread, and it’s better to make rye sometimes.”

The stories are all too real; one disappearance--that of 4-year-old Laura Bradbury in October, 1984--was followed by the murders of two adults who claimed to know her whereabouts, and the disappearance of a third adult.

“When you go on a shoot, you’re never sure what’s going to happen. When people are searching, we have a lump in our throats, because they could uncover a body.”

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Yet the five reunions featured on “Missing III” are reminders that some stories end happily. Noted Cosgrove: “A parent whose last resort is Scotch-taping posters in supermarkets now has the help of 25 million people.”

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the program’s segment on a computer system that blends parents’ photos to make a composite of a missing--and aging--child: “It’s like watching one of those old time-lapse Disney movies,” Cosgrove said.

One child whose aged photo was shown in “Missing II"--4-year-old Benjamin Studer--recognized himself while watching the program last January. “He was sitting with his baby sitter in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., and said, ‘Look--I’m on TV!’ The baby sitter didn’t believe him until she looked; then she realized he’d been taken illegally by his father.

“Most people think children taken illegally by a parent are safe,” he added. “Well, statistics show that 65% of these kids are abused physically or sexually. These children are definitely at risk.”

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Cosgrove also disagrees with the charge that the media have overpublicized the missing persons issue. “If only 68 stranger abductions happen each year, as the FBI says, why don’t we put those faces on TV the next day? That would be adding to the publicity, but should we abandon the kids of the families in need?”


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