When Theresa Freitas of Haines City, Florida, talks about her son, Jacob Whitt, she sounds like any other proud parent. Jacob, a gangly, rail-thin young man edging quietly into adulthood, moved to Texas one steamy August day in 1997. An avid reader with a strong work ethic, he wanted to exercise his independence and strike out on his own. Jacob relocated to the Fort Worth area to stay with Theresa’s brother and sister-in-law. Before long, the young man had moved into a residential hotel where he paid his rent in advance and settled into a decent-paying job at a local factory. Jacob, says Theresa, was kind, generous and even-tempered, but he could also be stubborn and had his tipping point: He could only be pushed so far.
“He didn’t have any big dreams ... he was okay with being an everyday Joe,” says Theresa of the child who liked to pinch a penny and prided himself on how much he could save.
After Jacob left Florida, he would call his mother at the beginning of every month to check in and catch up on family news. Those were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not so frequent.
Jacob dutifully called his mom the first week of January 1998, but then July rolled around and the phone stayed silent. Theresa wasn’t unduly worried. Jacob was over 21, employed and on his own and she knows how kids are, so at first she didn’t think too much about it. After weeks of silence, though, her concern started to grow and she contacted her brother and asked him to check on Jacob. He never got back to her. Theresa says it never occurred to her that something could have happened to her child; she thought it was probably simply a matter of him being busy or forgetful. She would soon learn that was not the case — Jacob was missing.
After reporting his disappearance to Texas law enforcement, Theresa and her family searched everywhere for Jacob and worked with a private investigator who, like Theresa, believed that the young man’s absence represented something more sinister than simply pulling up stakes and moving on. Theresa says Jacob wasn’t the type to vanish without telling anyone. The last time he was seen, a Friday, Jacob had cashed his paycheck and paid his rent two weeks in advance. He told friends at work that he would see them on Monday, and then vanished without a trace. Jacob, says Theresa, showed no signs of depression, had no problems, no known enemies.
For Jacob’s family, there was little to do but wait and hope that one day he would return home.
In 2004, the Bureau of Justice completed a ground-breaking study involving coroners and medical examiners analyzing the status of unidentified recovered remains. While the study placed that number at 13,486, one issue made it clear the numbers didn’t really tell the full story: About half of the offices polled didn’t have a policy for retaining records on missing and unidentified remains. BJS officials estimated that this number is probably closer to 40,000.
“That’s the unidentified remains problem we’re dealing with,” says B. J. Spamer, program manager of the Forensics Services Unit at the University of North Texas, Center for Human Identification.
“As of March 31, 2011, we only have 7,566 sets of unidentified remains in NCIC, so you can see (NCIC) only contains a fraction of those cases,” Spamer adds.
Spamer’s interest in unidentified human remains is more than academic. In her official capacity, she works closely with criminal justice agencies, medical examiners’ offices and families of the missing to help put names on the thousands of John and Jane Does across this country. One fledgling project the unit is hoping to fund with grants and private donations will help cash-strapped criminal justice agencies defray the cost of exhuming unidentified remains and taking DNA samples. The samples will then go into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for possible matching against collected DNA.