Sunday, March 7, 2010

It’s like having a million eyes looking at your case

By Doug Page, Staff Writer 10:22 PM Saturday, February 27, 2010 
ENGLEWOOD — Over the past 12 months, the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab has cleared four missing persons cases — two in Montgomery County and one each in Warren and Preble counties — through the public’s searches of Internet databases.

“Families of the missing never give up,” said Ken Betz, crime lab director. “The Internet has really assisted us.”

The launching in January 2009 of shows what a potent crime fighter electronic connectivity can be. The database includes information on more than 6,000 unidentified remains and more than 2,000 missing persons.

Before, “everybody had their own local database,” said Kevin Lothridge, CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, Fla. The center manages the NamUs — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — Web site for the Department of Justice.

“Now there is one place where law enforcement and the public can look at the data,” Lothridge said. “It’s like having a million eyes looking at your case.”

Naming a victim
For 22 years, Englewood police had been trying to identify a woman whose body had been dumped along Interstate 70 in August 1987.

A public service announcement for NamUs at the end of the television drama “The Forgotten” caught the eye of a Kansas City, Mo., family. A family member went online and found a description of her sister’s distinctive tattoos linked to Englewood’s Jane Doe. She called Englewood police.

Sgt. Mike Lang then called the crime lab to begin the process of DNA identification. Early this month, the crime lab officially confirmed the woman’s name as Paula Beverly Davis.

Down to one
The Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab is down to one John Doe: the skeletal remains discovered April 10, 2006, in the 300 block of West Paul Laurence Dunbar Street in Dayton. Case 06-1200 was entered into NamUs last week. The remains are those of black man between 40 and 60 years old. He may have lived a hard life. There are signs of a old broken wrist and ribs. He was plagued by arthritis and was missing seven teeth.

The case log continues with a detailed description of the clothes found at the scene.

Those are the types of details that solve cases, said Lothridge. “The leads come from the data.”

Lang said Englewood police never stopped searching for the identity of the woman dumped next to the interstate.

“Every year, we’d get tips, but they all came up dry,” he said. He recalled it was not unusual to get teletype requests from other departments around the nation, sometimes on a weekly basis.

But police could never put the right eyes on what they knew about the woman. With NamUs, “We now have databases that talk to each other,” said Betz.

NamUs is two databases — one for unidentified remains, the other for missing persons.

When a new Jane Doe is entered into the unidentified remains database, the details are checked against the missing persons database. For instance, an unidentified female body found in New York City might have a pink pig tattoo on her ankle. That detail would be compared to the missing persons database to see if any pink pigs turn up. If so, authorities can look closer.

In June, a member of the public searching NamUs noticed a number of similarities between a woman missing since 2002 and a Jane Doe found two years later outside of Albuquerque, N.M. Authorities had attempted to link the two cases through DNA in 2005, but the tests were not conclusive. After the citizen contacted NamUs about the similarities, a forensic odontologist helped police identify the remains as that of Sonia Lente.

No lack of cases
As of Friday, Feb. 26, NamUs had 6,242 unidentified men and women listed on its database. That number goes up daily.

Estimates are that 4,400 unidentified remains are found every year. Of those, around 1,000 remain unknowns a year later.

Best guess is at least 44,000 cases nationwide await identification. With each identification, public awareness grows, said Lothridge, and that can only help reduce the backlog.

“The public is genuinely helping,” he said. “And as families discover the fate of loved ones, they become believers in what we do and promote the idea.”

The family of Paula Beverly Davis still doesn’t know who killed her. But they have an opportunity that didn’t exist just a month ago. The family hopes to move her remains from a potters field grave in Westmont Cemetery back to Kansas City, where she’ll be reburied next to her mother.

Please join us at Peace4 the Missing
Missing Persons Awareness and Support Network

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