Public can search NamUs website for missing loved ones

Cold cases, missing persons among thousands listed

NamUs.gov is more than an acronym. It describes the mission of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System based at the University of North Texas Health Science Center since 2011.

Spokesperson Todd Matthews said NamUs is the first government database that can help the public search for their missing loved ones at no cost.

He said except for biological information, families have much of the same access shared by law enforcement agencies and medical examiners around the country.

Matthews said as a result, hundreds of cases have been solved.

"They're DNA hits. They're dental identifications, fingerprint identifications. It's just across the board," Matthews said.

He also said families can check separate databases for the missing and unclaimed remains, as well as enter their case within NamUs, provide additional information or learn how to submit their own DNA for a possible match.

"I think it gives the family more of a feeling of empowerment. They have something to do other than just walk the floors and worry," Matthews said. 

He also said that before NamUs came along, "Law enforcement were not talking to one another well enough."

Yet now, thanks to the internet, Matthews said they can narrow down possible leads by cross-matching  the missing and the unidentified.

He said for instance, "Six people could be a match to one unidentified body or vice versa. Then, it's a process of elimination."

Just down the hall from NamUs, there is the UNT Center for Human Identification, one of the nation's top forensic labs. Both are supported by the National Institute of Justice.

"The two biggest are really ourselves and the FBI that offer these type of services around the country," said Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, the center director.

He said more than half of the cold cases they handle involve homicide victims.

"It's almost impossible to start a murder investigation if you don't who the victim is," Eisenberg said.

Dixie Peters, a technical leader in the center's missing persons unit, said her team begins by extracting DNA from bones during "cut day."

Peters said a powerful saw carves out a portion of bone that is then pulverized.

However, that DNA is only part of the equation.

"We can develop all the profiles that we want from skeletal remains, but if we don't have the right family members, then sometimes we're not able to make those comparisons," Peters said.

Eisenberg said of the approximately 5,100 remains examined, 1,150 have been identified.

He also said the center has processed 14,000 reference samples from 8,000 cases using DNA technology.

"The best we can do is provide families with answers," Eisenberg said. "The majority of time those answers are not what they want to hear, but at least they know."

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