Dental Records Crack the Case
In June of 2009, a citizen searching NamUs noticed remarkable similarities between the case record for Sonia Lente, a woman who had been missing since 2002, and an unidentified body found near Albuquerque two years later. Although authorities initially thought the cases might be the same person, a DNA test was not close enough to make a definitive match, and the case grew cold. When the citizen cyber-sleuth saw a potential match in NamUs, she alerted Dr. Peter Loomis, the NamUs contact for the case. Dr. Loomis is one of several forensic odontologists who are available through NamUs to assist jurisdictions in the identification of human remains. Dr. Loomis had recently contacted dentists in New Mexico seeking records for missing women, and had just received dental records on Sonia Lente. When he compared Lente to the unidentified remains, he was able to make a positive dental identification, which was subsequently confirmed by the FBI with a second DNA analysis. Two days after the citizen contacted NamUs, the family of Lente, who had been missing for more than six years, was notified that the remains of their loved one had been identified. ■
John E. Lueth, D.D.S.*
The man had travelled to Bemidji from Iowa for a weekend at a resort cabin. It was cold outside, and one of the first things he wanted to do was light the gas stove. Something went terribly wrong, though. The local authorities discovered very little of the victim of the explosion after the fire. Confirmation that the identity of the victim actually was the resort guest was a challenge, as the only means of positive I.D. was what remained of a mandible.
Dr. James Ghostley related to me how he had been contacted by the sheriff. He was given the mandible and asked to give as much information as possible. Jim took X-rays and documented as thoroughly as possible the restorations and status of dentition, after which these dental records and X-rays were sent to a dentist in Iowa to confirm the identity of the man. When the records arrived at his office and he had the opportunity to compare them with the remains, the Iowa dentist completed the case for law enforcement, as the records matched the remains. Identity confirmed. Case closed. 1960s.
In the early to mid-1970s, Jim was presented with another forensic case. A dog had dragged a human skull into a Bemidji area farmyard. The sheriff made another visit to the dental office, leaving the dento-skeletal investigation up to Jim. With X-rays, careful observation, and documentation, Jim was able to detail the unidentified person’s restorations and, based upon the stage of third molar development, that s/he was aged in the late teens or early 20’s. That kind of data helped narrow the search to the missing people in the age bracket determined, and led to resolution of the case. Identity confirmed. Case closed. 1970s.
Has your dental office ever received a call like the one I had in October of 2009? Identifying himself first as a forensic odontologist, a man informed me that he was the forensic odontologist for the Midwest Region of a national organization, and that he was assigned to Minnesota. His reason for contacting our office sprang from a lead in a missing persons case, and he requested we search for dental records to help in the identification. Once or twice previously in my practice career I had been contacted by the authorities as to whether we might have dental records useful in solving some such case. My impression has been that while not necessarily at the front line of forensic identification, dentistry at times may provide the key to I.D., and the skills, knowledge, and expertise we use and take for granted every day might solve a case or provide closure for a family. But this NamUs process was a bit different (as I found out in the conversation with the requester). This was not a local or state law enforcement agency making the request. Rather, this was some outfit he called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
By answering some of my questions and directing me to a website** regarding the organization, my confidence was gained. NamUs was now on my radar screen, and our office searched our dental records for any indication we might have some information helpful to NamUs and the location or identification of a missing woman case. We were provided with a case number and case information including a name, a date of birth, gender, race, last known address, circumstances of the person’s disappearance, physical characteristics, medical information, and even a photo. Lastly, I discovered that NamUs had the ability to assist in the secure uploading and transferring of dental X-rays and charting should we have the information.
Solving an “unsolvable” missing person case such as the one for which our office was contacted may become easier soon as more law enforcement agencies, other agencies or entities, and the general public become aware of the NamUs resource and contribute data or utilize the data in their efforts to solve these mysteries.
Judging from the incredible resources at our fingertips in this digital age and the ability NamUs provides to coordinate data use and information dissemination, I expect ever-increasing success in a variety of areas, including closing missing person cases, providing families and law enforcement with closure, learning the true identities of unknown victims, and locating missing persons. If NamUs has now “newly appeared” on your radar screen as it recently appeared on mine, I encourage you to ask around your community to see if people are aware of it. Encourage your local newspaper to run an article on NamUs. Learn a bit more about it and understand how important it might be to your or someone’s family to know that this resource is there. With the technology in place at NamUs, and with investigators and families continually adding to the data base, the odds that you might be contacted to help contribute information that might solve a missing persons case increase daily. And if you are contacted to assist, remember that, on behalf of that missing person’s family, you may be the one to fulfill the plea that voiceless missing person cannot articulate: “Name us!”
How You Can Help.
You can participate in the effort to find the missing and identify the unknown by logging on to NamUs at www.NamUs.gov . The system is simple to navigate and easy to use.
1. Log on to NamUs.gov and become familiar with the system.
2. You can search by geographic area to find cases, and you can easily check to see if the cases have dental records.
3. If you have dental records (written or radiographic) on any missing person, please notify the regional system administrator or the law enforcement agency listed and volunteer to support this important effort.
4. Speak to your local law enforcement personnel about the importance of obtaining dental records on missing persons and the importance of dental identification in helping to solve the missing and unidentified person crisis in this country.
In June 2009, a man disappeared following a car accident in April in Connecticut. Police and dogs searched the area, but despite finding the man’s wallet and some clothing, they did not find the driver himself. A few weeks later, the man’s aunt entered information, including his dental records, about her nephew into a new online tool for finding missing persons and identifying human remains. The following month, a body was found near the accident scene. With the help of the dental records available in the new online tool, the body was identified as Jody King, the man who had gone missing in the April accident.
Missing and unidentified persons cases such as King’s present a huge challenge for state and local law enforcement agencies. Investigating these cases can demand extensive time and effort, and there are often few leads to follow. But now, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, gives law enforcement professionals and the general public, including dentists and doctors, access to a powerful online tool and the forensic expertise to help move these cases toward resolution, allowing anyone to contribute to the search for the nation’s missing and give names to the unidentified dead. Developed and funded2 by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), NamUs is operated by the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC)3.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 4,400 new unidentified human remains cases are found each year,1 and approximately 1,000 of these remain unidentified after one year. In fact, experts estimate there could be as many as 40,000 unidentified remains cases nationwide. In addition, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases at any one time throughout the country. This situation has been called our nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, a problem of epidemic proportion that NamUs is helping to solve.
The database for the unidentified has been available since 2007, and the missing persons database went online in January of 2009. At NamUs.gov, investigators can collaborate across jurisdictions with medical examiners, coroners, forensic odontologists, and other experts, as well as families and friends of the missing, to upload and access primary source case data to research — and solve — these cases and provide closure to families of the missing throughout the country.
Technology and Identification Expertise Combine to Solve Cold Cases
NamUs is especially useful for investigating missing persons cases that have gone cold. Built using the latest in database technology, the system allows investigators to create targeted searches. Investigators and families of the missing can manually search by basic physical details such as hair and eye color, or conduct advanced searches of dental records or unique identifying characteristics such as scars, piercings, tattoos, prosthetics, and implants. A full case report can be printed at any time.
When investigators register on NamUs, they can use the system to add or update case information, track cases, communicate with other investigators, and request free forensic assistance. The system can be accessed through any Internet connection, and there is no limit to how, or how often, the system is searched. Sensitive identification information such as dental coding, DNA, fingerprints, and medical history details are not visible to the public, although the availability status of each item can be seen. Although the NamUs dental codes that are visible online seem simplified, they are designed as a screening tool only. Full dental charts are made available to law enforcement and forensic experts.
In July 2009, new capabilities were added to NamUs, dramatically reducing the time and effort required to conduct searches by performing constant, automatic cross-searching between both sides of the system. The upgraded system searches records in the missing persons database against those in the unidentified persons database and provides side-by-side comparisons. Cases with similarities are automatically presented to the investigator as potential matches when he or she reopens the case. Investigators can then include or exclude cases, and note reasons why. For cases that offer solid potential, the investigator can engage forensic services to conduct further identification testing.
The enhanced system capabilities added in July 2009 have helped resolve 16 cases so far, many of them using dental records to confirm the match.
The advanced online technology of NamUs is complemented by a dedicated staff of regional system administrators (RSA) and forensic specialists who provide expertise in anthropology, odontology, fingerprint examination, and DNA analysis.
After a case is entered into the system, it is reviewed by an RSA, who identifies additional information that could enrich the case. If a case is missing dental information, the RSA may reach out to a NamUs odontologist who can then work with a local dentist to retrieve, chart, and upload the dental records into the system. Dental records and radiographs can be transmitted electronically to provide immediate comparisons without the delay and risk involved with mailing.
If no DNA information is available, law enforcement users can order free DNA kits through the site to be delivered to their agency for collection of family reference samples. These samples are sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for processing and CODIS work — all free of charge to the agency. Considering
the extensive DNA backlogs that exist in many crime labs, this allows agencies to work missing persons cases without adding to their own backlog. The availability status of the reference samples is noted in the NamUs case file.
Other services include anthropology, prints, and even case input support, if needed. Simply put, the more detailed the case profile, the better chance of closing the case.
A Numbers Game
With technology that matches the missing to the unidentified, it only follows that the more cases the system contains, the more potential matches can be identified for further investigation. Currently, there are more than 6,200 unidentified decedents and nearly 2,900 missing persons cases in NamUs. Medical examiners and coroners across the country are continually adding to the unidentified database, and investigators and families of the missing contribute to the growing missing persons database. The potential for matching up these cases increases daily as cases from almost all states have been added and can be searched.
Since January of 2009, when the missing persons site went live, more than 184,000 visitors have logged on to NamUs, and traffic continues to increase. Cases in a number of states such as Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and New Mexico have been resolved thanks to the instant availability of quality information and the number of people using the system.
By bringing together the two searchable databases — unidentified decedents and missing persons — NamUs has the potential to revolutionize missing and unidentified persons investigations and provide resolution for families across the country.
1. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs Survey of Medical Examiners and Coroners’ Offices, 2004.
2. NFSTC, a 501(c)(3) based in Largo, Florida, provides quality forensic services including training, assessment, research, and technology assistance to the justice and forensic communities. www.nfstc.org
3. Award No. 2007-IJ-CX-K023 awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
*Dr. Loomis is a Forensic Odontologist, New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.
**Dr. Lueth is Northwest Dentistry’s Associate Editor for the Northwestern District. He is a general dentist in private practice in Bemidji, Minnesota.
***The NamUs website can be accessed at www.namus.gov. There is a very good 12-minute video on this national website.