9/22/05 Dead Men Might Tell Tales
Project Jason works hard to find creative ways to seek the missing. Even though it is an unpleasant thought, we know that some of the missing persons we seek, including my own son, might be deceased. Therefore, we must also seek the missing among the dead.
One well known organization that does just this is the DOE Network, but who is on the other side of this search? Who provides us with the information about these unidentified deceased (UID) persons, so we can seek our missing among the dead?
Michael Britt didn't begin his career path working with the dead. He had a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Florida. His original career intent was to become involved in criminal profiling. While working toward his degree, he devoted many hours to volunteer work with the Sheriff's Office (Homicide Unit) in his hometown. It was at this time he was first exposed to the Medical Examiner's Office and quickly learned that this was the type of work in which he wanted to make a career. He completed several internships at various Medical Examiner's/Coroner's offices, eventually spending 5 years as an assistant to a Board Certified Forensic Anthropologist. He was hired by the Florida District Twenty Medical Examiner about 5 years ago to serve as the Supervisor of Investigations. It was after this point that Fluiddb came to life.
Fluiddb was created as a tool to aid those searching for missing persons. Fluiddb is an acronym for the Florida Unidentified Decedents DataBase and is intended to serve as a "centralized clearinghouse" of information about bodies discovered in the state of Florida whose identities remain unknown, even after conventional methods of identification have failed. The database utilizes existing computer technology in a user-friendly format that engages the interested party in the search process, while maintaining the integrity of sensitive criminal data.
Michael, long with the Chief M.E. Dr. Coburn, computer systems analyst Maribel DeArmas, and webmaster Chris Bahnsen, created Fluiddb. Michael now serves as the person in charge of it's day-to-day operation and maintenance. This is key to Fluiddb's success as current criminal databases are not available for public use. To date, Fluiddb has been instrumental in the identification of seven previously unidentified decedents.
Michael explains Fluiddb's purpose: "As Medical Examiners, we receive many calls, faxes, and emails from those searching for missing persons. Prior to the existence of the site, it was necessary for those searching to contact each and every Medical Examiner's Office in our state to inquire about "John or Jane Does" that may fit the description of the person they were searching for. Not only is this time consuming and cumbersome, but the searcher is left to depend on the expertise and commitment level of the person who takes the call. If they do not provide a thorough search, a potential match may go undiscovered.
Our site provides that "centralized clearinghouse" that I mentioned earlier. It exists so that the searcher is the one who performs a query and either eliminates or includes a potential match."
The website is very easy to use, beginning with three drop down boxes and a date field, where you enter that last known date the missing person was alive. From there, you can select specific cases to view. Photos are not shown on the page, but are available upon request. Many details about the UID are listed.
Michael explains how a UID is processed: "How an individual is identified is a tough one to answer as it would be a case by case solution. There are many factors involved (i.e. condition of the body, whether there are parents or siblings available to give a sample for DNA, etc.). We try first to do a fingerprint comparison (that is, if the body was in a condition that allowed retrieval of prints, and if the missing had prints on file somewhere), or would try a dental comparison (if antemortem films are available). DNA is sort of a last resort because it is so cost prohibitive (and time consuming), but is used if there is no other option."
And speaking of DNA, Michael recently recieved a letter from missing person's family who was inquiring about educating others in the relatively new field of DNA processing in relation to the UID's. He shares his response to the letter with us.
Good morning Mr. XXXX,
I do remember speaking with your sister and am sorry to hear that none of the possible matches she was looking into turned out to be XXXX (meaning that some closure could be given to your family). The ability to submit DNA samples from the unidentifieds is a fairly new (not even a year old) concept. Most (and I do stress most) ME offices probably do not even know that this is now available to them. These types of submissions, and recording of the data, has always taken place at the federal level and it has taken a while to get the word down to the state and local level. I would even go so far as to say that most Major Crimes detectives within local Sheriff's Offices also do not know that this (comparing missing person DNA with unidentified DNA) is a possibility. To give you some numbers to show you what I mean I will give you some info. that was released just recently (April 28, 2005) by the U.S. Department of Justice: " On average, there are over 100,000 missing persons listed in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the national, computerized index of criminal justice information. Over 45,000 of those have a last known contact of over a year ago and just 50 of the missing persons in the NCIC have their DNA information listed. Of the 5,800 unidentified dead that are listed in the NCIC, only 33 of these have their DNA information entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database that enables federal, state, and local crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically, thereby linking crimes to each other and to convicted offenders. However, there are an additional 244 DNA profiles of unidentified human remains in CODIS that are not recorded in NCIC. "
As you can see, the problem in the past has been allowing the offices at the local level the ability to submit DNA samples from these cases. Now that the ability to do so has been opened, the first task is to make ME offices and local S.O know that there are now systems (and money) in place to help in the process. The other is to hope that the federal government allows for more money to be distributed so that more DNA labs will have the ability to accept these samples. It is my understanding that at this time, there are only three labs in the country that can accept these submissions. The FBI laboratory is one but they will only accept one case per month per office. Surely, as word gets out that ME offices can submit samples, these three labs will begin to be bogged down and we will be at a standstill once again.
To answer your question about how you can help, my suggestion would be to research this yourself online. Speak to your local law enforcement and encourage them to educate themselves as well. I am assuming you are working with a missing persons detective on XXXX's case. Let that person know that any time they speak with another agency about her case, to mention to them that these moneys and labs exist. I am preparing to contact all the ME offices in FL to make sure they are all on the same page with regards to submitting their cases, and I don't think it can hurt for you (as a private citizen and family member of a missing person) to also mention it to them if you are contacting them about possible matches."
There are two other databases, as Michael mentioned, one in Texas, and one in California. The government is taking a more active role in the DNA and UID situation. There is a DNA kit which is now, or will soon be available, so that missing person's families will be able to provide their own DNA samples to attempt matches in the database.
My husband's and my DNA is in the database. If Jason were to be an UID, and they took DNA from him and entered it into the database, a match would be found in a very short period of time. The problem lies in making sure DNA is obtained on all UID's, otherwise the wait to find a missing loved one who is deceased will go on.
In April, we attended the first National Strategy Meeting: Identifying the Missing Conference in Philadelphia. That conference brought together Federal, State, and local law enforcement; coroners and medical examiners; victim advocates; forensic scientists; key policymakers; and family members who have lived through this tragic experience to help develop a national strategy to address this critical problem.
It's still a work in progress, with steps still being taken. We have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way when it comes to resolving missing person's cases.
You can read more about the President's DNA Initiative here: http://www.dna.gov/index.html
The Fluiddb site can be viewed at http://www.fluiddb.com/
Soon, more dead men can tell tales, so that families can have answers, families just like mine.
My Note: We do not have any idea whether or not Jason is alive. If he were to be found deceased, we hope that he would not end up among the thousands of Does, waiting to be discovered.