Increased collaboration aids Justice missing persons cases

Monday - 7/11/2011, 12:39pm EDT

Charles Heurich, finalist, Service to America Medal

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By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Improved communications between state law enforcement and coroners may help bring closure to some of the 100,000 missing persons reports that are still open. The Department of Justice's new online database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), extends existing lines of communication across the country, bridging the disparity of reports filed in one state and remains found in another.

Charles Heurich, the program manager of NamUs, said in an interview with Federal News Radio that the idea for the program originated at a DOJ summit in 2005. The summit came to the consensus that, while missing children cases typically get a quick turnaround, reports of missing adults stagnate without much resolution.

"The adult population over 18 isn't given as much consideration when they go missing because they aren't children like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handle," Heurich said.

"From a census of medical examiners and coroners around the country, it's estimated that there could be as many as 40,000 sets of unidentified remains just sitting in coroners offices or evidence lockers and police departments, and that's something else we need to address," Heurich said.

Without much collaboration between state police forces, Heurich said NamUs helps alleviate the volume of unresolved cases by putting missing reports and coroners' reports of found remains onto the same platform.

"The missing persons cases that we generally take into the system are what we call 'long-term missing,'" Heurich said. "So anyone who's been missing for more than two weeks or upwards of 30 days, if they're missing longer than that, those are generally the cases that we want to get into NamUs because when a person goes missing and there is an active investigation, we allow the law enforcement agencies to take it as far as they can take it. And once all their leads are exhausted, we're asking them to please put those cases into our system."

Heurich said the NamUs system recently helped resolve a missing case dating back to the 1980s, in which a woman was reported missing in Missouri. When her body was found strangled in Ohio the next day. However, state police did not have the technology to reach out to other states once their local leads were exhausted.

"Nobody from those law enforcement agencies back in the 80s had the ability to communicate between the two agencies to share this information," Heurich said.

The missing persons record is available to law enforcement, medical examiners, and the general public, though the remains database exists only for police and coroners' offices.

Heurich said NamUs's top priority is to upload more cases onto its systems. "We need to do a directive outreach to law enforcement, medical examiners, coroners, and the general public, not only to get the recognition that the site is out there, but also to add the number of cases," he said. "The success [of NamUs] is going to be generated and only increased when we get more cases into it."

Heurich and the team behind NamUs have been selected as finalists for the 2011 Service to America Medal.

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Jory Heckman is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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