By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
October 04, 2005
Missing-person experts estimate that the bodies of 40,000 to 50,000 unidentified men, women and children have been found by police during the past 50 years. These John, Jane and Baby Does were sent to local coroners and medical examiners for examination and then anonymously buried or cremated.
Most are murder victims. But in what one expert calls "a silent crisis," the vast majority of unidentified bodies go unreported to state or federal authorities, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of confidential FBI records.
Few states or local governments require that Doe cases be reported to any outside agency, and most coroners lack authority - or even the necessary computer links - to report directly to the FBI, the study found.
As a result, homicide detectives increasingly are overwhelmed with growing backlogs of cold cases involving nameless victims. And thousands of anxious families will wonder for generations what became of their lost loved ones.
"This is criminal," said Susan Wilmer of Long Island, N.Y., whose 21-year-old daughter vanished in 1993 in California. "We've taken steps so we won't need tombs for unknown soldiers in the future. But we civilians have been suffering in a kind of war, too. We are allowing murder to go unpunished."
Wilmer unsuccessfully urged Congress during the 1990s to mandate the reporting of all Doe cases to federal authorities, a bill she wanted to call "Jennifer's Law" in honor of her still-missing daughter. Today, she's haunted by the belief that somewhere police know Jennifer's fate even if they don't know her name.
"I'd give my right arm just to go to Jennifer's gravesite," Wilmer said. "I haven't been able to go through the proper grieving process."
Many of the dead are victims of traffic accidents, drug overdoses or natural causes such as heart attacks or exposure to severe weather. But slightly more than half are suspected homicides, experts say.
Retired FBI executive Bill Hagmaier, now executive director of the International Homicide Investigators Association, said the failure to report tens of thousands of Doe cases is contributing to the rising percentage of unsolved murder cases. In 2003, the latest year for which records are available, only 62 percent of homicides were resolved, a 30-year low.
"We keep records on cars. We keep them on guns. But we don't keep records on unidentified people," Hagmaier said. "It's a national tragedy and a silent crisis."
Scripps Howard obtained restricted FBI computer files maintained at its National Crime Information Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., to study how often John, Jane and Baby Doe cases go unreported. Federal officials refused to provide this information, but other agencies with access to NCIC records were willing to release computer files summarizing the number of Doe cases as of July 31, 2005.
FBI records show 5,729 active Doe cases, only an eighth of what experts believe the actual number should be. Also, 42 percent of all unidentified bodies came from California, even though that state has only 12 percent of the nation's population.
The reason? California has one of the nation's few laws requiring the reporting of Doe cases. The California Assembly first passed a mandatory Doe reporting law in 1978, requiring coroners to record unidentified bodies with state authorities. In most other states, only local police are empowered to report unidentified bodies to state and federal authorities.
"Most states do not look at missing adults to be a crime or even a serious issue," said Jeannine Willie, administrator of the California Department of Justice's Missing Persons DNA program.
No other state comes close to the 2,413 cases active in California. New York has 526 cases, Texas has 587 and Florida has 500. Other states with large populations have reported even fewer pending Doe cases, including Ohio with 28 and Pennsylvania with 64.
Scripps Howard contacted local police departments and coroner's offices when the numbers of reported Doe cases seemed suspiciously low. In all cases in this study, local authorities admitted they have more human remains than were reported to state or federal authorities.
"There are a whole myriad of reasons for this," said Gerald Nance, the cold-case manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "Most police jurisdictions view reporting to NCIC to be a good business practice, meaning they recommend it but don't require it. And most medical examiners and coroners do not have access to NCIC. They must ask local police to enter the cases for them."
It is not clear how many Doe cases are children. Experts will not even guess, although Nance said he's assembled a private database of 3,000 unidentified deceased children, of which "more than two-thirds" were not reported to the FBI.
North Carolina had one of the nation's worst rates for reporting unidentified bodies, according to the Scripps Howard study, since it has only 11 active Doe cases in a state with a population of more than 8 million. South Carolina, in contrast, has half that population and 26 active cases.
Scripps Howard asked North Carolina authorities to review two prominent cases involving unidentified children to determine if they'd been reported to the FBI. Neither was. Police in both cases seemed not to know how to enter Doe cases into the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer system.
"Baby Michael definitely was not entered," conceded Debbie Tanna, public information officer for the Cumberland County, N.C., Sheriff's Department, when asked about a dramatic Baby Doe case that drew statewide attention six years ago.
In that case, Cumberland County deputies recovered the body of an infant - whom police named after the patron saint of law enforcement - wrapped in a large plastic bag along a rural road. Deputies said the newborn, found with his birth placenta, had apparently been thrown from a moving vehicle based on the injuries the child received before death.
"We didn't have a definite birth date or even a first or last name. After all, we named him 'Baby Michael' ourselves. There were no identifiers that we could use to enter him into NCIC," Tanna said.
The Granville County, N.C., Sheriff's Department gave a similar explanation when asked why a biracial teenage girl found during the winter of 2003 along Interstate 85 was also never reported to the FBI.
"The State Bureau of Investigation would not enter her (into NCIC) because we did not have enough information," said sheriff's detective Danny Emory. "We were told they wouldn't make an entry because they didn't have enough marker information - name, date of birth, that kind of thing."
Neither case has been solved. It might have been helpful, both sheriff's offices said, if the descriptions and circumstances of each juvenile's death had been reported nationally through the FBI since neither case appeared to involve local residents.
But missing-person experts said the NCIC system includes an Unidentified Persons System for the reporting of Does and does allow such reporting no matter how scanty the information.
"I don't understand," Willie said when told of the North Carolina cases. "The Unidentified Persons System doesn't even accept a name." Willie has entered hundreds of California's Doe cases herself. "It really only takes a few minutes or so to enter each case."
North Carolina authorities, in response to questions raised by Scripps Howard, confirmed that the state Department of Justice operates a statewide computer system that, because of a design flaw, denied any access to the Unidentified Persons System.
"Previously, local law-enforcement agencies in North Carolina could not enter information about cases involving unidentified bodies directly into NCIC," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice. "The State Bureau of Investigation entered that information into NCIC at the request of local agencies."
She said the state last year finished "technical changes" to its systems to allow local police to make reports themselves and "has recently updated its training" to include the new procedures. Talley said the state is preparing a newsletter "to get the word out" about the changes.
Coroner's offices around the nation also complain they lack access to make Doe reports to the FBI.
"We have 161 cases in our county that we are currently working on," said John Fudenberg, assistant coroner in Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas. He said he was not surprised that FBI records show only 16 active Doe cases for the Las Vegas metro area and only 59 cases statewide.
"We have already identified this problem and are working hard to fix it," Fudenberg said. "We can't enter into NCIC, after all. We don't have entry capability. Only the police can do that."
But asked why the coroner's office hasn't asked police to report their Doe cases, Fudenberg said, "I don't have an answer for that. I don't know what to say."
The FBI files show that several large cities have reported no Doe cases, including Charlotte, N.C., Louisville, Ky., Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
"Do you have information on how the office can get connected to NCIC?" asked Philadelphia's forensic epidemiologist, Steven A. Koehler. He said his city actually has at least three active Doe cases, none of which has been reported to the FBI.
The failure of authorities to report unidentified bodies has forced amateur detectives and volunteers to form their own organization - the Doe Network - to help solve cases.
"I simply had no idea there are so many unidentified bodies. Somebody has to be an advocate for the dead," said Todd Matthews, a Tennessee resident and amateur sleuth who drew nationwide praise after solving a 30-year-old Jane Doe case in Kentucky.
Matthews is a founder of the Doe Network Internet site (www.doenetwork.org), which has documented 950 cases nationwide, including hundreds never reported to the FBI. It has become so successful at unraveling long-standing mysteries that even police often report Doe cases to the amateur network. Matthews said the 6-year-old network has helped solve 35 Doe cases.
"I don't think there was a really good resource for this until the Internet came along," Matthews said. "The public was more attuned to the potential of the Internet in these kinds of cases than were the police."
Authorities agree they need to do a better job of reporting Doe cases and of matching them to missing-person reports.
"We need to set protocols for what coroners and medical examiners must do when they get an unidentified dead body," said Michael Norris, the county coroner in Mechanicsburg, Pa. "We all believe that mandatory reporting is necessary. But if we make this a national requirement, who is going to pay for it?"
No one knows what the costs could be, especially if coroners and medical examiners are required to obtain computer terminals and the training necessary to input into the FBI data system.
Norris, Hagmaier and other Doe advocates have created a task force operating under a Justice Department grant seeking to build a national registry for unidentified, dead and missing persons. Their campaign wants to improve the performance of the NCIC's unidentified- and missing-persons databases.
"This is a problem that has persisted for decades that needn't exist at all," said Hagmaier. "All of the parts of the puzzle are already in place. We just need to get people to use them."
Willie agreed: "Mandates and money, that's the only way this problem is going to be solved. We must require reporting and have the resources to follow up."
But several advocates warn that one of the biggest hurdles will be the FBI itself. The bureau staunchly maintains a veil of confidentiality over even the summary reports from NCIC data, arguing that the database is the private property of local police departments. The policy prevents the public from scrutinizing whether local police departments and medical examiners are failing to report Doe cases.
Missing-person advocates say the FBI lobbied against "Jennifer's Law" when it was pending in Congress seven years ago.
"We were getting bad-mouthed by the FBI when we were pushing for mandatory reporting (of Doe cases to NCIC). So we went to see them at their big headquarters," Susan Wilmer recalled of her 1998 campaign. "They told us they didn't want to be the ones to enforce another reporting law or to have to smack the hands of local law enforcement. They said, 'We will not do that!' "
The FBI would not comment on this. But retired FBI official Storm Watkins confirms Wilmer's claim that the bureau lobbied against mandatory-reporting requirements for Doe cases. "That sounds about right," Watkins said from his Springfield, Va., home. "We didn't want to mandate anything onto the local police departments."
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