To find Jacob -- Coming Full Circle

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...

“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.

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