'Trace' evidence

The real-life FBI finds an ally in Jerry Bruckheimer and his facsimile of a missing persons unit.

Arguably, CBS' "Without a Trace" takes some artistic license, in that the real-life Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., has no unit that focuses exclusively on recovering missing persons. It thus relies even more heavily on public input to find those who have disappeared. But because "Trace" does focus on that one imaginary unit, the real-life FBI has discovered an invaluable ally.

At the end of every episode of "Trace," there is a public-service announcement detailing the case of a person who has gone missing, along with a phone number and e-mail address detailing whom to contact with information about the individual. Over the course of the show's first four seasons, that PSA has led directly to the live recovery of five formerly vanished individuals.

"This show has been responsible for our being able to hit a few home runs," maintains Larry Sparks, unit chief for the FBI's Violent Crimes Unit -- the closest thing the bureau has to a missing persons adjunct. "The kind of exposure provided by a show like 'Without a Trace' is simply invaluable. They can get information about a single case out to a few million people in a single public-service announcement; that's pretty exceptional to get that kind of free airtime to zero in on one person in such a concentrated way."

Once a missing individual is found, that PSA naturally stops airing for each successive repeat broadcast. And the announcement does not run for international editions of the show, though two producers -- Australia's Nine Network and TVB in Hong Kong -- produce their own PSA tailored to find someone missing in their own part of the world.

There's no one primary reason why people go missing Sparks says. "Some are taken against their will, some have mental deficiencies like Alzheimer's and wander off, others are runaways," he says. "The circumstances are consistently baffling. But you live for those moments when someone you've been looking for a long time turns up alive."

Adds Michelle Goldschen, a public affairs specialist for the FBI: "We were thrilled to get the original call from CBS in 2002 to partner with them on this, and we've been very excited to continue the partnership. This has proven to be a very effective resource for the bureau, one that we greatly appreciate. We'd be happy to keep this going as long as 'Without a Trace' remains on the air."