By Dustin Driscoll, National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUs) Analyst, University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, Texas
he overwhelming boom in social media has provided law enforcement agencies the opportunity to work cases without having to tap into their budgets. In missing person cases, the use of popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can provide opportunities to receive leads, alert the general public, and even help
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) assists law enforcement in their investigations of missing and unidentified person cases while offering a plethora of free resources to each investigating agency. NamUs is a grant-funded program from the National Institute of Justice and is managed by the University of North Texas (UNT) Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Beginning of NamUs
According to data provided by the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a typical year, U.S. medical examiners and coroners will handle approximately 4,400 unidentified human decedent cases. Of the 4,400, on average 1,000 cases remain unidentified after one year. These remaining unidentified decedents had families and friends who potentially will never have answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones. Many states currently do not have clear policies or protocols on what to do when an adult goes missing.
NamUs was developed as a result of the study and brought together federal, state, and local law enforcement officials; medical examiners; coroners; forensic scientists; key policy makers; victim advocates; and families from around the country to develop a national strategy to addresses the major challenges related to investigating and solving missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. NamUs is a national centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. NamUs is a free online system that is accessible to law enforcement officials, medical professionals, and community members from across the United States in hopes of resolving these cases through collaboration and information sharing efforts. NamUs, which can be accessed at www.namus.gov, has three major components—the Missing Persons database, the Unidentified Persons database, and the Unclaimed Persons database.
The Missing Persons database contains information about missing persons that can be entered by anyone; however, before it appears as a case on NamUs, the information is verified. NamUs provides a user with a variety of resources, including the ability to print missing person posters and receive free biometric collection and testing assistance. Other resources include links to state clearinghouses, medical examiner and coroner offices, law enforcement agencies, victim assistance groups, and pertinent legislation.
The Unidentified Persons database contains information entered by medical examiners and coroners. Unidentified persons are people who have died and whose bodies have not been identified. Anyone can search this database using characteristics such as sex, race, distinct body features, and even dental information.
The newly added Unclaimed Persons (UCP) database contains information about deceased persons who have been identified by name, but for whom no next of kin or family member has been identified or located to claim the body for burial or other disposition. Only medical examiners and corners may enter cases in the UCP database; however, the database is searchable by the public using a missing person's name and year of birth.
One of the useful functions of the NamUs system is that when a new missing person or unidentified decedent case is entered, the system automatically performs cross-matching comparisons between the databases, searching for matches or similarities between cases. Further, NamUs provides free DNA testing and other forensic services, such as anthropology and odontology assistance.
NamUs Forensic Services
The UNT Health Science Center provides law enforcement with free DNA kits called “Family Reference Sample Collection Kits.” The kits contain all the necessary items needed to collect DNA samples from family members. Two or more family reference samples are recommended in order to make the most accurate comparisons.
NamUs also staffs two forensic odontologists who work with dentists across the country to help obtain and code missing person dental records into the NamUs system. A forensic odontologist is a dentist who is specially trained to make identification based on dental records and x-rays.
Anthropologists are also available through NamUs and the UNT Health Science Center to examine remains and provide additional support to medical examiners and coroners. It is important for NamUs staff to be aware of any broken bones, knee/hip replacements, rods, screws, or plates that a missing person had. This information can be important for law enforcement to use to make an identification.
A fingerprint specialist is also available to assist in all missing and unidentified person cases uploaded into the NamUs system. The NamUs fingerprint examiner can use his or her expertise to compare fingerprints of missing and unidentified persons to make an identification.
NamUs Analytical Services
NamUs also provides free analytical services to law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners to assist with resolving missing and unidentified cases and have achieved many successes in the short time the analytical group has been established. The analysts also have subscriptions to multiple law enforcement databases, such as Accurint for Law Enforcement and Consolidated Lead Evaluation and Reporting (CLEAR). The analysts use these law enforcement subscription databases to locate individuals classified as missing persons, locate information on family members of missing persons, help locate next of kin for an unclaimed person case, information on suspects in missing person investigations, and more. The analysts can also conduct extensive research against missing person records uploaded in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which has been successful in solving long-term, unsolved cases.
In 2012, a detective from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office contacted the NamUs analytical unit to assist with an unidentified decedent long-term, unsolved case. The detective indicated that on June 18, 1987, two males were driving across Arizona on their way to California when the driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed. The driver was a young male who had hitched a ride but was known to the passenger only as “Brian.” Investigators located a duffel bag inside the vehicle with the name “Brian Moore” and a Florida address attached to it. Investigators were unable to locate any missing person reports for anyone with this name, and the decedent was eventually buried in a local cemetery as a
A NamUs analyst used the demographic information on the unidentified decedent provided by the medical examiner’s office to search against active and purged or cancelled missing person records entered into the NCIC database. The analyst found over 15,000 purged or cancelled records dated within a one-year period prior to the crash that matched the demographic information of the unidentified decedent. On this list, was a record of a missing juvenile named “John Bryan Moore” who was reported missing in Riverside, California, just six months prior to the death of the John Doe.
The analyst alerted authorities of the possible match and worked with the investigator to locate family members of the individual. The detective made contact with the family members provided by the NamUs analyst and learned that John Bryan Moore was last heard from by his family in 1987. DNA samples were collected from family members and were found to be a match to the decedent, John Bryan Moore.
NamUs analysts are conversant with a variety of social media platforms and have helped law enforcement find important case information through sites like Facebook, MySpace, Spokeo, Google, and Ancestry.com. Personal profiles and photos on social media sites can be reviewed for possible matches to missing persons. Investigators and analysts can also use these tools to find information about recent locations the missing person was last seen, alternate email addresses and contact numbers, links to relatives and friends who may have information about the person, and other information that is publicly viewable.
In one recent case, a woman reported her adult son missing. He was last heard from prior to leaving for a vacation to the Philippines and Taiwan and had not been in communication with his family in more than three years. A search of Facebook led a NamUs analyst to the profile of a man with the same name and with photos that matched the appearance of the missing man. The profile showed the man to be alive and posting daily updates from his new home in the Philippines.
There are a wide variety of social media platforms for all types of hobbies and special interests that can be found through web searches that can provide information about missing persons. In another recent case, a family member was searching for a Virginia woman believed to be missing. The email address of the woman was provided and led to the discovery of several online social networking profiles, most of which had little activity, until the analyst came across a karaoke social media site. The woman was posting regular videos of herself singing karaoke songs throughout the time that she was believed to be missing. In cases such as these, NamUs analysts will respect the individual’s privacy and will not share specific details with the family. They will pass the information on to law enforcement, who will determine if any follow-up is needed with the family.
NamUs Free Training Opportunities
NamUs staff with Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) recently developed a training program designed to train law enforcement agencies and agency volunteers on the NamUs system and its operations. Once vetted by a NamUs system administrator, volunteers can assist their respective agencies with uploading cases to NamUs, obtaining DNA kits, contacting family members for additional information, and more. NamUs can provide free training by request at anyagency and in any region.
The NamUs team is dedicated to assist and help law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners resolve these heartbreaking cases.
For more information on NamUs and its capabilities, please visit www.namus.gov. ♦
Please cite as:
Dustin Driscoll, "Resolving Missing and Unidentified Person Cases Using Today’s Technologies," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 80 (May 2013): 54–55.