A lab in Texas may provide the best chance at identifying three children whose teeth and bone fragments were found in a shed at a Missoula home earlier this year.
A cleaning crew, which was brought in to clear out the residence after tenants were evicted, found the box containing the remains in September. The Missoula Police Department opened an investigation to attempt to determine where the bones came from.
Earlier this month, the remains were sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, the lab used by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — or NamUs — a division of the federal Department of Justice. Police hope the lab will be able to extract DNA from the teeth and bones and potentially tie them to an existing case of missing children.
In addition to forensic units, NamUs is comprised of two main online, searchable databases: one for unidentified persons and another for missing persons.
Police in Michigan have been in touch with Missoula authorities about the remains, interested in whether there might be a tie to a case in that state where three brothers went missing in November 2010. The brothers' ages were close to the preliminary age estimates of the remains in the box.
Todd Matthews, director of case management at NaMus, said he wouldn’t discuss specifics of the Missoula case. But in cases where children go missing, NamUs would make attempts to get DNA samples from close family, as well as other biometrics information that might help identify them.
He said he’s been very impressed with the work at the lab at the University of North Texas and its ability to find and extract useful test samples from difficult to analyze remains, saying they have found DNA even on old bones or bones that had been long submerged in water.
“I don’t know how they do it but they find great samples over and over again,” he said. “I couldn’t think of having a better lab to do this.”
Hundreds of submissions for testing come into the lab every year, Matthews said, and many include multiple different samples to collect. When a DNA sample can be extracted, Matthews said it is sent to the federal government’s CODIS database for analysis and comparison against all other DNA samples the government has, including those collected from relatives of the missing.
Missoula police say that the NamUs lab told them DNA testing and analysis of the remains could take three to six months.
Because DNA testing can be so time intensive, Matthews said fingerprints or dental records can often be key in making a quick identification.
Earlier in the year, NamUs’ fingerprint unit and the FBI began a partnership to make sure all prints submitted to the lab are passed through the FBI’s system. This year alone, the partnership has led to more than 200 matches being found for previously unsolved unidentified persons cases.
He cited a recent case in Kentucky where skeletal remains were found. Even before they were moved and collected, an analyst was able to go to the scene with a laptop and testing equipment, and matched the remains to an existing missing person.
“Having it be that quick can be key. If we have dental records or fingerprints that we can compare, it can be lightning fast,” he said.
NamUs was formed in 2007 after a nationwide summit between federal and local law enforcement, coroners, forensic scientists, victim advocates and others.
The unidentified person database was active by that point, but Matthews said among the first projects he oversaw after joining NaMus that year was the creation of the missing persons system and the marrying of the two together.
“If you put an unidentified person in, it can automatically surface potential missing persons that match the time, age, gender or other characteristics,” he said.
While the NamUs database can be a very powerful tool for both the public and law enforcement, Matthews said he doesn’t think enough people know about it. He said he knows many missing and unidentified persons cases across the country have never been entered into it.
For example, he said, there are roughly 87,000 missing people entries in the National Crime Information Center database (used exclusively by law enforcement agencies) but only 14,000 currently in NamUs.
In Montana, while the NCIC database shows 151 cases of missing people, NamUs’ missing list only has 63 entries.
Some states such as Tennessee, where Matthews works remotely for the program, have passed legislation mandating that law enforcement enter missing persons into the NamUs system. He said he thinks more states — especially rural ones like Montana — would benefit by having such a mandate as well.
“Without all of the cases, it’s like trying to put a puzzle together with missing pieces,” he said. “A missing man with a bulldog tattoo in Tennessee might be a John Doe in Nevada. And that’s actually happened.”
Anyone can submit a missing person case to the NamUs system, Matthews said, although they won’t appear in the online database until the report is verified through local law enforcement. Once that happens, family and friends of a missing person can start submitting more information to be put into the file, which can be everything from last known location or photos of the individual to DNA collection from family members.
Matthews’ staff will also work with family to try to track down other important records like fingerprints, or get in touch with a dentist to add detailed dental scans and records to the missing person’s file.