Thousands of people across the country are known only as John or Jane Doe.
They’re buried in unmarked graves. Boxes of their remains gather dust on shelves in medical examiners’ offices. Their lives are mysteries, their stories untold. They are the country’s nameless dead.
Finding their identities, returning them to their families, can be nearly impossible.
Law enforcement databases that are used to collect information about unidentified remains and missing people are incomplete. The databases, not originally designed to track those cases, can’t adequately search for matches among missing persons reports and information about unidentified victims, experts said.
“There have been so many gaps,” said Beth Carpenter, the Northwest region system administrator for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf encountered those gaps firsthand in his renewed search for the identity of a woman now known only as Jane Doe 1977.
Her case was featured in a March 29 Herald story. Several people have since called police. Hundreds also have watched a video made for the Internet about the search for her identity.
“We’ve had a bunch of tips come in. It’s showing there’s interest here locally,” Scharf said. “If she’s a local person, there might be a chance we figure out who she is.”
Blackberry pickers found her body near Mariner High School in August of 1977. She had been strangled and shot several times in the head.
David Roth, then 20, confessed to picking her up near Silver Lake in Everett and killing her after she refused to have sex with him. He was sentenced to life in prison.
For three decades, he has denied knowing the woman’s name.
Roth, now 51, was released from prison in 2005. Sheriff’s detectives interviewed him last year in pursuit of clues that might lead them to the woman’s identity. Detectives exhumed the woman’s body to extract DNA from a bone to compare against that of missing people. They also released a new sketch of the woman, who they call “our precious Jane Doe,” to the media after an anthropologist determined she was likely between 15 and 21 years old.
Detectives don’t know if the girl was ever reported missing, if her family gave up searching, or if information about her disappearance was purged from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. So far, her fingerprints, dental records and DNA don’t match any on file.
Federal authorities last year launched a new tool in hopes of helping identify people like Jane Doe 1977, along with thousands of people who are missing.
Police, coroners, forensic scientists, victim advocates and others came together in 2005 and identified the problems they face when trying to locate missing people or identify the unnamed dead. Out of that summit, a national task force formed and decided there was a need to create databases to track those cases.
“In some parts of the U.S. these cases get lost or ignored, but they have the ability to live on,” Carpenter said.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, was created as a central and searchable repository for information about missing people and unclaimed remains. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Relatives of missing people, coroners and law enforcement have access to the databases and can enter information about cases.
“Nobody wants to have to have this database, but it’s getting everybody to the same table and on the same page at last,” said Todd Matthews, a spokesman for the Doe Network and a regional systems manager for NamUs.
The missing persons database came online earlier this year. Unlike the law enforcement systems, relatives of missing people can submit information they think might help locate their loved ones, Carpenter said. Missing persons reports will be verified by police before going into the database, she added.
“It’s important to give loved ones the opportunity to work on their loved one’s case,” Carpenter added. “We want to empower them, give them some sort of control.”
The database for unidentified remains went online about a year ago. Information for about 4,000 sets of remains has been entered into the database, Carpenter said.
The remains of up to 60,000 people are believed to be buried or stored in evidence rooms, awaiting identification. Only about 15 percent of those are remains have been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
Federal authorities are working to get coroners and medical examiners to enter information into NamUs about the unidentified remains from their jurisdictions. The more data available, the more likely it will be to make a match, Carpenter said.
The National Institute of Justice also is providing money to collect and analyze DNA samples from relatives of missing persons. Family samples can be compared to those of unidentified remains. The analysis is being done at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.
“It’s critical these (people) are identified as soon as possible,” program coordinator George Adams said. “Most are victims of violence. You can’t take a family’s grief away, but you can give them some peace.”
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, firstname.lastname@example.org.