January 24, 2011

DNA Projects Target Missing Persons Cases

The following is an informative article highlighting just one of the many challenges to solving missing persons cases. It also illustrates the advances being made through DNA technology and the importance in utilizing it.

It has been reprinted in its entirety from The CJIS Link, (Vol. 9, No. 3, October 2006), the newsletter of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

DNA Projects Target Missing Persons Cases
By Glenn R. Schmitt, Acting Director, National Institute of Justice

On any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States, and every year, tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances. Missing persons and unidentified human remains (UHR) investigations-—particularly, if a case goes cold—present a tremendous challenge for financially strapped state and local law enforcement agencies.

The Nation's missing persons and UHR problem is compounded by the following facts:

  1. There are more than 40,000 human remains held in the property rooms of medical examiners, coroners, and police departments across the country that cannot be identified by conventional means.
  2. Out of these 40,000 cases, only 6,000 have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. (See sidebar, "Tackling Problems with the Missing Persons Databases.") Twenty-five percent of the 6,000 cases are known homicides, and another 25 percent are likely homicides.
  3. Many cities and counties continue to bury or cremate unidentified remains without an attempt to collect DNA.
  4. Many crime laboratories are unable to perform a timely DNA analysis of human remains, especially when they are old or have degraded.
  5. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is working to help local jurisdictions meet these challenges through the President's DNA Initiative, a 5-year, $1 billion plan to maximize the use of DNA technology in the criminal justice system. The NIJ is funding projects to eliminate backlogs of unanalyzed DNA samples from sexual assault and murder cases; stimulate DNA research and development; promote state legislation requiring that DNA samples be taken before cremation or burial of UHR; and train the criminal justice community on DNA technology.

CSI meets the real world

In one of the NIJ's projects, DNA identification methods such as those featured in the TV drama CSI are offered to law enforcement in the real world. At the Center for Human Identification (CFHI) at the University of North Texas Health and Science Center in Fort Worth, any state or local law enforcement agency can have nuclear (STR) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing performed at no charge. Tests are provided for human remains and for reference samples provided by families of missing persons. The CFHI also performs examinations on human remains (also at no charge) to determine the manner and cause of death. The DNA profiles are then uploaded to the CFHI's special database for searching nationwide.

The NIJ's funding of this revolutionary project means that every jurisdiction has access to one of only three laboratories in the country (the other two are run by the FBI and the California Department of Justice) capable of searching both mtDNA and STR profiles. The CFHI's work continues to solve missing persons and UHR cases, like the recent "cold hit" in the Marci Bachmann investigation.

Marci Bachmann was 16 years old when she ran away from her Vancouver, Washington, home in May 1984. Although her remains were found a few months later near Deer Creek in Missoula, Montana, and information on "Debbie Deer Creek" was entered into the NCIC, a connection to Marci was not made. And, less than two years later, the entering agency removed her missing persons entry after receiving a report that Marci was spotted near Seattle. However, the sighting wasn't Marci, and her remains lay in a Missoula morgue for the next 20 years.

The case couldn't have been colder when, in 2004, a Missoula detective heard about the CFHI and sent a femur from Debbie Deer Creek's remains to the lab. The CFHI's scientists ran DNA tests and uploaded the profile into the database. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated investigation, detectives working the Green River murders in King County, Washington, came across Marci's missing persons file. When a telephone call to Marci's mother revealed that Marci was still missing, they secured a DNA sample from Marci's mother and sent it to the CFHI. The database revealed a potential match with the remains of Debbie Deer Creek. After DNA from Marci's brother and father was also then analyzed at the CFHI, on April 6—over 21 years after her body was unearthed from a shallow grave—Marci Bachmann was "found." Investigation revealed that Marci had been murdered by Missoula serial killer Wayne Nance.

Neither chance nor luck

The CFHI’s program manager George Adams quotes from Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques when he talks about “cold hits” like the one that occurred in the Bachmann case.

“Solving a cold case like Marci’s is not a matter of chance or luck,” Adams said. “It is a matter of design and protocol.”

The “design” is the CFHI’s “CODIS + Mito” database, and the “protocol” is intended to work like this: If a missing person is not found within 30 days, a family reference sample, such as DNA from a close relative (using a buccal cheek swab) or a personal item (like a comb or a toothbrush) belonging to the missing person, is sent to the CFHI. The sample is analyzed, using both STR and mtDNA methodologies, and the profile is uploaded to the database. Meanwhile, human remains, wherever they are found, anywhere in the country, are sent to the CFHI for analysis.

“If we already have the family reference sample, we will get a match,” Adams said. No longer does solving a missing persons or UHR case have to depend on a break in the investigation because, he added, “we now have the ‘design and protocol’ of pure science.”

However, getting hits that help solve missing persons and UHR cases is dependent on the CFHI’s receipt of family reference samples to load into the database.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of remains samples, but we really need to work on getting family reference samples,” said Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, a member of the Missing Persons National Task Force and the person who heads up the CFHI. “If families don’t send reference or biological samples—which, at this stage, must be collected by a law enforcement official—human remains cannot be identified.”

The challenge is to spread the word that this free resource is available. And, as word spreads, it is hoped that the CFHI’s DNA analyses and database will come to be regarded not as a tool of last resort in a missing person or UHR case but as a primary investigative tool.

Contact CFHI, 1-800-763-3147, missingpersons@hsc.unt.edu.

Reprinted from The CJIS Link (Vol. 9, No. 3, October 2006), the newsletter of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division. (Link:  http://www.dna.gov/identifying-persons/missing-persons/missing-persons-projects.)

1 comment:

Sara Huizenga said...

Thanks so much for sharing this ... important information that along with NamUs and Billy's Law so desperately needs to get out.

Sara Huizenga
Founder of Peace4 the Missing

NamUs.gov Michigan Victim Advocate