Approximately two months ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with police officers from throughout the state. This wasn’t a social event. It was a conference on missing and unidentified persons. Not so much finding the whereabouts of people that had run away or been kidnapped. It was mostly about identifying dead bodies.
Here’s the background. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I incorporated the information I learned in one of them into my first novel, BlueSlim, which I have yet to publish (that’s another story – seems that writing a novel is more fun than publishing it, so I have yet to publish any of my three novels). The podcast I am referring to was about NamUs, which stands for National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (pronounced “name us” as in “please find out our names”). I’d never heard of this and, it turns out, neither had many others, including people in law enforcement. This national database, run by the Department of Justice, collects information on missing persons and unidentified bodies, in the hopes of matching up remains with missing persons.
Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of them. There are around 85,000 active missing person cases at any time. About 4400 unidentified remains are found yearly, and roughly 1000 of those remain unidentified after a year.
Once NamUs is contacted about an unidentified body, information about that body, including location, clothing, other articles found with it, and other information gleaned (using forensic anthropology if needed) such as approximate age, height, ancestry, and gender is entered into the database. In addition, when possible, other information is stored, including fingerprints, dental information (which can be difficult to get if dental work was done in Mexico), and DNA analysis. Images of any fingerprints obtained are digitized and submitted to the FBI for possible identification.
After information about a missing person or unidentified body is entered into NamUs, a search is conducted to find a possible matching body or person. Anyone can enter information about a missing loved one and search the database, as long as a missing persons report has been filed. Before this was set up, a body found in Oregon would have a slim chance of being identified as belonging to a missing person in Georgia.
I am a member of a writers’ critique group. We meet twice a month to review each other’s submissions of approximately ten pages, offering suggestions, correcting typos, and generally giving each other a bad time (all in good fun – actually, I have a wonderful group). I am the oddball in the group. The others all have experience in the military and law enforcement, while I have a background in science and medicine.
When NamUs came up in the writing I had submitted one week, none of the others had heard of it. One of the group members, a retired police officer who locally volunteers his time to work on missing persons cases, was very interested. Checking around his department, he discovered that none of his colleagues knew about it, and he has since become the local NamUs liaison. He also instigated the above-mentioned day-long conference on Missing and Unidentified Persons, and arranged for me to be able to go. Of course, I jumped at the chance.
At the conference, I learned a lot about the different databases available for identifying bodies and solving crimes. Slightly less formal than a typical medical lecture, some speakers used occasional four-letter words. Nevertheless, the lecturers were well-prepared and seemed to really know their stuff. These agencies are happy to send speakers to groups of law enforcement officers, hoping to educate them about their existence and to teach them how to use these resources effectively. It appears to an outsider (me) that much more should be done to educate officers about the resources available, and train them to use these optimally.
NCIC (National Crime Information Center) seems to be the go-to database. It is run by the FBI and is available to law enforcement agencies nationwide. It provides information on stolen goods ( in seven property files: stolen articles, boats, guns, vehicles, license plates, parts, and securities), and people (fourteen persons files: supervised release, national sex offender registry, foreign fugitive, immigration violator, missing person, protection order, unidentified person, protective interest, gang, known or suspected terrorist, wanted person, identity theft, violent person, and persons denied guns as a result of a background check). NCIC searches can use height, weight, tattoos, incomplete licenses.
California is the only state that mandates all unidentified deceased are entered into NCIC. Many coroners and medical examiners outside of California don’t have access to NCIC.
Law enforcement will use NCIC during a routine traffic stop to immediately determine if the vehicle is stolen, or the driver is wanted. If the report is positive, the officer must first contact the agency that entered the information to verify that it is accurate and up to date. Then the officer can act accordingly.
Entry into NamUs, which is more user-friendly than NCIC, is optional in many states, including California. Over 16,000 missing persons cases currently active in NamUs. Over 18,000 have been resolved, with over 2,000 directly helped by NamUs. NamUs currently has almost 13,000 unidentified persons in its database. Almost 4000 such cases have been resolved in the past, 1700 of which were directly aided by NamUs.
Another important database is CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the FBI’s database of DNA profiles. DNA samples from pathology specimens, including frozen tissue, histology slides, or smears can be used for this.
ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) is an FBI program for analyzing cases involving sexual assaults and attempts.
NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is a nongovernmental, federally funded program. It operates a hotline for the public to use to report information about missing children. They use programs for age progression, using photos of siblings and parents.
Below are a few other interesting facts I learned:
* In California, law enforcement must help if someone calls to make a missing persons report, even if from another state. There is no waiting period.
* The unidentified includes living people unable to identify themselves due to incapacitation (e.g. being comatose in a hospital) or mental impairment.
* During droughts, when lakes and creeks dry up, bodies once under water begin to appear.
* Facial recognition programs and fingerprint optimization programs are starting to be utilized by law enforcement.
* The HSK, or Highway Serial Killings initiative, was started in 2004. It operates under the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and is tasked with investigating highway body dumps. Apparently, there are many bodies dumped along highways. Nationwide, there have been around 780 victims (mostly women with “high risk” lifestyles), and over 460 suspects. Probably multiple serial killers are involved. Qualcomm has been keeping track of truck routes for analysis (although not all these serial killers are suspected of being truck drivers). Over 90 timelines have been compiled involving areas where bodies have been dumped. The FBI is not forthcoming about the progress of their investigations.
* Missing Person Day events are becoming more common. Multiple stations are set up where family members can deliver information about missing loved ones, and can enter their name into NamUs. They can also submit DNA samples. If the case is active, the information will be sent to officer in charge. If not, the case will go to a local agency or the Department of Justice. Every event has had some resolutions. A suspect even showed up to one.
* Dental records are very important for identifying the unidentified. Be sure to visit your dentist! But note that if you see a dentist in Mexico, your files will probably not be retrieved.
* Most Golden Gate Bridge jumpers wash up in Sausalito.
* Machete murders are usually drug related. Only the torso remains, making identification difficult. One such torso was X-rayed, revealing twisted wire in the chest typical of open-heart surgery. The X-ray was compared to that of a missing person, and a match was made.
I learned many interesting facts and heard many fascinating stories (I haven’t included everything here). The latter reminded me of case reports one might hear at a medical conference. First, the facts about an unidentified body (or, in a medical case, the patient’s symptoms and clinical findings) are presented, steps taken to solve the problem are described, and, finally, the person’s identity (or illness) is determined.
A word to the wise: Just in case—see your dentist regularly.