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Searching for the Missing in a City of Millions

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National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
May 19, 2019
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U.S. Department of Justice efforts to improve the investigation of missing and unidentified persons began with a push by NIJ in 2003 to maximize the use of DNA technology in analyzing such cases. NIJ expanded its efforts in 2005 with the Identifying Missing Persons Summit, in 2007 it launched the “unidentified persons” database, and in 2008 the “missing persons” database was created. Those databases were connected in 2009, creating the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. NamUs has resolved more than 17,000 missing persons incidents and nearly 3,706 unidentified persons cases.

In 1972 a young man from New York, just 20 years old, left home and vanished. For 42 years his sister, haunted by his disappearance, searched for clues and followed leads as she tried to find out what had happened to her brother — all to no avail.

Then, in 2014 she saw a Facebook posting for the First Annual New York City Missing Persons Day, sponsored by the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Organized by OCME’s missing persons unit, the event was being held in response to the overwhelming and ongoing problem of missing persons in New York City, where the resident population of 8.5 million swells to 10 million during the workday. There were more than 13,500 missing persons reports in the city in 2014 — typical of most years — and although most were resolved quickly, about 100 remained open. People who were suddenly gone, often with frantic and despairing relatives left behind.

On the hope that she might finally find her brother, the woman arrived at a modern glass building near the East River in Manhattan that houses OCME’s sophisticated DNA laboratory. She joined 80 other people in the building’s lobby — people from around the world — who were sitting under a large sign that read “Science Serving Justice,” waiting to be interviewed by staff members of the medical examiner’s office. They were foreign, domestic, from all social strata, all with one thing in common — a missing loved one.

Most important, they waited to provide DNA samples that could be analyzed and entered into NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System established by NIJ to help find the more than 600,000 people who go missing in the United States every year. Although most of those cases are resolved quickly without involving NamUs, hundreds of new unresolved cases are entered into the system annually. In addition to NamUs, the DNA samples taken at the OCME event were entered into the FBI’s CODIS software — the Combined DNA Index System — to determine if any of those samples could be linked to one of the tens of thousands of missing persons’ profiles in the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS).

The inside of the woman’s cheek was swabbed, her DNA was processed, and the results were uploaded to NDIS. Several weeks later there was a “hit” and, in the understated language of the medical examiner’s office, she was told that “a strong kinship match” was found with unidentified male remains. Tragic as it was, her long search was over. Her brother had been dead since 1973, his body discovered that year in nearby New Jersey. Fortunately, his DNA had been uploaded into CODIS in 2010, thanks to an NIJ grant that allowed New Jersey authorities to try to put names to some of the unidentified bodies they held.

Despite the grim nature of the case, the medical examiner officials who created Missing Persons Day considered it a success. The woman’s decades-long quest to find her brother was over.

Two other cases were also resolved that day. First, a brother and sister submitted DNA that led to the identification of the skeletal remains of their father, whose body had been discovered on Long Island in 2003. Second, two sisters provided DNA samples that were matched to an unidentified individual who had also been found on Long Island — the body of their missing brother.

Despite the success of the 2014 event, OCME did not have the funds to conduct another Missing Persons Day in 2015. An NIJ grant allowed the event to resume in 2016, and further grants have allowed it to continue. And more people have been identified.

Although Missing Persons Day is perhaps the most visible community activity that NIJ supports at OCME, the sheer size and sophistication of the New York office makes it one of the largest recipients of a wide range of NIJ funding, with nearly 50 grants going to the medical examiner’s office since 2006. Although some funds are designated for training, education, fellowships, and reducing sexual assault kit backlogs, some funding supports science-related research, especially in the area of DNA.

See “Helping Labs Increase Capacity and Reduce Backlogs”

Identifying the Missing

The missing persons unit in New York City, one of only a handful of such units nationally that is located within a medical examiner’s office, is perhaps the most scientifically advanced in the United States. This is largely because of the experience its staff gained from the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) that killed 2,753 people. OCME scientists perfected the process of generating DNA profiles from the more than 22,000 human remains that came from the WTC, most of them just “bits of bones,” said Mark Desire, OCME’s assistant director who oversees the missing persons work. “We applied the lessons learned from that to our everyday missing persons cases.” Of the thousands of WTC human remains recovered, about 35% remain unidentified.

Chief medical examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson, a cardiovascular pathologist who also holds a doctorate in molecular biology, credits the progressive science of the entire OCME to Dr. Charles Hirsch, her predecessor, who set the standards high as he pushed the office to become a leading forensic research center. Hirsch recognized early on that “DNA was going to be the future of forensics and we had to be at the forefront of that,” Sampson said. Under Hirsch, she continued, “We weren’t satisfied with just doing the job. We always wanted to do the job better and faster, using the most cutting-edge technology.”

See “Faces in Clay”

Sampson said the problem of missing persons in New York City is significantly worse than in smaller jurisdictions. “People come here from all over the world and their families don’t even know they’re here,” she said. Although the number of identifications resulting from Missing Persons Day is small, “it is so heartwarming to see these families. We give them a lot of services. The Red Cross is here, along with other organizations that help them through this.”

Sampson said the DNA work, which often involves degraded or fragmentary samples, is “very slow and tedious.” Despite the nature of the work, she said, the skill and technology at the lab are so advanced that “we can get DNA out of a stone.”

The broader work involving missing persons started in earnest in 2008. It was supported by the first NIJ grant to OCME’s forensic biology division. OCME used procedures that came, in part, from that grant to attack the backlog of cases from the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1,200 unidentified bodies buried in the city cemetery on Hart Island, known as Potter’s Field.

DNA Kits

In 2009, funded by another NIJ grant, Desire’s office developed a missing persons kit that is similar to the commercial ancestry DNA kits popular today. “We developed the kit, which is something that we can mail out to a family that’s missing a loved one,” he said. The kits include two swabs, sterile gloves, and packaging for returning the swabs to OCME in a postage-paid envelope.

In addition to sending the kits to people in and around New York City, they have been sent to law enforcement agencies in New York state and overseas, particularly to Mexico. Desire said, “We’ll have a family in Mexico whose son came here to New York City and they haven’t heard from him. We’ve got [unidentified] bodies in the morgue, and in Potter’s Field, and one of them might be him, so we can collect DNA from the family by sending out the kit.”

The kits containing DNA samples are returned in the mail, he said, “and we get them every week.” The office follows up on the kits sent in by the families with phone calls and has a system to keep track of all of the kits. “It’s been a wonderful help,” Desire said.

One of the issues encountered when trying to obtain DNA samples from families who have a missing relative is that some families do not trust law enforcement and are afraid to come forward. The realization that many people in New York City were afraid to report a missing relative was part of the reason Missing Persons Day was created, Desire said. When OCME announced the first event in 2014, the office was overwhelmed with requests for interviews from the media. “It was amazing because New York City is the media capital and everybody wanted to come and talk to us. I think there were probably 50 television interviews.”

The objective of those interviews, he said, was that “we could say we’d be having this event every year where families could go to the medical examiner at the Department of Health.”

Desire feared that families would come in expecting his staff to identify their missing loved one on the spot. As DNA analysis typically takes weeks or months, “I didn’t want them leaving disappointed,” he said. “So we brought in all of the relevant nonprofits, the spiritual care people, and the emotional and mental health specialists. They were all in the building, gave out plenty of information and made contacts with the families.”

The event allowed families of the missing to meet with other families in the same situation. For the first time, they were talking to each other and to OCME staff, Desire said. “So now we get calls on a weekly basis from other families asking, ‘When is your next Missing Persons Day? I want to come in and give a DNA sample.’”[3]

Although NIJ funding allowed the event to resume in 2016, because of the DNA kits the families do not have to wait for the next event, Desire said. If someone calls in, “we’ll mail them out a kit that day,” he said. “And we’ve made identifications based on that.”

Because of the success of Missing Persons Day, members of his unit are regularly invited to events held throughout New York. Some of those events are designed to help families obtain medical services, enroll their children in public schools, or find jobs. The event organizers have realized that some of the families may have missing relatives, “so we are invited and we have tables set up,” Desire said.

At some of the events, the participants spoke only Spanish or other languages that Desire’s science staff could not speak. So he turned to NIJ for another grant that allowed him to hire bilingual DNA scientists. “We now have two,” he said. “One from Mexico and one from the Dominican Republic. I studied Spanish in school for four years, but a Spanish-speaking family is going to trust me a lot more if I have my scientist from Mexico with me. Just immediately, the warmth and the trust that those scientists have [with the Spanish-speaking community] is exactly what I envisioned and they are who we send out to these events,” he said.

Although OCME runs Missing Persons Day independent from law enforcement, the New York Police Department (NYPD) and other law enforcement agencies work closely with the medical examiner’s office. “On Missing Persons Day, we have the NYPD with us because if, God forbid, we have a case where a woman comes in and says, ‘My husband has been missing for a year and I think he was murdered,’ we can do something about it,” Desire said. “We can say 'law enforcement is here for you' and get them involved.”

Most of the cases, like the woman whose brother disappeared in 1972, are straightforward missing persons cases. Regardless of the circumstances, Desire said, “our job is to identify your loved one.”

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 281, released May 2019.

Date Published: May 19, 2019