10/29/05 The Cold Case King Part II
What suggestions do you have for families of long term missing in as far as the search, dealing with the waiting, and the "not knowing"?
Almost every family I deal with says the “not knowing” is the worst part of the ordeal, over and above what they feel is inadequate police response, family response and all other associated responses. I am not a psychologist, but in my experience, what is happening to these families is one, two or all members start to live in what I call a schizophrenic house. Real psychologists will tell you this is impossible, but what they mean is it is impossible to do it well.
By a schizophrenic house, at least one member, usually the mother, but many times both mom and dad, exist with one foot in the world on the day the child disappeared, and the second foot in the here and now. The foot in the “day it happened” is what throws them. The “day it happened” world suggests that all time stops and will not begin again until the child is back in the house being the same age as when he disappeared, and then life can restart. The second foot in the “here and now” is with the remaining family members, siblings, etc who continue to grow, mature, graduate, get jobs, get married, and begin to have kids.
One thing I am certain of, sooner or later there will be a breakdown and one has to choose where both feet are planted or events will choose it for them. I think the families who have been able to move forward are the ones who left behind the world the day their world ended. Don’t get me wrong, they grieve, they ache, they still wait, but they have allowed life to go on for the rest of the family to allow themselves some joy in the life and times of the siblings, and the grandchildren.
The saddest thing I see are the ones who have one (or worse both) foot back in the day it happened. Some way, you must grow and watch the others grow. These are also the families who have turned their grief into action groups, lobbying for better laws, better training for police, etc.
A “Schizophrenic house” definitely exists in many families of the missing. I know this even from my own experience. I had a huge jolt into the “here and now” when I received in the mail the age progression photos of Jason. I ignored the letter that explains not to view the photographs when you are alone. I clearly remember laughing, yes laughing, as I viewed the photo for the first time. “This is not MY son”, I said to myself. He was forever ingrained in my mind as what he looked like in the photos from his high school graduation you see in many places on the Internet. (He looked like that on 6/13/01.)
As that evening wore on, I stepped out of the “day it happened” as I started to realize that I no longer was looking for the teenage Jason, but a young adult Jason, a man. Would I even recognize him if I saw him? I am sure I would. When I understood that I now had to look for this stranger in the photo, then the tears came. That was a tough transition, but a necessary one.
How effective/useful are the age progression photos? Can you tell any success stories about those?
Age progression images are effective for long term cases, particularly if the case involves the abduction of an infant or very young toddler. Cases involving infants and young toddlers are usually committed by a person who seeking to have a child, not harm a child but the problem is, the child grows up believing that she is who the abductor tells her she is.
It is difficult to age enhance or progress a child under the age of three because the features are not clearly defined, but what is successful is doing an age composite. This is the process where a photograph of the mother and father at the age you want the child progressed to, is provided to the artist and he simply takes half from the mom and half from the dad.
For other cases, I do recommend continued age progressions and I continue to monitor the distribution of those posters. It is what the Center does best, and there is always a chance someone will see the poster and call to provide information. It is a way of keeping that case alive in the eyes of the public.
Some of the successes I personally have had with age progression is people seeing the poster, call in with significant information to provide to the police. Remember, that is my primary goal, generating solid information for the police to act on.
Vinyette Teague, abducted as a toddler from her home in Chicago,age progressed to 19.
If your missing loved one is registered with NCMEC, he/she qualifies for a free age progression done at appropriate intervals. Call your NCMEC Case Manager to start this process. For a more effective age progression, supply photos of the biological parents of the missing person taken at the current age of the missing person. If your missing loved one is not registered with NCMEC, (all missing persons under the age of 21 should be) contact Project Edan, who will also provide a free age progression.
What about DNA and the new initiative to get DNA of the family members in CODIS? Can you tell us about that and how families go about doing that?
CODIS is the Combined DNA Index System and it is set up in four parts. Imagine a cross. On the upright beam at either end, sits a database. One end has the offender database and contains all the DNA profiles taken from prisoners and in some states, people who are arrested. On the other end is a database that has all the DNA evidence from unsolved cases. Once a week, these databases are compared and a “cold hit” might develop. A “cold hit” happens when DNA evidence from an unsolved crime is matched with someone in the prison population.
On the cross beam are two other databases, one has DNA from missing persons or families of missing persons, the other end has the DNA taken from Unidentified remains of deceased and unknown living (amnesia victims, elderly suffering from dementia) and those databases are scanned once a week as well. The databases are separate from the Unsolved and Known Offenders.
There are several ways a family can contribute to the database of missing persons. One is to contact the local FBI office and sign a wavier. The FBI will then take a blood spot sample (simple prick on the finger) and send it to their lab and it will be profiled.
If the missing is a person under 21 and the parents are willing, contact NCMEC and request a wavier. We will mail you a wavier and send a buccal swab kit (cotton swab for the inside of the cheek) to the police department in your community. An officer must be the one to take the swab. Your swab is sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center and the swab will be profiled and entered into CODIS. The reason the FBI requires a blood spot and the other uses buccal swabs is the equipment at the lab. The FBI’s lab uses blood spot, the other doesn’t. Both are reliable methods of securing DNA.
Important note to all families of the missing: If your missing loved one has been gone for more than 30 days, and you do not have anything of theirs for to process for DNA, you may get your own (or other appropriate family member) DNA processed FREE of charge and entered into CODIS by the DNA lab. (Even if you do not live in the same state as where the person went missing, you can still do this.) Contact the LE handling the case. If the person is over age 20, have them contact the National Center for Missing Adults at 1-800-690-FIND for instructions. If the missing person is under age 21, have call NCMEC at 1-800-THE LOST. If your LE refuses to do this, call these organizations directly for assistance.
In an ideal case where both parents are available, we need one sample from dad and two from mom. The reason is there are two types of DNA, nuclear and mitochondria DNA or mtDNA. Both can be used for identification. To visualize this, imagine a fried egg. The yolk of the egg is the nuclear DNA. It is what makes you a unique person. Unless you have an identical twin, no one else will have the same nuclear DNA as you. You get half of this from dad and half from mom. It is a form of positive identification, and is relatively inexpensive to profile.
The problem with nuclear DNA is it is not indestructible. Time and the post mortem changes will eventually degrade the nuclear DNA. To compensate for this, the other DNA (the white part of the fried egg) is mtDNA and this can be used. The mtDNA only comes from the maternal bloodline, all of the mtDNA of the sperm is in the tail of the sperm which breaks off when the sperm head hits the egg, so none of dad’s mtDNA stays. MtDNA is very hearty, mtDNA has been found and profiled from bones of Roman Soldiers from before the time of Christ.
The problem with mtDNA is it is not a form of positive identification, it is used in what we call an exclusionary or presumptive identification, because it is not uniquely you. You have the same mtDNA as your mother, grandmother, siblings, etc. It is also far more expensive to profile, but it is good enough to allow the coroner or medical examiner to issue a death certificate and release the remains to family.
As science goes forward and more and more is learned about genetics, one day DNA will be the gold standard for all identifications, but today it is not. Most identifications are made by visual examination from a family member, fingerprints and dental records. For a family to have a complete package, DNA in CODIS certainly ensures that the search for your child will continue after you are gone, but in a practical sense, having fingerprints and dental records close at hand are also good things to have.
What suggestions do you give to families who have troubles communicating with law enforcement?
I could write a book on this topic, so I will try to condense it. Very few families I deal with feel that Law Enforcement has done an acceptable job. Some of this is due to one fact, their child is still missing, others have legitimate beefs with how their case was handled. Here are some suggested strategies in dealing with law enforcement:
First, remember that most in law enforcement have families and have the same fears and concerns as other families. It is very difficult to relate information to anxious parents when there is nothing to relate. First rule, cut them a little slack, but not much. It is their job, hard as it can be at times.
Second, remember that most investigators work on percentages. That means when you report your child missing without any facts to suggest otherwise, most cops will mentally compute that over 96% of missing children cases are either runaways, or kids who have overstayed at one place and almost 96% of that group resolves itself in a few days. This is very difficult if the child has run away in the past. In some states, it is not a crime to be a runaway, so if a child is reported missing, is entered into NCIC as required and a file is started, the police have done about all they will do unless information is developed early on that the child is endangered.
Third, don’t just report the child as missing, ask the officer questions. Remember the responding officer is not necessarily the one who will work the case. Ask who will be working it, how to contact him or her, and then contact them. Become a face not a case. Some investigators might feel you are a burden, but this is your child, not hers and you have rights to be a part of the case up to a point, and you have to exercise that right, left alone, you may not hear anything for a while.
This next one is the toughest. What if there is information to suggest the child has been harmed, who do they go after first? The family. Why? History has shown that “stranger” murder of a child is very rare, less than one percent of the cases. Most children are harmed by a member of the family, or extended family and friends of the family. Going to you first is not the same as accusing you. It is just the police need to quickly eliminate what has proven to be the answer to so many cases so they then can move on. Despite the upset to the family, since the case of Susan Smith, procedure will dictate some investigation of the family. The longer you do not cooperate, the further behind the police get. Cooperate fully so they can move on.
The final word in bad communication: If you do not like the answers (or non-answers) ask to speak to the supervisor. If you were in a store and had a complaint about a sales clerk, you would take it to the store manager. The same applies here. I am surprised when many families tell me about the treatment they get from the detective who have not thought about asking the questions of supervisors. If you are served by a Sheriff’s Office, it is even more in your favor to move your questions up the ladder, the Sheriff is an elected official and like most politicians they want to keep the voter satisified.
What suggestions do you give to families who have troubles getting media attention?
Media attention is a fickle thing that no one, except the media have control over. We want every case to get media, but few do. Accusations about media coverage have even suggested the media only wants to do blue eyed blonde haired princesses and if you look at the cases that have received a lot of National attention, you would get that impression.
Remember that the media wants not just a story, they want an impact. In these cases, the impact is fear. “How could that happen?” comes when someone takes a young girl from her bedroom at night when the parents are asleep a few rooms away. This is a fear factor. A child goes to a Laundromat, never arrives, never seen again: Not so much of a fear factor.
We send every case of a Non Family Abduction, or a Lost, Injured, or Missing child to the National media so they cannot say, I didn’t know, but only a few get attention because of the circumstances, not because there is a child missing.
(The National Center for Missing Adults also sends out press releases on each new case.)
To get the attention of the nation, you first have to grab the attention of the local media. The Public Information Officer of the Police Department can assist you with contacts. Remember, the majority of recoveries made are made because the media, ALL media, gets involved. They do make a difference, it is just their decision as to what to get involved and what not to, is what everyone is concerned about.
Do you have conversations with families about looking for their missing among the unidentified deceased? How do you approach this?
I approach the families about searching the unidentified remains cases by simply telling them the truth in the softest way I can. I tell them that my unit searches for their child on both sides of the curtain, one we will continue the previous search methods of posters, databases, etc because we will, but part of what we do that is different is to search through the deceased. I make no assumptions, and I tell them I don’t, that the child is alive or dead, we are just expanding what has been done in the past to include all possibilities. I need to explain this to all the families since part of what I want them to do is to contribute DNA profiles to CODIS, and there is no way of getting around the fact that the CODIS profiles are only compared with samples from mostly deceased persons.
I recommend that all families of missing persons, particularly ones who have been gone for more than 6 months, delegate someone in the family, friend, or neighbor, to actively peruse Internet listings of deceased John or Jane Does. While there are organizations that do this, such as the Doe Network, someone who knows the missing loved one better may be able to spot a potential match in a Doe. This is not an activity that just anyone can do, but typically in a family, there will be someone able and willing to do it.
When should a family look into declaring their missing loved one legally dead? What are the ramifications of doing this in regards to their open case?
There comes a point in time in every long term case that a decision needs to be made to have the missing person declared legally dead. What does this mean and why is it needed? The decision is needed for one reason and one reason only, so the estate of the parents can be probated without having to deal with complex issues as if that child were to walk in the door as the will is being read. It is only needed for that purpose and has no impact on whether or not the person is alive. It has no impact on the case, nothing we do will stop because of a legal declaration of death; it means nothing to us and should only mean to the parents that their estate will not have to deal with complications.
I counsel parents about this a lot, many feel they are admitting to the world their loved one is deceased and that means no one will continue the search. It is only an admission that time moves on, the parents grow old, and there may not be an answer before they pass.
This only needs to be dealt with as a legal issue, not a medical or investigative one.
Was there a case you worked with that you can discuss that was very difficult for you?
All are difficult in different ways. I have to, especially with the unidentifieds, separate what I see from what I could think if I let myself wander. I worked death cases and homicides for most of the 26 years I was an active investigator and you never get used to it, but you can develop compartments in your mind with firewalls to prevent what you see from having a negative effect on you and your relationships.
I did, however, have a major adjustment in coming here. In my previous job, almost 95% of my cases involved adults. Adult murders are different because in most cases, the victim was in some kind of risky behavior that led directly or indirectly to the death. No one deserves to die, but the term “innocent victim” is sparingly used when dealing with adults. Most of the child deaths were handled by our Domestic Violence Units because most were a result of some domestic issue, so my experience with child deaths was somewhat limited. Now I am working all child deaths, no adults. All children are innocent victims and a society that cannot protect its very young or its very old is not much of a society. I had to redefine and fine tune those compartments.
I found the discussion about “compartments interesting. I think that we, as families of the missing, also have our own set of compartments. I believe I have compartments to buffer the pain caused when thinking of the possibilities of Jason being dead and how he might have died. There are other compartments for dealing with the thought he may have left willingly and the set of emotions that come with that. Unless we have some type of internal buffers, how else could we deal with this ongoing trauma?
What gives you the most satisfaction about your work on a day to day basis?
I would like to say on a day to day basis, satisfaction comes from finding someone or identifying someone, but the fact is, that is the saddest part of my job, and if it were to happen on a daily basis, I don’t think I would still be here. While finding someone who is no longer living or identifying someone as their child brings a chapter in a book to an end, in my mind, there is no such thing as closure.
Closure means an end, and while the immediate issue of not knowing what happened is closed, the door opens on “who did this” and seeking justice.
A word about “closure”: Closure seems to be a pet word of the media. As Jerry says, there really is no closure. In Jerry’s example, it is just a new part of the journey. Even if a missing person is found, there are emotional and other adjustments to be made and various feelings to sort out. Once you have a missing person in your life, nothing is ever “normal” again, therefore no closure. Most families of the missing prefer to use the word “answers”, or something similar.
In many cases I have, the manner of death is undetermined which means we don’t know what happened. During the post mortem changes, signs of violence to the body disappear, and unless it was blunt force trauma or gunshot, most of the bodies we identify have no signs of violence. This is particularly frustrating, because of the age, it is obviously that old age and disease didn’t kill them, someone had them in the woods, on the lake, whatever, but courts deal in what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The only real satisfaction I have on a daily basis is working with the victim families. A lot of times, our conversations are not about the child, but about how they are coping and what is going on with them. I like to believe it is of some comfort to them that someone is continuing the search for their child.
And here I concur with Jerry. Talking with families of the missing gives me satisfaction as I feel our conversation has given them comfort at a deep level. We do not often get the good news that someone was found safe, so our success must be measured in any positive feelings we can instill in the family members we serve.
Yesterday, I said I would comment on the section that stated: “More education, training and laws need to be in place to make any missing person, adult or child, a case to be worked as a priority case until such time, a decision based on facts, can be made.”
The Department of Justice has drafted a state law that covers all aspects of a missing person’s case, including responding and DNA matters. It would be up to a person or persons in their own state to get a senator to sponsor this law and attempt to get it passed. It merits reading and strong consideration for those of you who are activists. As this is too lengthy for this post, I encourage you to read the synopsis and then the full text of the proposed law here http://www.dna.gov/m_person/model.html
Once again, I want to thank Jerry for taking time from his busy schedule to talk to us. Jerry, may you be blessed with a strong body and sound mind so that you can continue to be the “Cold Case King” for many years to come.