Philadelphia, Philadelphia Inquirer

Missing in action: Morgues hold about 40,000 sets of unidentified remains. Why isn't there a national database to help families find loved ones?

March 6, 2006
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Inquirer
by John Sullivan - Inquirer Staff Writer

When a body can't be identified in New Jersey, state police forensic anthropologist Donna Fontana takes over.

For years, she has been rebuilding faces from shards of bones. But now she relies on the Internet to broadcast her work. The state police site displays the pictures of bodies and any possessions on the site she started two years ago.

In Philadelphia, investigators have been slow to embrace the Internet. They recently started a Web site - without photographs - only after being criticized for failing to identify several bodies. They say identification often relies on more mundane methods, such as good investigative work and even luck.

Katrina Johnson, for one, wishes their Web site had come sooner.

She called the morgue for two years looking for her sister, Unisha Jefferson, to no avail. But her sister was there all the time. She wasn't discovered until last November when an investigator read about her in the news and identified her.

Johnson thinks she could have found her sister long ago if Philadelphia had had a Web site like New Jersey's to publicize unidentified bodies.

"Don't you think we would have checked the body of a black woman found two blocks from where my sister went missing to see if it was her?" she asks.

Even as the science of identifying bodies advances, the current system often does a poor job helping relatives search among the 2,000 unidentified bodies found each year in the United States.

Across the country, searchers say they are often frustrated by the lack of a single national Web page or a database of unidentified remains that can be easily searched.

All that's available now is a hodgepodge of state, county and nonprofit Web sites and databases developed over the years. None is complete and few are interconnected.

"The biggest problem we face is getting the families of the missing connected with the people like us who have them," said Marcella F. Fierro, chief medical examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the author of several books on how to identify remains.

"Ideally there would be one Web page that does that, but right now there are just a boatload of different ones. I do not know why they can't get together and make a simple system. It defies logic."

For police, there is one system - the FBI's National Criminal Information Center - but it contains just 5,600 of the nation's estimated 40,000 unidentified remains. Medical examiners complain that they, too, can't get access to the database, which is reserved for law enforcement. Some say the database was developed to track criminals and stolen cars and is not well-suited to track people who may run away and return home several times.

"The problem is that the NCIC figures represent only a small percentage of the missing persons cases reported nationwide every year and only a sampling of the number of outstanding cases involving the unidentified dead," wrote Tracy Henke, a former assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, last year. She said the nation's 18,000 law-enforcement agencies vary greatly in how they take missing persons reports and investigate remains. And few states require that information to be entered into NCIC's unidentified-persons files.

Pennsylvania law does not require the state to submit DNA to the FBI's national DNA center.

But Rep. William I. Gabig (R., Cumberland) wants to help change that. He has submitted a bill, now pending in the House judiciary committee, to require local officials to share DNA samples of missing persons with the state police.

"We've had cases of bodies found in the woods, and they couldn't get the gender right," said Gabig, a former prosecutor, who has experienced this frustration firsthand. "This is a tool we need to solve these cases."

One state that submits information to NCIC and has embraced the Web is New Jersey. State police forensic anthropologist Fontana began a Web page two years ago that lists every unidentified body found in New Jersey since the 1970s, about 230 in all.

The exhaustive site includes pictures of jewelry found with the body and photos of facial reconstructions made from unidentified remains. Fontana submits dental records and DNA to the FBI on every case.

It helps that all the state's medical examiners work under a central system.

In contrast, Pennsylvania's 67 counties are a patchwork of disconnected coroners and appointed medical examiners. The state police run a Web page, but few coroners submit information to it, and the site contains only six state police cases. There is no official count of how many bodies remain unidentified in Pennsylvania.

Like the state police site, the Philadelphia medical examiner's new Web page is hard to locate and presents no photos with the 11 cases listed.

The experts talk openly of their different philosophies.

David Quain, Philadelphia's chief investigator in the medical examiner's office, is the man who identified Katrina Johnson's sister last year. "We're willing to try anything, but cases are rarely solved through Web sites," he said.

New Jersey State Police said they have yet to solve a case through their own Web site, but posting cases on related Web sites, such as the Doe Network, has helped them identify two bodies.

State police detectives, for example, tried for years to identify the decomposed body of a woman found in 1984 in Somerset County. Last year they posted details of the case, including photos of jewelry found with the body, on the Doe Network, which bills itself as "The International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons." Several weeks later, the woman's family in Michigan searched the Web site and recognized her jewelry.

"It happens more often than you might think, that someone sees something on a Web page and makes a call," said New Jersey State Police detective John Donegan, who handled the case.

The one bright spot is an FBI database with $5.4 million in federal funding this year. It will store the DNA of unidentified bodies and compare that DNA to samples provided by families of the missing.

Still, the dream of a useful site remains far off. The largest collection center, at the University of North Texas, has gathered DNA samples from just 135 bodies and 1,000 families, a fraction of the bodies that remain unidentified in the United States.

Quain said the Philadelphia morgue would submit DNA for several cases to see if they are resolved and may send more evidence for DNA testing later. But he cautioned: "It's only as good as what you place in the system."

Quain said results are more likely to come from shoe leather and luck generated by the eight full-time medical examiner investigators who knock on doors and flash photographs to store clerks and others who may have known the deceased.

Recent policy changes at the morgue will help too, he said. Among them, weekly meetings with police detectives will make sure the department knows which bodies the morgue is holding, and the medical examiners will know who has been reported missing.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas and Atlanta, medical examiners said they would continue to build and maintain their own detailed Web pages.

Randy Hanzlick, the Atlanta medical examiner who has served on a federal committee looking into the issue, said he can recall few cases where his extensive Web site has helped, and he insists on maintaining it.

"Much of the resistance to this has been philosophical disagreements for us, but the families don't care about that," said Hanzlick. "They want to look and see, 'they're not on there, we have some hope.' "