Activists, officials call for better national system for identifying remains
By DANIEL CONNOLLY
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas- After Laura Hood's 16-year-old brother disappeared in 1978, she once stopped her car along a dark road after spotting a man whose gait looked familiar.
Today, Hood accepts the possibility that her brother, Anthony Ross Allen, is dead and knows that a law enforcement agency somewhere may have custody of his remains, unaware of his identity.
The federal government has started a five-year, $1 billion (euro830 million) initiative to log more DNA information and improve forensic testing, and the U.S. Department of Justice is also sponsoring initiatives for better handling of missing persons and unidentified bodies.
"These people had names," said Hood, of Fort Smith. "They laughed, they cried, they had birthdays. ... And somebody loves them and wants to know where they are."
Thousands of bodies remain unidentified in the United States. No one knows how many, but experts including Jerry Nance of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Bill Hagmaier of the International Homicide Investigators Association talk of around 50,000.
Roy Weise, an FBI official who works with the National Crime Information Center database, said he believes most missing persons are reported to the file _ it's a different story when it comes to unidentified bodies.
The FBI has 5,955 unidentified bodies in its files as of Nov. 2, compared with 110,460 missing persons reports, officials said.
Only a few hundred DNA samples from unidentified bodies and families of missing persons have been entered into a national database known as CODUS for comparison. Most law enforcement agencies are not required by law to report information on unidentified human remains to any central database.
Susan Wilmer, who lives on Long Island in New York, said she had no idea there was no centralized system for identifying bodies. Her daughter, Jennifer, disappeared in 1993.
"I just thought everything was all connected in some magical way through databases," she said.
When someone reported missing in one jurisdiction is found dead somewhere else, there often is no coordination between the two law enforcement agencies to try to identify the body, Nance said.
"Many times we've run across cases where it's a simple matter of one county talking to another county," he said. "And those have fallen through the cracks."
California, one of the few states that mandates the reporting of unidentified bodies to the database, accounts for a disproportionate number of the reported cases.
Many coroner's offices don't have direct access, Nance said. However, that scenario may be changing as more and more coroner's offices receive federal grant money to provide such information to the NCIC and improve forensic testing.
Weise, the FBI official, cautions that even if all missing persons and unidentified bodies were reported to a central database, it would still be hard to identify the bodies. The system generates numerous false positive matches and it is often up to local agencies to sort it all out, he said.
Still, several activists want new laws requiring better reporting of information on unidentified bodies, including Wilmer, who said she plans to push for state-level legislation in New York.
In Massachusetts, John Bish, whose 16-year-old daughter Molly disappeared in 2000, is pressing for the state Legislature to adopt a version of model legislation developed by a Justice Department task force.
If approved, the legislation would require family members to submit DNA samples to local, state and national databases if a missing person is not found within 30 days. It would also require agencies to report missing persons and unidentified bodies to the NCIC and prevent the disposal of bodies before taking DNA samples.
Tests eventually showed that bones found in a wooded area in 2003 belonged to Bish's daughter. She was apparently killed, but no one has been charged.
"I do know how important it is to know as soon as possible so if it is their loved one," he said. "You get a little peace."
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