NamUS, a new online database, promises to crack some of the nation’s 100,000 missing persons cases and provide answers to desperate families, but only a fraction of law enforcement agencies are using it.
The clearinghouse, dubbed NamUs (Name Us), offers a quick way to check whether a missing loved one might be among the 40,000 sets of unidentified remains that languish at any given time with medical examiners across the country. NamUs is free, yet many law enforcement agencies still aren’t aware of it, and others aren’t convinced they should use their limited staff resources to participate.
Only about 1,100 of the nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide are registered to use the system, even though it already has been hailed for solving 16 cases since it became fully operational last year. “As these cases become more well known, as people learn about the successes of NamUs, more and more agencies are going to want to be part of it,” said Kristina Rose, acting director of the National Institute of Justice at the Justice Department.
Before NamUs, families and investigators had to go through the slow process of checking with medical examiner’s offices one by one. NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, allows one-stop sleuthing for amateurs, families and police. Anyone can enter all the data they have on a missing person, including descriptions, photos, fingerprints, dental records and DNA. Medical examiners can enter the same data on unidentified bodies, and anyone can search the database for potential matches that warrant further investigation. So far, about 6,200 sets of remains and nearly 2,800 missing people have been entered, said Kevin Lothridge, CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, Fla., which runs NamUs for the Justice Department.
Some recent successes:
– Paula Beverly Davis, of the Kansas City, Mo., area, had been missing for 22 years until a relative saw a public service announcement on TV in October for NamUs and told her sister, who gave it a try. Among the 10 matches her sister found were a body dumped in Ohio in 1987 that had the same rose and unicorn tattoos as her sister. DNA tests confirmed the body was Davis.
– Sonia Lente disappeared in 2002. Last June, an amateur cybersleuth with the Doe Network, a nationwide volunteer group that helps law enforcement solve cold cases, noticed similarities between Lente’s description in NamUs and an unidentified body found near Albuquerque, N.M., in 2004. Dental records later established it was Lente.