Database Combines Details of Remains, Disappearances in Hopes of Making Matches
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Authorities in Virginia have identified the body of a teenager who went missing 14 years ago in their first success using a new nationwide database that seeks to put names on thousands of dead people who have gone unidentified, sometimes for decades.
Prosecutors in Maryland hope to use the same system to finally close a homicide case that has resulted in a mistrial and a hung jury.
The U.S. Department of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, is an online tool aimed at naming the countless John and Jane Does whose remains have been shelved in the offices of medical examiners and police forensic labs across the country. It matches missing persons cases with the nameless bodies or skeletons.
Police, medical examiners, coroners and family members all have access to the database, and they try to take information from the years-old missing persons reports and match them to details from the dead bodies.
In the Virginia case, a detailed description of Toussaint Gumbs's body -- down to a scar on the 16-year-old's thigh -- was entered on the site. A volunteer surfing the Web flagged the similarities with reports of Toussaint's disappearance in Richmond. Using the latest DNA technology, officials helped confirm the teenager's death and finally gave his family an answer.
For Robert Gumbs, who was convinced that his son had gotten into drugs and run off with friends, the truth brought pain but also a chance to mourn.
"I just started screaming in my room," said Gumbs, who lives in New York and learned of his son's death in recent weeks. "I never thought that he was dead. The last words he said to me was, 'Pop, I'll be right back, because we have to talk.' "
Kristina Rose, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, said the potential for NamUs is extraordinary. "Instead of having this fragmented system where people go to coroners, to medical examiners, to law enforcement, we have everything in a central repository," she said. "People can participate in identifying their loved ones. They are the ones who are going to work late into the night to go through the case files."
Each year, about 4,400 sets of unidentified human remains turn up in parks, woods, abandoned houses and other places, according to a 2007 federal report. Although authorities quickly identify most of them, about 1,000 are still unknown a year later. Estimates of the total vary widely, from 13,500 to 40,000.
The Web site linking the rolls of the missing with the descriptions of the dead is growing daily as authorities and family members add entries. It is a sad catalogue of clues, some gruesome, some mundane. A woman who died in Rock Creek Park in February 2008 carried lip balm and a bag of wrapped hard candy in the pocket of her blue winter coat. A young man killed in a fiery 1983 car crash in Montgomery County had a mustache. In 1976, a woman's headless, fingerless body, naked and bound, washed up on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
"There are mothers and fathers that, for years, wake up every day wanting to know what happened to their child. That's why we do this," said Arthur Eisenberg, co-director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which works to identify remains and provides free DNA testing to family members of the missing.
The database gives hope to people such as Darlene Huntsman, who has never stopped searching for her sister, Bernadette Caruso. One day in 1986, Caruso, among the more than 100,500 people reported missing nationwide as of this month, left her job at a Baltimore County jewelry store. The young mother has not been seen by her family since.