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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Michigan compiling public database of missing persons

Michigan compiling public database of missing persons

Police agencies file DNA, tips to aid families in search
Detroit— A couple of weeks ago, Donald Norman didn't know if his missing brother was dead or alive. Now he's planning his first trip to the Monroe County cemetery where his identical twin has been buried for nearly two decades.

Norman's brother, Ronald, vanished from a Detroit nursing home in December 1991. The following spring, his unidentified body was found floating in Lake Erie in Monroe Township. He was listed as a John Doe and buried.

Michigan State Police investigators were able to connect Norman and the John Doe and bring his family closure through a new database that can cross-reference missing-persons files with unidentified remains.

"I'd been really sick and depressed for a long time," said Donald Norman, 61, a former Detroiter, who now lives outside of Dayton, Ohio. "I'm so glad that they found him."
The case is the first one cracked by state authorities since they began using the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — or NamUs — in July.

Currently, about 3,000 people are reported missing in Michigan. Of those, 143 — including the disappearances of three young Morenci boys and Westland teen Carlee Morse, who vanished from outside her family's apartment — are logged in the database. The system is an investigative tool available to medical examiners, law enforcement and the public. And it's free.
State Police Trooper Sarah Krebs handles NamUs entries for her department and expects even more breaks will come if families of the missing join with authorities to enter and enhance missing-person profiles by submitting DNA reference samples to be matched against an index of unidentified remains.

She's organized a unique event aimed at doing just that.

The State Police and other Michigan law enforcement agencies have joined forces to solicit family members and friends of Michigan's missing to gather in May at Ford Field in downtown Detroit for a free data-collection event and vigil. The program, "Missing in Michigan," is the first of its kind in the state — possibly the country — that commemorates missing loved ones and allows authorities and relatives to log new tips, collect DNA and update and create missing person profiles on NamUs.

"It's the first database accessible to the public for missing-persons files ever. It helps us categorize cases and be accountable for them," Krebs said. "We've always known unidentified remains are linked to missing-persons cases. But connecting those dots is hard. The public can be useful and beneficial to us."

Program boosts awareness
Krebs said mobile command trailers will be stationed at Ford Field for DNA collection, data entry and other services. The day will conclude with a candlelight vigil and photograph slideshow.

The NamUs database is funded through a cooperative agreement from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and U.S. Department of Justice. It began launching in phases in 2007 and was fully searchable by 2009.

Currently, 65 law enforcement individuals in Michigan and seven medical examiners and coroners have NamUs accounts.

"Agencies in Michigan that have learned of NamUs are very receptive of the program and the free benefits it has to offer their agency," said Rose Sacchetti, regional system specialist for NamUs. "Raising awareness of the program is beneficial not only for law enforcement, but for families searching for their missing loved one."

In Ronald Norman's case, the database provided 157 possible links to unidentified remains in the United States.

The timeline, physical description and dental characteristics between Norman and the John Doe were similar. The match was verified with a review of in-depth medical records documenting a corresponding skull fracture that both men shared. Norman had sustained a head injury following a crash in 1977.

Heather Holland, director of the Big Rapids-based nonprofit TrackMissing, which assists police and families in locating missing persons, hopes the program will draw more attention to the cause.

"This will act as a stepping stone to recognize the need that's out there and how many people are missing," said Holland, who aided police in the identification of Norman. "People don't realize how serious the situation is and how many people out there are unidentified and sit in morgues or pauper's graves."

Families can find comfort
In January, Michigan had 86 unidentified persons. Krebs said more than 70 are entered in NamUs.

Among the missing are three Morenci boys and a 16-year-old girl last seen outside her family's Westland apartment. In each case, charges have been levied in connection with the disappearances.

Andrew, 9; Alexander, 7; and Tanner Skelton, 5, went missing on Thanksgiving Day. Their father, John Skelton, has said he gave his sons to an "organization" to keep them from his wife. He's charged with kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment.

In the Westland case, Carlee Morse stepped outside her family's apartment near Warren and Venoy on Aug. 20. She never returned. Two men were arrested in December in her death. Nicholas Cottrell, 22, was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of second-degree murder. His co-defendant, 19-year-old Justin Yoshikawa, faces a first-degree murder trial on claims he strangled Morse and discarded her body.

While the NamUs system does not store DNA, it does tell authorities if it's available and which lab conducted the analysis, said B.J. Spamer, program manager in the Forensic Services Unit with the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas. The center has provided 300 DNA kits and will collect the family reference samples in May and process them.
The center has uploaded more than 5,000 family reference profiles and approximately 2,600 DNA profiles. They've had 550 identifications.

"We are locating missing persons who've been gone for decades," Spamer said. "It's never too late to come in and give information on your missing person and give a DNA sample."
Spamer said the family reference DNA will only be compared against unidentified remains for the purpose of locating a missing loved one.

Connie Johnson's sister, Cindy Zarzycki, went missing in 1986 at age 13. Her body was found in 2008 after Arthur Ream was convicted of luring her to a Dairy Queen and murdering her.
Johnson, who has been recruited as a speaker for the Ford Field event, says it'll be a good place for families to find comfort.

"When somebody is missing you don't really have a support system," she said.
"I hope this day brings a little bit of healing for people too. They are not alone."

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