WASILLA - Law enforcement didn’t help Mary Weir track down her missing daughter this spring. On her own, she found her daughter’s picture on the Internet and connected her to Jane Doe 17-05 in San Bernardino County, Calif.
Samantha Bonnell left her Palmer home two or three days shy of her 18th birthday and moved to California, Weir said. The last Weir heard of Samantha was a September 2005 phone call from her boyfriend saying she’d run off after a fight at a Montclair, Calif., movie theater.
It wasn’t until April that Weir learned her daughter died that night, struck by several cars as she ran across Interstate 10. Samantha had no identification on her and she lay unclaimed at the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office until Weir called.
Alaska State Troopers took a missing persons report for Weir after Samantha’s luggage surfaced in South Carolina. Weir’s tenacity led her to the coroner’s office.
Still she wasn’t acting alone. She had help from Doe Network, a missing/unidentified persons advocacy group and from deputy coroner investigator David Van Norman, San Bernardino County’s unidentified persons coordinator.
Though the news was bad, Weir said Van Norman gave her the first comfort she’d had in 19 months. Finally she knew what happened.
160 ATTEMPTS TO IDENTIFY BODY
“Can you imagine the courage it would take for a mother, terrified, not knowing the fate of her young daughter, to call a coroner?” Van Norman wrote by e-mail.
Weir’s call was the 160th attempt by someone to match a missing person with Jane Doe 17-05, Van Norman wrote.
He counts himself an advocate for unidentified persons. His e-mail was at its most strident in criticizing law enforcement for what he sees as its relaxed attitude toward missing persons reports. He said he’s heard countless stories of people turned away while trying to report someone missing. And he was very critical of the National Crime Information Center report troopers made for Weir. “Samantha’s NCIC gave the date that she was last seen as six months after she died!” Van Norman wrote.
Lt. Kathy Peterson, who took the report, said that’s true, the dates were incorrect. But she was working with the best Weir could remember at the time. She pointed out that the other information that leads to matches - height, weight, hair and eye color - was correct. Definitive matches come from dental records, DNA or fingerprints, Peterson said. And she forwarded dental records Weir gave her to the state’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse to be entered electronically with the report. They were waiting to be entered when Weir called California, she said.
Weir and Van Norman both said Weir could have corrected the report had she been allowed to read it. Peterson said that generally those reports are confidential.
Van Norman said that about 100 bodies show up at his office every year and are labeled Jane, John or Undetermined Doe. He said 95 percent of those are quickly identified and claimed. But the unclaimed cases add up. Currently there are 250 active unidentified person cases in his office, he said.
Nationally, as of July, law enforcement lists 6,048 unidentified bodies and 106,255 missing persons, according to Todd Matthews, media director for Doe Network.
Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said troopers know of 1,154 missing people as of Sept. 10 in Alaska. The number fluctuates daily, Peters said, as it includes 157 runaways, who are lost and found frequently.
PUBLIC WEB SITE OFFERS HOPE
The Web site on which Weir found Samantha’s picture, doenetwork.org , is run by a group composed of hundreds of members, dozens of whom are actively working to match missing persons with unidentified bodies nationwide, Matthews said by phone from Livingston, Tenn.
“I knew about her case before I knew Mary,” Matthews said. He hosts an Internet radio show devoted to unidentified bodies and missing persons and at one point interviewed Van Norman.
“He actually described a Jane Doe and that turned out to be Samantha,” Matthews said.
Almost all of Doe Network’s members have a story similar to Weir’s, Matthews said. He’s no exception.
In 1998, after 10 years obsessed with the case, Matthews managed to identify the body of Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor, whose unidentified body was discovered by his father-in-law in 1968 in Kentucky. The story of his search is detailed on his Web site, tentgirl.com.
Matthews said that when Weir called him after having identified Samantha, he put her in touch with Hackman-Taylor’s sister to help Weir with what she was going through.
In his work with the Doe Network, Matthews said information is the one thing he thinks would help most in solving the problem of missing and unidentified persons. If law enforcement could create a standard missing persons report that is entered into a national database to be compared against other uniform reports, maybe the number of open cases would drop.
But the key is to get law enforcement to use the system.
“It’s not going to be effective if you don’t use it,” Matthews said. Until that happens, Van Norman’s advice for families of missing persons was clear.
“If any family, anywhere, is told by law enforcement that they will not take a report, that family should keep calling up the chain of command of the department, and keep on calling, through their legislative representatives, to the governor, if that’s what it takes,” he wrote.