“WHAT EVERY FAMILY MUST KNOW”
By Deputy Coroner Investigator David Van Norman, Unidentified Persons Coordinator
EVERY FAMILY MUST KNOW:
When a loved one is reported missing there is every right to expect that some large law enforcement
investigative machine trundles into action; police fan out in all directions, and the search is on for the missing person.
I am sorry to say that nothing can be further from the truth!
In the real world missing-person detectives are
overwhelmed by the shear volume of missing persons cases and a plethora of other investigative duties, including investigating
rapes, assaults, burglaries, etc. Most detectives receive no special training in missing persons investigation, which is unfortunate
in light of the fact that the missing person assignment is like no other type of law enforcement duty – requiring an entirely
different kind of focus and skill set.
This is the reality. We can cry about it, or we understand what to
do about it! Until federal and state legislation catches up and mandates every law enforcement agency in the country investigate
missing person cases properly, it is up to you to make the right choices and ensure that what must be done, is done correctly.
EVERY FAMILY MUST DO:
We must ensure that if a loved one is missing that we put everything into play that will ensure
that they are detected when they appear on law enforcement’s radar. We must erect “Velcro Walls” in cyberspace; walls created
from identifier records that relate to the missing person, and catch hold of corresponding identifier records for an unidentified
person ANYWHERE in the United States (or beyond).
The fact is that a vast majority of missing persons return
on their own, without any intervention by law enforcement (which is another reason that some police officers are loath to
dedicate time and resources to a missing person, particularly runaways – believing that 95% of the time they just come home
anyway!). However, for that small percentage that do not return, we all know that they are on this planet somewhere, and that
they are either actively hiding from us, need our help, or are ignorant of our search for them.
It is estimated
that there are over 40,000 unidentified persons under investigation across the US. This is a staggering number. Even more
staggering is that only about 7,000 are being actively entered into the FBI’s NCIC (the National Crime Information Center)!
Although most of the unidentified persons are deceased, it is estimated that as many as 30% to 40% are living. Some are unwilling
to identify themselves; they are actively hiding from us. Some are unable to identify themselves; they are confused by Alzheimer’s,
incapacitated by mental disability, or by injury – or they are dead. Whatever the reason, alive or not, how can it be that
these persons have not been identified? How many must be on the rolls of the 111,000 active long-term missing persons cases
in the US?
This is why:
Forget what you saw on last night’s episode of CSI! There are only three scientifically-acceptable
ways to identify someone who is either unwilling or unable to identify themselves: fingerprints, dental records, and DNA.
Notice I did not mention photographs. It isn’t that photographs do not have their uses; statistically one
in six missing persons returns home as a direct result of a photograph on a poster or a website. It is just that they do the
unidentified person investigator no good. No competent investigator will swear in a court of law that a photograph matches
a decedent – there are far too many post-mortem changes, and too many people appear similar. That mug-shot may be probable
cause to stop a suspect, but that officer will next confirm the identity with fingerprints, or by some other means.
the photographs on the posters and websites, but the only type of imaging that is of any use to a forensic investigator is
a “smiling” photograph depicting the missing person’s teeth, or a “talking” video, showing the missing person’s teeth. Those
can be compared to an unidentified person’s teeth by a forensic dentist.
Fingerprints, dental records, and
DNA! These are the critical minimum records that must be submitted into law enforcement’s searchable databases.
on average missing persons records across the United States include the following records at the following rates:
– Less than 1%
Dental Records – About 4%
DNA – Much less than 1%
No wonder there are 40,000 unidentified
CRITICAL FIRST STEP:
The first step is the most critical: The missing loved one MUST be reported
missing to a law enforcement agency, and that agency MUST enter the record into NCIC (the National Crime Information Center).
This must happen IMMEDIATELY. Federal law prohibits the establishment of a waiting period to report someone missing. I don’t
care if the person was last seen walking out the door ten minutes ago- they are gone now!
There is a “logic
convention” in law enforcement that the person should be reported missing to the agency with jurisdiction over the place of
residence. The reasoning seems to be that a person is likely to return to familiar locations, such as home. However, serious
consideration should be given to the location that the person was last seen – particularly if the story is that the person
was seen being bundled into the back seat of a blacked-out Mafia car! In California Penal Code 14205 is specific: “All local
police and sheriffs' departments shall accept any report of a missing person, including runaways, without delay and shall
give priority to the handling of these reports over the handling of reports relating to crimes involving property… the reports
shall be submitted within four hours after acceptance to NCIC via CLETS.” Technically that means that it doesn’t matter whether
the person was never in California, and was last seen on the Space Shuttle! If the phone rings at a police station in California,
and a person is missing, the report should be taken. It doesn’t matter if little Jenny has just run away for the 10th time
– for all we know, this time she ran straight into the arms of Jack the Ripper! The family will encounter some typical law
enforcement attitudes: “There is no law against being missing!” True, but there isn’t any law against taking the report –
and in fact, at least in California, there is a law against NOT taking the report! “There is no evidence that anything bad
has happened.” True, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! Since Jenny is missing we have no reason to believe
she is safe, either. Unless the investigator believes that she is in the Penthouse Suite at the local Holiday Inn, eating
bon-bons and sipping ice tea, then she is probably living on the streets with every scum-sucking ba***rd in society trolling
like sharks for little girls just like her! Take the report and get the information broadcasting in NCIC!
happens without the NCIC record. The NCIC computer chugs away all night long looking for matches between unidentified and
missing person records. If a possible match is found between two records, a teletype is sent to both agencies. We receive
approximately 1,500 of these match-ups per year for San Bernardino’s 250 long term unidentified person cases. It is then up
to the agencies to compare the identifier records, IF they were collected.
If one or the other record is not
in NCIC, there IS NO WAY TO MATCH THEM TOGETHER!
The family MUST assist law enforcement
in locating, securing, and submitting these records. Not only must they assist, but they must sometimes INSIST that law enforcement
take these records, AND they must make sure that these records are properly submitted into the searchable databases. Many
law enforcement investigators I speak to across the country do not know what must be done with these records. This is what
The missing person’s fingerprints may be located via a wide variety of sources,
including (but not limited to): arrests, employment and background applications, military service, and even through check-cashing
facilities and social services. If the missing person in California had ever applied for a driver’s license or identification
card, a right thumbprint is available to law enforcement at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The fingerprints
(yes, even the single thumbprint) should be “registered” (not just “run”) into Automated Fingerprint Identification System
(AFIS - State) AND the Integrated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS - FBI). Many investigators are under the impression
that only criminal fingerprint records may be “registered” into AFIS. The fact is that AFIS is a database to be used for law
enforcement purposes, and this is one of its purposes!
IAFIS has a much more enlightened and progressive attitude.
Fingerprints can be submitted by mail (after submission to AFIS) to the FBI, CJIS Division, in Clarksburg, WV, or by FAX.
IAFIS is broken into regions across the United States, each with a regional coordinator (information available on-line at
Family members should assist the missing person investigator by locating
any possible fingerprints sources, and assisting in getting these submitted.
It is critical that the fingerprint
record (AFIS and IAFIS) be referenced by tracking number in the NCIC record. Such a comment may be stated as follows: “FINGERPRINTS
ON FILE WITH SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY SHERIFF CAL-ID (909-890-5000) CAL-ID #9999999.”
records are perishable, and MUST be obtained as soon as possible! California dental and medical providers are only required
to maintain these records for 7 years. This sounds like a long time, unless you consider that the missing person may have
not seen a dentist for five years, disappeared two years ago, and may not be found for another ten years. Lock down the records
Order copies – leave original records with dental or medical providers and tell them to “freeze” the
file forever. Once obtained, these records must be mailed (or emailed) to your state missing persons clearinghouse. For a
list of missing person clearinghouses by state refer to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website: (http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/ServiceServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=1421).
The NCIC record must be updated to described the availability of dental X-rays and charts, and the dental characteristics
must be coded for entry into the NCIC record:
DENTAL INFORMATION – DXR/Y - DENTAL CHARACTERISTICS (DCH) ARE AVAILABLE
These dental characteristics are critical for the quick comparisons and rule-outs by a trained unidentified
person investigator by comparing which of the missing person’s teeth have modifications (fillings or other dental work) with
the deceased person’s (or unidentified living person’s) teeth. For example, if a missing person has a filling in tooth number
14, and the same tooth for the unidentified person has never been modified – it is a rule out: teeth don’t heal. These dental
records (charts and X-rays) should also be entered into The National Dental Image Repository (NDIR), which is available to
law enforcement through the FBI’s LEO network (Law Enforcement On-line). The NCIC record should be modified to state the following:
“DENTAL X-RAYS AND CHARTS AVAILABLE ON NDIR.” The Unidentified Persons Investigator wouldn’t even need to contact the missing
person investigating agency to check the dental X-rays directly.
The best source of a missing person’s
DNA is from the missing person himself (or herself) – referred to as a “direct” DNA sample. Missing persons leave their DNA
behind on toothbrushes, shaving razors, hairbrushes, finger and toenail clippings, unwashed clothing, hats, chewing gum, etc.
Use your imagination. If these items were not left behind (and even if they were), “reference” DNA samples should be obtained
from blood relatives.
The best “reference DNA” would come from the missing person’s identical twin siblings
(monozygotic twins) or both biological parents. If one parent is not available, then the available parent (hopefully the mother,
because it is the mother that passes down mtDNA) should be sampled, along with as many full siblings as possible.
sampling procedure is simple; basically a q-tip is swabbed on the inside of the subject’s mouth. But, the sample should not
be submitted to just any DNA lab. Since our goal is to have the missing person’s DNA profile to be available for comparison
to unidentified persons nationwide, the samples must be entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS - FBI). There are
only a few DNA labs certified to complete a DNA profile and submit to CODIS (a list of such labs are available on the CODIS
website). California has one: Department of Justice, Missing/Unidentified Persons DNA Program (DOJ-DNA). They accept personal
items (toothbrushes, etc.) and buccal swabs. If the missing person was reported to a California law enforcement agency, then
regardless of where the missing person’s family member is located, the agency should contact California DOJ and request that
the free kits be mailed to the investigator. If the missing person was reported to a law enforcement agency in a state that
does not have its own certified lab, then DNA samples may be submitted to either the Federal Bureau of Investigation directly,
or to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas (Phone: 800-763-3147 - Website: www.hsc.unt.edu/departments/pathology_anatomy/dna/forensic.htm).
On average it will take a period of months for a missing person’s DNA profile to be developed and entered
into CODIS. The NCIC record must be updated to describe the availability of a DNA sample in CODIS, including any reference
After the identifiers have been entered into the searchable databases, I recommend
that the family verify that the NCIC record has been updated. The NCIC’s position is that the NCIC teletype is for “Law Enforcement
Use Only,” so many investigators will not show this printout to the family. I queried NCIC myself and was told that a copy
of the NCIC may not be given to anyone, but that they have no objection to allowing the family to see record in order to verify
its accuracy. I recently investigated an unidentified person case for which the identification was delayed 19 months because
the Alaska State Police refused to take the missing person case for six months after the mother first reported that the 18
year old girl disappeared (a violation of Alaska State law), and then entered the Date of Last Contact as the date the missing
person report was taken, rather than when the girl was last heard from. This effectively eliminated the chance that NCIC would
match the two cases, because the girl is reportedly seen six months after she was dead in my Morgue! The 19 months that this
mother suffered in fear, not knowing what had happened to her daughter, could have been prevented if the agency had taken
the report (as required by law), and certainly shortened by a year had the family been allowed to review the contents of the
NCIC record for accuracy. After all, the NCIC record is made up of information PROVIDED BY THE FAMILY.
missing person is too important to be left to one person. Those family members who wish to “leave it to the professionals,”
and sit back on the couch to let the police do the work will probably get out of this what they put into it. I prefer the
Team Approach, with the family involved in a productive way. We must help law enforcement to accomplish this mission, and
if they do not know how, we can show them the way.
Will law enforcement accept your assistance? Perhaps not
willingly. We in law enforcement tend to think that we don’t need any help, and some investigators will view the family as
hindrance. That’s too bad. The missing person is YOUR LOVED ONE. You may have to be insistent. You may ruffle some feathers.
Is there anything more important?
If there is any way that I can assist, please contact me:
Deputy Coroner Investigator/Unidentified-Missing Persons Coordinator
San Bernardino County Sheriff Department
- Coroner Division
175 S. Lena Rd., San Bernardino, CA 92415