- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - Linda Milburn knew the homeless man with the big grin simply as “Smiley.” After two decades on the streets, and bouts with mental illness and a stroke, even Smiley didn’t know his real name.

Milburn and others who work with the homeless tried to find out who he was to get help for him - but had no luck. Then Milburn was referred to NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, based at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

A NamUs staffer eventually tracked down a 1985 arrest record for “destruction of a trash receptacle” that showed Smiley was a native Floridian named James Jefferson Cox.

Thanks to NamUs, when Smiley died last year at age 73 with Milburn by his side, “We knew who he was,” she told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1y3KG40).

He was buried not as a John Doe, but under his given name.

“He wasn’t a nobody,” said a grateful Milburn.

Since its inception in 2007, NamUs has given peace of mind to hundreds of families searching for missing loved ones and closure to law enforcement officials trying to identify bodies.

The number of missing and unidentified people is “really staggering,” said Arthur Eisenberg, director of the UNT Center for Human Identification. NamUs, which is funded by the National Institute of Justice, has been housed at the UNT Health Science Center since 2011 after moving from Florida.

About 90,000 missing person cases are active in the U.S. every day; there are an estimated 40,000 unidentified remains nationwide.

NamUs staffers, who work with heartbreaking report after heartbreaking report of the missing and the dead, call it a “silent mass disaster.”

They address that disaster by operating several public databases - of unidentified bodies, missing people and “unclaimed persons,” those whose bodies have been identified but next of kin is unknown.

Though the task is huge, the NamUs staff is small - about 20 people scattered across the country. But they’re a dedicated group, including fingerprint analysts, DNA analysts and forensic dentists.

“We eat and live and breathe to try to make these identifications,” Eisenberg said, citing the pain of bewildered families. He said that if any of his family members “disappeared for more than a minute, I’d be a basket case.”

“You have to believe in it,” Eisenberg said. “You have to have the passion. And I think most of us here have the passion.”

Whether staffers find what happened to the missing or identify an anonymous body, “there’s not a day that one of us doesn’t have a tear in his eye.”

Part of what makes NamUs unique is that most of the voluminous data collected from coroners, medical examiners, police agencies and families - ranging from photos of clothing to descriptions of tattoos - is not restricted to law enforcement personnel. Anyone can go on the website and search the information.

Stephanie Clack of Missouri did - and found her sister’s body in 2009.

She’d been searching for Paula Davis since she disappeared 22 years earlier. “Within 20-30 minutes, I found her,” Clack said.

Clack was 14 years old and Paula was 21 the last time they saw each other over a pizza in 1987.

They talked about buying tickets for an upcoming concert, but Paula never returned to her apartment that night.

Though she had struggled with drugs, Paula had a job and a child, and “she never took off without calling,” Clack said.

Her relatives filed a missing persons report with police. Then they waited.

Through the years they checked to see if her Social Security number or driver’s license had been used.

“Back then’ there really wasn’t other ways to look,” Clack said.

When Clack heard about NamUs in 2009, she immediately searched the website.

A couple of general searches didn’t turn up a match, so Clack looked for tattoos. When she found a body in Ohio, marked with tattoos of a rose and a unicorn, she knew it was Paula.

Paula had been strangled shortly after she disappeared, Clack learned.

The crime was never solved. But Paula’s family was at least able to bring her remains home.

NamUs “gave me back what I need,” Clack said, “which was my sister.”

Before she was identified, Paula was buried as an unknown Jane Doe. In 1987, authorities usually wrote down a description of an unidentified body, took fingerprints if possible, and filed the report in a drawer where it was often forgotten.

If the body was found in a county or state different from where the missing person was reported, the two reports were unlikely to be matched.

But as computer technology evolved, and unidentified bodies stacked up in morgues and graveyards, coroners and medical examiners pushed for a system to spread the word about unidentified remains, said B.J. Spamer, director of the training and analysis division at NamUs.

“These are the agencies that are tasked with identifying remains,” she said. “Up until the unidentified NamUs database went live, they didn’t have any tools to help them resolve their case.”

The unidentified bodies data was posted in 2007; the next year, the missing persons database was added. In 2009, programming made it possible to search the databases against each other, Spamer said.

Since the program was launched, about 8,000 missing person cases reported to NamUs and about 1,500 unidentified remains have been resolved.

Those are just a fraction of the missing and unidentified cases nationwide because many old cases have not been submitted. Law enforcement agencies are not required to report cases to NamUs.

“But the benefits of NamUs are such that it’s really not a hard sell,” Spamer said. NamUs offers free resources such as DNA, dental and fingerprint analysis.

Gay Johnson, investigator with the Hood County sheriff, regularly submits information to NamUs. She’s currently working with the agency to identify a missing person who may have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in California.

Johnson shipped the fingerprints from the missing person to NamUs and arranged for DNA samples from a relative in another state to be sent to the agency. If the body is found, she hopes a match will be made.

Law enforcement personnel are not the only source of information for NamUs. The public also can submit a report over the phone or online.

Information from the public is verified with local law enforcement before it is posted.

“They go through that verification process primarily to protect the privacy of the people being reported,” Spamer said.

For instance, some “missing” people, such as a spouse fleeing an abuser, may not want to be located.

NamUs is not a missing persons locator service, Spamer said. Some callers wanting to file a report have simply lost contact with their relative. “‘I haven’t seen my brother in 30 years - I’d like to get in touch with him again’ is not the purpose of NamUs.”

Most of the time, “we’re looking for missing person cases where we think there’s foul play,” Spamer said.

Fingerprint specialist Bill Bailey, who recently helped identify a body unknown since 1992, said NamUs allows families to put questions about their loved ones to rest.

“You never put closure to death, never,” said Bailey who worked in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office before joining NamUs. “You might be able to move on, but it’s never closed.”

“But at least,” he said, “there’s answers.”


Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, https://www.star-telegram.com

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