By STEPHEN THOMPSON
Karen, a homemaker and mother of two from Indiana, has long had trouble falling asleep. About five years ago, to help herself wind down, she started going through missing persons sites on the Web, trying to match a person who had vanished with a John or Jane Doe whose remains had been found but whose name still remained a mystery.
When she started her informal cure for insomnia, Karen had to switch back and forth between an array of various sites – those that had information on missing persons, and those that had information on unidentified remains.
As of this year, Karen didn’t have to switch back and forth anymore. The National Forensic Science Technology Center, which is located in Largo, launched the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. It contains two databases – one for unidentified remains and one for missing persons – and search engines the general public can use to find a match.
Last month, Karen got a hit on the system, according to officials with the technology center.
In the unidentified remains database, she spotted a sketch of a facial reconstruction performed after a woman’s skeletal remains turned up some five years ago, outside Albuquerque, N.M.
Then she started going through the missing persons database and matched the sketch with the photograph of Sonia Lente, a 44-year-old Native American, who was last seen in the company of a man two years earlier, leaving a bar within city limits.
NamUs, which costs a little more than $4 million and is funded by the National Institute of Justice, solves a few problems, said Kevin Lothridge, chief executive officer for the technology center.
Perhaps most importantly, it centralizes into a single national database information that typically has been scattered among different states and jurisdictions. That allowed a cyber sleuth like Karen to make a match in a missing persons case on the other side of the country.
It is also what Lothridge calls “public addressable,” which means members of the public can access the database and conduct searches, much in the same way they do on Google or Craigslist. Historically, only law enforcement agencies had access to crime-solving databases, and with some databases that is still the case, such as those containing fingerprints and DNA.
Anyone who wants to create a profile of a loved one on NamUs can do so, and the information entered can be anything that identifies someone – a family photograph, a picture of a tattoo, the serial number on a breast implant, dental records, prosthetic devices, jewelry or clothing. The better the information, the stronger the strength of the missing person’s profile, he said.
For example, Jennifer Kesse – who was abducted in Orlando in 2006 and hasn’t been seen since — has an exceptionally strong missing person’s profile, with a score of 5, the highest attainable.
On it her father has noted her eye color can change from green to blue, depending on the kind of contact lenses she is wearing, and that she has a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on her left hip at the panty line. Her profile also has her dental records and notes her DNA is available.
A missing person’s profile is not automatically posted; rather, it is flagged. Then one of the program’s seven regional administrators the country can check with the law enforcement agency handling the missing person’s case to make sure the profile is legitimate, Lothridge said. Once that step is taken, the profile goes online.
Once it is online, a family member – or a cyber sleuth like Karen – can start conducting searches on the site. If, for instance, a mother knows her daughter had a tattoo of a clover leaf on the small of her back, she can conduct a query to see if anyone has turned up who had the same type of tattoo.
“No one wants to find them more than a family member,” said Billy Young, the NamUs coordinator.
If the family member or cyber sleuth thinks he or she has a match, she can then call the regional administrator or the appropriate law enforcement agency and suggest they take the next step – take a look at fingerprints or DNA, if they are available, to see if the presumed match can be corroborated, Lothridge said.
NamUs has odontologists throughout the country to compare dental records. If the DNA of a loved one isn’t immediately available, NamUs will work to get it, perhaps off the missing person’s toothbrush, through an arrangement with the University of North Texas. The university sends kits to the law enforcement agency in charge of the missing person’s case, and an investigator or technician tries to get a DNA sample for the database.
Karen got her match through hardcore sleuthing, but this month NamUs started a program that automatically cross-references information from the missing persons database with information in the unidentified remains database.
The hope is that, as time goes on, more and more cases involving missing persons and unidentified remains will be entered into NamUs. In the United States, there are an estimated 100,000 active missing cases, and more than 40,000 cases involving unidentified remains, according to the technology center.
By comparison, there were only 4,951 unidentified persons entered into NamUs as of May, 2009, and only 1,497 missing persons.
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