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In just 12 months, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) has experienced significant growth in terms of cases added to the system and the number of users registered. Most importantly, the system is accomplishing what it set out to do—provide answers and resolution for the critical issue of missing and unidentified persons around the country.
In 2009, more than 2,700 new cases were added to NamUs (www.namus.gov), taking the total number of cases to over 9,000. “On the missing person’s side, the number of cases doubled in just one year,” said Billy Young, NamUs coordinator. “This is critical to the success of NamUs because the more cases that are in the system, the more cases can be solved.”
Launched in January 2009, NamUs has already assisted in the resolution of 15 missing or unidentified persons cases. Two notable cases illustrate the importance of public access to NamUs.
In June 2009, a citizen cyber-sleuth searching NamUs noticed a possible match between a woman who had been missing since 2002 and an unidentified body found near Albuquerque two years later. A forensic odontologist, available through NamUs to assist jurisdictions free of charge, was able to positively identify the remains. Two days later, the family of Sonia Lente—who had been missing for over six years—was notified that their loved one’s remains had been found and positively identified, allowing the family resolution and law enforcement to proceed with their investigation.
In April 2009, a man disappeared following a car accident in Connecticut. Police and dogs searched the area, finding the man’s wallet and some clothing, but no sign of the man. A few weeks later, the man’s aunt entered very thorough information—including dental records and images of tattoos and a wedding band—into NamUs. A body was found a month later near the accident scene. It was quickly identified as Jody King, the man who had disappeared following the car accident, thanks to the availability of dental records that were readily accessible in NamUs.
Cross-Matching Feature Added
In July 2009, NamUs was upgraded to allow cross-matching between the missing persons and the unidentified decedent databases. The upgraded system continually searches records in both databases and provides side-by-side comparisons. Cases with similarities are automatically presented to the investigator as potential matches, reducing research time and giving the investigator the opportunity to exclude those that do not qualify. If there are cases that present as a close match, the investigator will engage forensic services to conduct further identification testing.
“NamUs is the first publicly accessible system of its kind. It also provides the automatic cross-matching feature between the missing persons and unidentified decedents,” said Young. “Because of this cutting-edge technology, NamUs was recognized in May 2009 by the IACP (International Association of Police Chiefs) with an LEIM (Law Enforcement Information Management) Excellence in Technology Award for its superior achievement and innovation in the field of communication and information technology.”
One of the unique features of NamUs is that it is accessible to the general public as well as law enforcement and medical examiners/coroners. “The real key is that this provides an opportunity for the different disciplines involved in missing persons cases, especially for families, to be involved,” said Mike Murphy, Clark County Coroner. “This is monumentally important to these families as it lets them be actively involved in the resolution of their own pain and anguish.”
NamUs currently has 4,771 registered users. Nearly 1000 of these users are from the law enforcement community and 268 users are medical examiners and coroners.
According to Young, the focus in 2010 will continue to be adding more cases to the system as well as educating law enforcement agencies on the benefits of using NamUs. “The key to NamUs’ continued success is making law enforcement and the public aware of what the system can do,” Young said. “The more we can raise awareness about NamUs and the more cases added to the system, the higher the probability of solving these cases. That’s what NamUs is all about.”
A major effort to increase the number of cases in the system includes working with agencies across the country to conduct information exchanges. This entails converting the contents of missing and unidentified persons information contained in other systems into data that will be searchable and more widely visible in NamUs. This partially automated process gives investigators an opportunity to update case information and bring together pieces of a case that may have been stored in different areas.
NamUs serves as a national repository for information on missing persons and unidentified remains. It is designed to facilitate the work of the diverse community of individuals and organizations who investigate missing and unidentified persons and crosses borders of states, counties, municipalities, and precincts. The system is administered and managed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center in partnership with NIJ. It reaches between different law enforcement professions and allows the general public to become actively involved. Funding for NamUs is provided through a cooperative agreement from the NIJ, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.