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Why it’s hard to find a missing person among the unidentified dead

October 5, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
There are more than 10,000 bodies -- Jane and John Does -- waiting for identification in city morgues and cemeteries in the U.S. With no national law requiring agencies share information on missing people and unknown bodies, many families are left in the dark about their loved ones' fates. Michael Schiller of Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting has the story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a story from our partners at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s podcast Reveal about Jane and John Does, America’s nameless dead.

Last month, a baby girl found on the shore near Boston was finally identified as Bella Bond. But there are still thousands of unknown bodies waiting for their own identification in city morgues and public cemeteries across the nation.

Reveal’s Michael Schiller has the story.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Alice Almendarez and her four sisters knew something was wrong when a week went by without hearing from their father.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ, Daughter of Missing Person: My dad was a softie. He had five girls and, I mean, he adored us.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: When Alice tried to report him missing, she says the Houston police didn’t take her concerns seriously. She says that because he had a criminal record and no permanent address, the police assumed he had intentionally left his family.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ: They told me that maybe my father didn’t want to be found. Maybe he was tired of having a family. It was hard, because you felt like you were fighting them to do their job.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: She didn’t learn his fate for 12 years.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ: You can’t celebrate a holiday when there’s somebody missing from the room. I actually was supposed to get married, and I didn’t get married because I couldn’t get married without my dad.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: The FBI estimates that there are some 80,000 reported missing people on any given day in the United States. At the same time, there are over 10,000 unidentified bodies. There is no national law requiring agencies to share this information, leaving many families in the dark about their loved one’s fate.

The U.S. Justice Department calls it the nation’s silent mass disaster.

MICHAEL MURPHY, Former Coroner, Clark County: Sooner or later, we have to address this problem.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: After 13 years as Las Vegas coroner, Michael Murphy says that, because there is no unified approach to reporting Jane and John Does, bodies go unidentified far too long.

MICHAEL MURPHY: You could have a body that was on one side of a county line, and the next county could have that individual reported as missing, and no one may have talked to each other.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: In Alice’s case, it happened within the same Texas county. After 12 years of searching for her father, she learned that authorities had found his body only a few miles from where she lived, just weeks after their last visit.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ: If I would have known the whole time that my dad was already dead, I would have had some kind of peace, knowing that my dad wasn’t starving, wasn’t hungry, wasn’t being hurt.

TODD MATTHEWS, Director of Case Management, NamUs: You know, a traditional funeral, three days, you’re buried, and then you find ways to adapt to your new life. In a missing persons case, it’s like a funeral that goes on for years.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Todd Matthews started out as part of a network of volunteer sleuths working on cold cases involving nameless victims. It’s become a full-time job.

TODD MATTHEWS: My day job is finding the missing among the dead.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: After Matthews identified a body from a 1960s murder case, the Department of Justice called on him to help create a database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, the first ever federal catalogue that made it possible for anyone to search official missing persons and unsolved John and Jane Doe cases.

He is now the director of communications and case management for the NamUs program. Today, Matthews is exhuming a body that’s been unidentified for 45 years. The skeletal remains are believed to be those of a young woman who was found dead off a remote trail in Eastern Kentucky in 1969, murdered with stab wounds to the chest.

TODD MATTHEWS: Somebody’s getting away with it. The criminal aspect of it is, somebody’s getting away with murder.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Even with no formal training in forensics, Matthews is regarded as an expert in identifying human remains.

TODD MATTHEWS: It’s just a matter of having to sit down and just go through these cases and find what you’re looking for. The answers are in the system for a lot of these cases.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: The NamUs system allows authorities to automatically perform cross-matching comparisons between databases, searching for similarities.

TODD MATTHEWS: I’m good. We’re at an exhumation in Kentucky from a 1969 Jane Doe case. So, I have got some bones.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: The main lab that the NamUs database relies on is at the University of North Texas, where scientists extract and analyze DNA from unidentified remains. But, by itself, this DNA is not enough.

To make an I.D., there needs to be a matching source of DNA. That’s why loved ones of missing persons have gathered in Houston, Texas, for Family Day, where volunteer groups and officials managing the NamUs database have gathered along with law enforcement to get more families to put their DNA into the system.

GLORIA ESPARZA, Mother of Missing Person: My son is missing. His name is Ryan Jacob Esparza. He’s missing out of Pasadena, Texas. This is the park that supposedly he was last seen at.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Gloria Esparza brought her family so that their cheeks could be swabbed. Their DNA will be compared to likely matches to see whether any of the recorded John Does are Gloria’s son.

GLORIA ESPARZA: My world has been turned upside-down, up and down, and I want off. I want off of this roller coaster.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Coroner Michael Murphy in Las Vegas thinks that connecting the missing and the unidentified in one database is a big step in the right direction, but there is still more to do.

MICHAEL MURPHY: There is not a national requirement or any law that I’m aware of that says that coroner medical examiner offices, law enforcement agencies or whomever will report to a database about unidentified remains. Connecting this information is vital to the success of identifying the unidentified persons.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), Connecticut: That is why I am here to urge my friends to join us in supporting Billy’s Law, legislation that will begin correcting these problems that plague our nation’s missing persons system.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: In 2010, then-Representative Chris Murphy introduced a bill that would establish standards for reporting missing and unidentified persons. But that effort and two following ones failed to gain broad support. Recently, now-Senator Murphy sponsored the bill for a fourth time.

TODD MATTHEWS: I can say there are agencies, medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement that still today don’t know about NamUs. So much as we have done to get the word out, free tools, free science, and still, there are still people who don’t know about it.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Late last year, the NamUs program surpassed more than 10,000 unidentified bodies in their database, a grim milestone, but one that increases the odds that the missing will be found.

Alice’s father used to be one of those cases, until 2014, when Alice submitted her DNA for comparison. Just a few months later, there was a match.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ: If everybody was entered into that database, then a lot of people would have the closure, not that they wanted, but they needed in order to be able to live again.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: Alice’s father remains buried at the Harris County Cemetery, where he’s been for 10 years, marked as an unknown Hispanic male.

Today, Alice is waiting to exhume his body so she can bury him in their family cemetery, using a gravestone with his real name.

ALICE ALMENDAREZ: No matter what somebody does, I don’t think they deserve to be buried as John Doe. My dad had a name.

MICHAEL SCHILLER: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Michael Schiller from Reveal in Houston, Texas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Reveal has launched a searchable database to facilitate matches between missing people and identified bodies. You can find that online at lostandfound.revealnews.org.

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