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By Joan Morris, Contra Costa Times

March 18, 2004

Five years ago Libba Phillips sister, Ashley, disappeared off the streets of Tampa, Fla; becoming what her sister believed was a sad statistic -- one of the more than 840,000 people who are reported as missing in this country.

But she was wrong. Police wouldn't classify 20-year-old Ashley as a missing person at all. Instead, Ashley became one of the missing, missing, as Phillips puts it -- one of the unknown thousands whose disappearance doesn't meet police criteria for an active search.

In 2001 the FBI listed 840,279 missing people, mostly juveniles, but experts believe the true number of missing people in this country easily tops 1 million.

Many of the missing, Phillips says, are people already forgotten by society: prostitutes, drug abusers, the homeless. In many ways, they disappeared long before anyone noticed.

In California, the Department of Justice reported 40,780 missing adults and 115,120 missing children in 2003. Not all of the cases involve foul play or kidnapping. Some are people who voluntarily chose to leave their old lives behind; a small number are mentally ill or people who suffer from dementia. Still others met accidental deaths, and their remains have yet to be located.

The state also has the remains of 2,200 unidentified people. In a concerted effort to identify the Jane and John Does, the state mandated the creation of a Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit under the Department of Justice.

The law also requires police departments throughout the state to take DNA samples from relatives of the known missing. The profiles are entered into a computer database to compare with the unidentified remains and any that might be found in the future.

The FBI operates the National Crime Information Center, which provides a wealth of information on crime, criminals, the missing and unidentified remains. But the system is under-utilized, Phillips said. Of the thousands of unidentified remains stored in morgues and buried in pauper's graves around the country, there are just 6,200 cases in the database.

The matching of remains with names is a difficult one. Often, the bodies retain few identifying marks. DNA is the best identifier, but a usable sample can be difficult to obtain, and if there is nothing to match it to, the mystery endures.

In recent years a volunteer organization has stepped up to try to bridge the gap between states and among police departments. The international Doe Network uses the Internet to post details on missing people throughout the United States and other countries.

The long, painful search for her sister led Phillips to volunteer with the Doe Network. She eventually became the area director for Northern California, based in Sacramento. She also created her own organization, Outpost for Hope, which publicizes the disappearance of people like Ashley -- people who fall through the cracks.

The problem, police officials say, lies in the sheer number of people who go missing. It would be impossible to actively search for them all; officers would have no time for anything else. So they prioritize. Those who are considered in the greatest danger get the most attention, both locally and nationally.

The search for missing people often comes down to families who hire private investigators, who call coroner's offices and hospitals throughout the country, and who post fliers and Internet notices.

That's how Phillips eventually came to locate her sister, four states from where she started, in February 2003. Ashley, in her fragile state, had ended up under the control of someone else. They traveled the countryside and Ashley eventually wound up in North Carolina.

It was Ashley, Phillips says, who found herself. She entered a drug rehab program and when she was released, a woman urged her to contact her family.

Phillips says her family got the happy ending they were seeking. Ashley married the man who helped her get into rehab. They now have a child and a stable home.

"Until you know, you don't give up," Phillips says. "Many of these families just want answers."