Online sleuths take on missing persons cases
April 6, 2008
On the Web: The Doe Web site, www.doenetwork.org.
When Karen Mitchell disappeared on November 25, 1997, just five days before her 17th birthday, she became one of an estimated 100,000 people formally listed as missing in the United States.
There are also more than 40,000 unnamed bodies in the country -- John, Jane and Baby “Does” whose identities remain a mystery.
The Doe Network, an online resource for mystery-solving volunteers, seeks to make connections between those two tragic groups by giving names to the dead and thereby providing closure for families of the missing.
Missing person profiles, which include such details as dental records, photographs and police reports, are posted on the Doe Web site, www.doenetwork.org. The amateur sleuths of the network can then cross-reference this information with law enforcement agencies and medical examiner's offices, putting in the kind of time and effort that many officials can't spare.
The Doe Network's Web site has had nearly 1.8 million visitors since it was established in 1999, and according to media director Todd Matthews, more than 40 bodies have been identified by or through the group in that time.
”There are no advocates for the dead, so that's what we had to become,” said Matthews, a 37-year-old Tennessee man who works for an automotive parts supplier during the day and peruses the Web at night, looking at morgue photos, artist sketches and forensic reconstructions.
His obsession with the dead began two decades ago when his girlfriend, Lori, who would later become his wife, told him the story of “Tent Girl.”
In 1968, Lori's father stumbled across the body of an unidentified young woman wrapped in canvas. None of the Georgetown, Ky., locals knew who she was, so they buried her under an apple tree with a tombstone marked simply “Tent Girl.”
”It all sounded so familiar to me,” Matthews said.
He began spending all of his spare time researching the case. As described in a recent Associated Press story, once Matthews found his way online, he discovered thousands of people just like him, digging through evidence hoping to solve a case.
”My obsession with 'Tent Girl' finally got annoying for Lori,” Matthews said. “One phone bill was $300, which is a problem when you're making minimum wage.”
The two even separated for a period of months.
But in 1998, after years of fruitless investigating, Matthews had a breakthrough. A woman from Arkansas had posted a message in a chat room about her sister, who had disappeared 30 years earlier.
It was 'Tent Girl.' Or, as it turned out, it was Barbara Ann Hackmann.
”I wish I'd had the Doe Network at the time,” Matthews said.
Since a recent Associated Press story, the Doe Network has been bombarded with offers to help.
”We've had about 3,000 e-mails today,” Matthews told the Times-Standard a few days after the article appeared. “Everybody wants to be Batman. But it takes time. Most people lose interest after 10 days.”
The Doe Network now works in conjunction with other agencies like Project EDAN -- where forensic artists donate their time to create sketches of the missing -- and the federal agency NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Mitchell's profile is just one of thousands listed with organizations like the Doe Network and The Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, which was created by the parents of Carole Sund after she disappeared in Siskiyou County in 1999 and was later found murdered along with her own daughter and friend.
In many ways, Mitchell's case is not typical. With most missing persons cases, law enforcement is unable to spend a lot of time pursuing leads, especially after months or years have passed.
”It's just the opposite with this one,” said Dave Parris, who was working as a detective with the Eureka Police Department when Mitchell disappeared. Now the police chief of the Yurok Tribal Police Department, Parris has kept a position with the EPD specifically to work on the case.
”That happened on my watch,” he said. “I'm going to stay with it.”
There are now 35 volumes on Mitchell's case at the EPD, “the largest paper trail case in Eureka's history, I would expect,” Parris said.
But while the continued efforts of Parris along with the high level of awareness in the community at large make Mitchell's case unique, Bill and Annie Casper, the aunt and uncle with whom Mitchell was living when she disappeared, embrace all offers for help. Databases like the Carringtons' and the Doe Network increase the chances of finding someone, somewhere who knows what happened.
Annie Casper believes that locals are still the most likely to prove helpful. But she's thankful for the assistance of others across the country.
”We've utilized many organizations,” she said, “some through the state, some federal. Everything's a help.”
Parris said he continues to pursue new leads.
”I feel comfortable with where we're at (with the case),” he said. “But by the same token, she hasn't been found or come home.”
As for what really happened on November 25, 1997, Parris admits, “We may never know.”
But there are hundreds if not thousands of people online right now, working to solve cases just like Mitchell's. And Matthews' experience shows that, even 30 years later, the right person stumbling upon the right piece of information at the right time can solve a case.
And the network is getting bigger all the time.
After the Associated Press story appeared in papers around the world, Matthews got a call from a CNN affiliate in Ecuador.
”They wanted to know what they could do to help,” said Matthews. “They asked, 'Can we feature cases from Ecuador?'”
He told them he'd have to do some homework -- learn the ins and outs of Ecuadorian law enforcement. But he loved the idea.
”Yeah!” he told them via a translator. “We'll take it international.”
Ryan Burns can be reached at 441-0563 or [email protected]