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 remainsOn 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.D. Lindstrom of the OSBI. The Texas lab enters the results directly into the national database.
Changing timesMissing-persons investigations have become a bigger priority across the country in recent years. The Amber Alert system is now nationwide, alerting people through the media and on electronic highway signs when a child is missing. Some states even have silver alerts to help find the elderly. Missing-persons cases have become regular features of the national news. Earlier this year, the Justice Department linked its unidentified deceased people and missing-persons databases. Families, law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, coroners, victims’ advocates and the public can now search the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — or NamUs — online. The law enforcement approach to missing persons has changed, too. Loveall said in just the past few months, she has seen positive efforts by law enforcement officers across the country to match the DNA of unidentified remains with missing-persons cases. "The problem still exists, but there are more tools available, and more people are using them,” Loveall said. "Things are rapidly evolving in missing-persons investigations. People have just become aware of what a huge problem it is.”
Fishing with a netTo make a significant dent in the number of missing-persons cases, DNA testing should be more widespread, Adams said. Any donated DNA samples can be compared only against unidentified remains and not for any other means, he said. "Instead of going fishing with a pole and hook and trying to make a catch, by using NamUs, by using CODIS, you are going out there with a net, ... hunting everything that is out there,” Adams said. "Then when you make a catch, then you can go to work.” The technology at the Texas center is constantly improving. Its oldest match so far was from remains found in the 1960s, Adams said. Adams believes many cases can finally be solved. "It is very important we identify these individuals as soon as we can. The sooner we can identify them, the sooner we can hold someone accountable for their actions,” he said, referring to missing-persons cases that turn into homicides. "Unfortunately, these folks do not stop. When we make an identification, the majority of the time there are multiple victims associated with the case, or there are multiple offenders. If we do not identify them, they keep going and going and going.”