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Back to Archives | Back to March 2006 Contents 

From the Director

Identifying the Missing

By Regina B. Schofield

Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs

wo of the more difficult kinds of cases for a criminal investigator to handle are those related to missing persons and those involving unidentified human remains. Not surprisingly, the two often go hand-in-hand as a body or part of a body newly discovered turns out to belong to someone who disappeared days, weeks, months, or even years earlier. What might be surprising, however, is that our systems for matching the missing and the dead do not always work together.

The FBI's National Crime Information Center currently registers more than 100,000 missing-persons cases and some 5,800 sets of remains. Yet each of those figures represents only a sampling of the total cases. Moreover, only a few of the remains have information loaded into the Combined DNA Index System that allows federal, state, and local crime labs to compare DNA profiles. These and other systems are set up to help investigators, but because information is not always shared between them their usefulness is limited. Until we have a system that allows data to be fully and uniformly exchanged, our ability to solve crimes will be compromised, and families of the missing will continue to struggle with the pain of uncertainty.

Advances in forensics, particularly in the analysis of DNA evidence, are feeding the public's imagination about the possibilities of science and technology in solving crimes and other tragedies. And that confidence is not entirely misplaced. We are, indeed, glimpsing a future in which answers to once-unanswerable questions are available for the asking.

Take the case of Barbara Ann Biehn. A resident of Racine, Wisconsin, Biehn was reported missing three days before Christmas 2003. Her car and personal belongings were discovered near the Racine harbor on Lake Michigan, but she was nowhere to be found. Three months later, a body turned up in an inlet on the other side of the lake, but few thought to connect it to the missing Wisconsin woman. In fact, as authorities began to close in on the mystery more than a year later, they consulted an expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who suggested that a body's drift over so great a distance-almost 100 miles shore to shore-would be unusual.

Over the course of an 18-month investigation, law enforcement officials checked dozens of leads and looked at the profiles of almost 300 missing persons from four states, with little to show for their efforts. Then, in September, an investigator for the Michigan State Police, Sergeant Dave Eddy, attended a training session on missing-persons investigations in Florida sponsored by the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs (OJP). There, he discussed the case with fellow investigators, scientists, and medical professionals from the eastern United States. A forensic dentist at the conference suggested that he check Biehn's dental records against the Michigan remains. Eddy returned to Michigan, followed the advice, and, at long last, made the match that confirmed her identity.

The case of Barbara Ann Biehn put on exhibit some of the tools investigators today have at their disposal: state-of-the-art forensic Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. resources and missing-persons databases, most notably. But it also brought into sharp focus the many challenges that investigators continue to face in solving cases of the missing and unidentified dead. Those challenges would not be nearly so daunting if we had an effective system for making connections between the two kinds of cases.

OJP and the Justice Department are working diligently to create such a system. In April 2005 the department formed a national task force to provide guidance on enhancing the use and effectiveness of federal databases and improving data sharing. Also that month, the department held a national strategy meeting on the missing and unidentified dead. Investigators, coroners, medical examiners, crime victim advocates, and others came together to discuss ways to improve the collection of information about these difficult cases and to determine how we can establish a national missing and unidentified dead registry. An important outcome of that meeting was model state legislation to improve data collection and entry, information sharing, and the timely identification of human remains. The regional training attended by Sergeant Eddy was part of the national strategy, as was a western regional session sponsored by OJP in Denver last month.

Our work complements and supports the president's DNA Initiative, a five-year, $1 billion effort to improve the use of DNA evidence in solving crimes. Under the initiative, the Department of Justice has awarded more than $200 million to states and localities to eliminate the backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis, to support laboratory improvements, and to train practitioners in the law enforcement and medical communities on the collection and analysis of biological evidence.

The efforts of OJP and the Department of Justice to match missing persons with unidentified human remains are part of an overall commitment to investigators and law enforcement officers across the country. We believe that they, and the communities they serve, deserve the best resources we can provide for solving crimes. The integrity of our justice system depends upon it.   ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 3, March 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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