Wednesday, November 23, 2005

11/23/05 The Fight for Jennifer Part I

Jennifer's story is part of a series which explains the problem of unidentified deceased (UID) in the US.

Jennifer is the lovely daughter of Susan Wilmer, as introduced to us in the news article from yesterday's post. Jennifer disappeared in 1993 at age the age of 21 from Willow Creek, CA. She is still missing. Her mother, Susan, was thrust into a world of fears, anxieties, and additional struggles that went beyond just the emotions pertaining to the loss. It seems rather unfair that not only must we lose our child, but that we also end up fighting a system that seems ill-prepared for this scenario.

Susan shares the story of this fight for her daughter in her own words. My commentary is in blue.

"Like so many of us, I truly believed that once Jennifer's information was entered into the NCIC, a search, of sorts, would go on. I naively thought that "a wire" would go out to all law enforcement. A few days after the entry, I literally breathed a sigh of relief. I remember thinking that at least her body hasn't been recovered - that was a good thing.

It's a common misperception that when the missing person is entered in the NCIC, that it is a true missing person's database, and that a broadcast of the information follows. When police told me that Jason's info was being sent out, I assumed (wrongfully) that on every shift, officers looked at his photo and data. Rather, a BOLO (Be On the LookOut) is a radio-type broadcast that may not neccesarily be heard by all officers. The NCIC is a LE only database used for queries. It's not a database in the traditional sense of the word, and in the way that we might envision it.

Then, eight months into the search, I received a call. A young woman had been found, her body parts thrown in a bag which was tossed on the side of a highway in Shasta County in Northern California. As this county neighbored Trinity County where Jennifer disappeared from, I took an interest in this case. I called the Sheriff of Shasta County and explained Jennifer's disappearance to him. He called Trinity County to get the particulars of the case and had his coroner compare the information to their body. About one long week later, he called and said he didn't think she was Jennifer but to be absolutely sure, he sent both files to Sacramento where the state labs would made the final decision. Again waiting about another week, he called and said that she was not Jennifer.

Immediately upon disconnecting, I stared at the phone and asked myself, "Why did I have to do this? Isn't this automatically done? Who was this young woman and is her family looking for her?" I instantly called the California Clearing House and asked their procedures for processing unidentified bodies. I discovered there was basically none. It was haphazard at best. I was told that day that I sounded that California's chief Odontologist who they said had been screaming about this for years. I realized Jennifer could be an unidentified body anywhere in this country and I would never know. With funds donated by my Police Athletic League, I wrote 1,500 Sheriff's Offices and Police Departments both in the US and Canada asking if they had recovered Jennifer's body. I received 1 reply from a RCMP in Canada whose response was no but he would hang Jennifer's poster in his station house.

It slowly dawned on me something had to be done so as other victims would not have to do such drastic acts as massive mailings.

I wrote legislation that would mandate the entering of all information on an unidentified body into the NCIC - Unidentified Person File (UPF), a vastly underutilized file of the NCIC system. I discovered that every day at midnight the UPF is merged with the Missing Person File (MPF) for possible matches but as stated above very few unidentified bodies ever made it into the file. Remember, this was 1994 when DNA testing was still in its infancy.

My Congressman, David Levy, offered to sponsor this legislation. Soon after working on "Jennifer's Law" he lost the election. I had to start all over again. Following a lobbying trip to Washington with a few dedicated supporters, Congressman Jay Johnson from Wisconsin stepped up as a sponsor. He was joined by Congressman Nick Lampson (TX) and Congressman Lantos (CA)as cosponsors. Well, you guessed it, Johnson lost the election and I was left high and dry again.

In the meantime, I was being told by many Congressman and Senators, that the FBI was informing them that they were opposed to such legislation. A mandate implies, that someone (the FBI) would have to police it and they did not want to take on this task. I acquired the phone number of the FBI guy who was writing our legislators this negative spin and called him myself. He was shocked at my call and told me he only dealt with Congress. I reminded him that his title was Head of Congressional and Public Affairs and I represented the public. I was granted a meeting at Headquarters to try to iron out our differences. This meeting was wasteful and I gained nothing.

I realized I would have to compromise. Congressman Rick Lazio came to the rescue and managed to get Jennifer's Law passed in record time. But the new Jennifer's Law lacked teeth. It granted money to law enforcement agencies to enhance the reporting of unidentified bodies. The newspaper article was wrong. Jennifer's Law had only two no votes in Congress and it passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. It was signed into law on March 10, 2001 by President Clinton in the Oval Office. "

The watered down version of Jennifer's Law that was passed offered some limited funding to states who voluntarily followed the mandate. The funding dried up a long time ago.

The Fight for Jennifer will continue............

Jennifer: Hauntingly Beautiful


Blogger Mimi said...

I am very glad that you are writing about this, Kelly. This is an issue that I strongly urge everyone to get involved with and make yourself heard! I had appointments last week with a couple of our Senators and the office of our first lady to discuss just this. It is criminal that our country does not mandate that all the states have a mandatory procedure to deal with this. I am holding my breath right now, awaiting the identity of remains found very near me. It is just crazy that with todays technology that more is not done to identify. I will continue to be very loud about this issue until someone listens!!!!
Bless you for your work, your heart and for the information that you pass on to us all.

9:40 PM  

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