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.
“We probably have a similar situation with missing persons. As of the same date, there were 83,047 active missing persons cases in NCIC, with about half of them juveniles,” says Spamer.
Spamer says that one of the problems with getting an accurate head count on the number of adult missing persons in this country is that missing adults are still what she terms as a “gray area.” Some agencies take reports on missing adults absent signs of foul play, while others do not. In fact, a number of agencies don’t even have written policies concerning missing persons cases. Many missing adults are not entered into NCIC.
One solution, says Spamer, is the National Missing and Unidentified System, known as NamUs. UNTCHI works closely with NamUs, and “all it’s stakeholders, which include law enforcement medical examiners, coroners, families and even the victim advocates who volunteer their time to put cases into NamUs,” says Spamer.
The NamUs database contains information about missing individuals and provides a central location for information on missing persons and recovered human remains. Although NamUs is still getting its sea legs, users have already solved several cases from accessing its information.
Spamer says one of the goals of UNTCHI is to facilitate matching unidentified human remains to the missing, but she admits the effort still has a long way to go. With NamUs holding data of slightly less than 7,500 sets of remains and under 6,000 missing persons, it has been slowly and steadily gaining momentum. But when the system works, it can unlock years of frustration for families and law enforcement agencies that have been searching to put an end to the uncertainties that come with the disappearance of a loved one.
UNTCHI has three divisions: A laboratory for molecular identification, another laboratory for forensic anthropology and the Forensic Services Unit. Forensic Services provides case specific support and training. That training extends not only to law enforcement, medical examiners and their staffs, but also to victim advocates.
In addition to working to dispel any misconceptions families may have about DNA and CODIS, the Forensic Services Unit also works closely with NamUs, and even helps families learn how to enter data into the NamUs system. UNTCHI processes family reference DNA samples in connection with missing persons cases at no cost to any of the participants. “All of the work we do at UNTCHI is done with grant funding from the National Institute of Justice,” Spamer says.
Spamer says UNTCHI acts as a resource for DNA analysis for missing and unidentified cases across the country, regardless of where the agency is located or its jurisdiction. UNTCHI will also provide the DNA collection kits.
“In order for a family member’s DNA to go into CODIS, they must sign a consent form. One thing I’d like to stress to families is that their samples will only be used to search for their missing loved one. They cannot be searched against any other index like the convicted offenders or the forensic unknown,” she says.
One problem with the system can be found with the obtaining of DNA from degraded remains. These samples, known as “low copy number” samples, often require additional amplification of the DNA. The resulting profiles do not fit CODIS guidelines for inclusion in the national database, and thus must remain on the local or state level. So it is possible that a set of unidentified remains can produce a DNA profile, yet still not be entered into the national database.
Spamer says developing both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA profiles are important for comparison purposes, and it is vital that those collecting DNA samples for missing persons and unidentified remains cases use the CODIS 6.1 labs, so as not to miss any such association.
DNA matching produces some pretty spectacular results: In 2007, family reference DNA profiles were matched to the DNA extracted from a single hair left in evidence from a 1979 homicide involving a Washington state teenager named Tammy Vincent. Vincent’s body was found in California in 1979 — her identity remained a mystery for 27 years.
The identification came because California authorities uploaded Vincent’s DNA profile into the California database, while Washington authorities saw to it that samples from Vincent’s family were sent to UNTCHI. The upshot was a cross-state cold case hit.
For Theresa Freitas and her family, UNTCHI made another difficult match. Based on a comparison of the familial DNA for which Theresa pushed so hard, and DNA uploaded from a John Doe whose body was found months after the disappearance of her son, she finally found her Jacob.
Theresa says when she picked up the phone on June 26, 2010, she was unprepared for the voice that told her, without preamble or even identifying himself, “We found Jacob.” The call was from the investigating agency that handled Jacob’s disappearance.
Jacob’s body had been found in September of 1998, in a remote wooded area in a county adjacent to the one where he went missing. His skeletal remains were stuffed inside a sleeping bag and Jacob had been shot once in the head — a death the attending medical examiner ruled a suicide. Theresa doesn’t believe her son killed himself and is working to have his body exhumed and reexamined, then returned to his home for reburial.
But for 12 long years, Jacob rested in a grave a few miles from the county line where he was listed as a missing person and no one knew it until a DNA match identified him. Theresa, who gave a buccal DNA sample in 2008, says, “I had been begging for years for someone to take my DNA and kept getting brushed off. Finally, I got someone’s attention.” Giving the sample was a simple matter of obtaining a swab from the inside of her mouth and sending it to UNTCHI.
“I’ve been told they entered Jacob’s DNA in July 2009, “ she says. Jacob was found through a cold hit. “I can’t tell you how it feels to have been searching for my son only to find he’d already been buried.”
Theresa admits it’s difficult knowing her son’s body had been located more than a decade ago, but no one looked for him beyond the boundaries of the county in which he disappeared. She points to the ease, simplicity and certainty of DNA evidence.
“I don’t know why everyone doesn’t use it. (UNTCHI) does all of the work and it doesn’t cost the department anything. Why would you not want to take advantage of it?” she asks.
What would she, the mother of a missing man, like to see happen with the way law enforcement approaches these cases?
“I’d like the mindset changed a little bit. This is not 1920; it’s 2011. They have the tools to find out where these people are, to find someone’s loved one and spare them what I’ve been through.”