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Identification system goes unused for Oklahoma's missing persons

By NICOLE MARSHALL - Tulsa World Published: May 24, 2009
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Chances are, the skeletal remains of at least one of Oklahoma’s missing persons sets unidentified somewhere in a medical examiner’s office.

For decades, the lack of a uniform state and nationwide system to match unidentified remains with missing people has prevented some families from learning that their missing loved one has died.

"There have been so many advances in technology, but most agencies don’t have the systems in place to take advantage of it to close cases,” said Sgt. Mike Huff, who supervises the Tulsa Police Department’s Homicide Unit and missing-persons investigations.

DNA testing that potentially could match the missing with unidentified remains is free to law enforcement and medical examiners. It’s available at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth, Texas. The center specializes in forensic DNA analysis for human identification. But many agencies still haven’t taken advantage of this resource.

Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office staff members determined they have 125 cases of unidentified remains, spokeswoman Cherokee Ballard said.

They do not know how many of the remains have undergone DNA testing, Ballard said.

She said the office is cataloging all unidentified remains and establishing a relationship with the Center for Human Identification to do DNA analysis and enter the profiles into a database.

The missing, the remains
On any given day, as many as 100,000 missing-persons cases are active in the United States, according to a January 2007 National Institute of Justice report.

Nance and fellow Detective Margaret Loveall received training at the Center for Human Identification last year as part of the Tulsa Police Department’s effort to boost its efforts to solve missing-persons cases.

Oklahoma law does not require law enforcement officers to test family members of the missing, or that unidentified remains at the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office be tested, Loveall said. In most cases, it’s up to the agency to get the testing done.

George Adams, project manager for Center for Human Identification, said the process is simple.

"All the agencies have to do is send the samples in,” Adams said. "It costs them absolutely nothing.

"If they will collect the samples from the families and get it into CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System), that case will never go cold. It will search against the database every month. We want to bring the family and the agency together as one.”

Most cases that are referred to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for testing are sent to the University of North Texas lab because it has more advanced procedures, said J.