By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Authorities in Virginia have identified the body of a teenager who went missing 14 years ago in their first success using a new nationwide database that seeks to put names on thousands of dead people who have gone unidentified, sometimes for decades. Prosecutors in Maryland hope to use the same system to finally close a homicide case that has resulted in a mistrial and a hung jury.
The U.S. Department of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, is an online tool aimed at naming the countless John and Jane Does whose remains have been shelved in the offices of medical examiners and police forensic labs across the country. It matches missing persons cases with the nameless bodies or skeletons.
Police, medical examiners, coroners and family members all have access to the database, and they try to take information from the years-old missing persons reports and match them to details from the dead bodies.
In the Virginia case, a detailed description of Toussaint Gumbs's body -- down to a scar on the 16-year-old' s thigh -- was entered on the site. A volunteer surfing the Web flagged the similarities with reports of Toussaint's disappearance in Richmond. Using the latest DNA technology, officials helped confirm the teenager's death and finally gave his family an answer.
For Robert Gumbs, who was convinced that his son had gotten into drugs and run off with friends, the truth brought pain but also a chance to mourn.
"I just started screaming in my room," said Gumbs, who lives in New York and learned of his son's death in recent weeks. "I never thought that he was dead. The last words he said to me was, 'Pop, I'll be right back, because we have to talk.' "
Kristina Rose, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, said the potential for NamUs is extraordinary. "Instead of having this fragmented system where people go to coroners, to medical examiners, to law enforcement, we have everything in a central repository," she said. "People can participate in identifying their loved ones. They are the ones who are going to work late into the night to go through the case files."
Each year, about 4,400 sets of unidentified human remains turn up in parks, woods, abandoned houses and other places, according to a 2007 federal report. Although authorities quickly identify most of them, about 1,000 are still unknown a year later. Estimates of the total vary widely, from 13,500 to 40,000.
The Web site linking the rolls of the missing with the descriptions of the dead is growing daily as authorities and family members add entries. It is a sad catalogue of clues, some gruesome, some mundane. A woman who died in Rock Creek Park in February 2008 carried lip balm and a bag of wrapped hard candy in the pocket of her blue winter coat. A young man killed in a fiery 1983 car crash in Montgomery County had a mustache. In 1976, a woman's headless, fingerless body, naked and bound, washed up on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
"There are mothers and fathers that, for years, wake up every day wanting to know what happened to their child. That's why we do this," said Arthur Eisenberg, co-director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which works to identify remains and provides free DNA testing to family members of the missing.
The database gives hope to people such as Darlene Huntsman, who has never stopped searching for her sister, Bernadette Caruso. One day in 1986, Caruso, among the more than 100,500 people reported missing nationwide as of this month, left her job at a Baltimore County jewelry store. The young mother has not been seen by her family since.
Huntsman painstakingly entered each known detail of her sister's disappearance in NamUs, knowing that any fact could be the one to trigger a match. Caruso probably wore her Mickey Mouse watch. She was dressed in a black tank dress, with a pink tank underneath, and pink flats. She left Eastpoint Mall about 5:05 p.m. that September evening.
Huntsman and other family members also gave genetic samples to be compared to those from bodies and skeletons. "It makes you feel like you are doing something for that person," Huntsman said. "You feel that she knows that you are still trying."
The concept of the database was born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, when the challenges of matching missing people with human remains became clear. Medical examiners and coroners began to enter descriptions of unidentified remains in 2007, and there are now 5,225 in the database, including 273 from Maryland, Virginia and the District. This year, missing persons cases were added; there are 1,772 open cases.
This month, NamUs began automatically comparing profiles and sending alerts to law enforcement or families when a missing persons report bears similarities to unidentified remains. But so far, successes have largely come from family members of victims, or others, who scan the site.
Those possible matches are critical to forensic sleuths, who can then work to match facial features or dental records, said Kevin Whaley, a Virginia assistant chief medical examiner. At the same time, the latest DNA testing allows scientists to extract genetic material from bones and compare it to samples from surviving family members.
In Virginia, the Department of Forensic Science and the medical examiner's office have been awarded a $443,682 federal grant to help identify almost 100 sets of human remains stored by medical examiners in the state and investigate an additional 177 cases dating to the 1970s.
Brad Jenkins, a Department of Forensic Science analyst who worked on the Toussaint Gumbs case, said that by using mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists might be able to get answers where traditional genetic testing falls short. "We have bones and skeletons that are 10 or 20 years old," Jenkins said. "We can go back and revisit those cases."
NamUs might have provided an answer, and more evidence, for Anne Arundel authorities who twice have tried to prosecute a homicide case without the body of a 21-year-old man authorities say was killed in 2007. The first attempt ended in a mistrial, the second in a hung jury.
A forensic scientist looking at the database noticed that a partial skeleton found last year in Baltimore that had an orthopedic screw in the leg seemed to match a description of Michael Francis. Kristin Fleckenstein, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office, said there are indications that the remains are Francis's but that her office is awaiting the results of DNA tests.
"We have taken this case to trial without a body, and we are prepared to do that again," Fleckenstein said. But she added that seeking a murder conviction without a body "does present a hurdle."
For Bernadette Caruso's family, July marks a sad milestone: She has been missing for as long as she had been with them. Caruso would have celebrated her 46th birthday July 2.
"We never thought it would take this long to find out what happened to her," Huntsman said. "We'd like to see her remains be found. We'd like to give her some justice."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
By Maria Glod