Missing Persons Primer

If you are a loved one, family member, friend, provider, or advocate of anyone who is missing, here is what you need to know and do:

You are not alone. There are resources for you. There are FREE resources for you provided at the end of this article.

What to Do?

  1. Make a law enforcement Missing Person Report and ensure that information is entered into the NCIC database accessed by police agencies nationwide;
  2. Enter your loved one into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System aka NamUs;
  3. Enter your loved one into the Doe Network;
  4. Assemble a list with contact information for the missing person’s BLOOD relatives;
  5. List all dentists and other physicians who have treated the missing person;
  6. List all instances where the missing person may have had their fingerprints taken(e.g., arrest or pre-employment background investigation);
  7. Determine the missing person’s cellular telephone information (phone number & cell phone provider);
  8. Locate photographs of the missing person that accurately depict how they look;
  9. Locate photographs of marks, scars, tattoos and their locations on the missing person;
  10. What clothing and jewelry was the missing person wearing when they went missing?
  11. Locate photographs of the missing person wearing that clothing and jewelry;
  12. Determine the missing person’s vehicle information (make, model, color, tag, VIN);
  13. Determine the circumstances that the person went missing;
  14. Who was the last person to see the person before they went missing?
  15. Educate yourself about "Our Nation's mass disaster".
  16. Do not become a victim;
  17. Volunteer and advocate for the missing and unidentified.

The Right to Go Missing...

It is not against the law to be missing. Law enforcement cannot arrest based solely on the fact that an individual is missing. There are many reasons why people go missing. To the loved ones left behind, there is the anguish of not knowing.

From a law enforcement perspective, the main concern when someone goes missing is that person’s safety. Is the missing person the victim of foul play or otherwise endangered? The only way to know if foul play is afoot (homage to Sherlock Holmes) is to locate the missing person as soon as possible and to conduct an immediate investigation. This means that you, the person left behind, must notify law enforcement immediately upon learning that the person is missing.

Unless you wave a passing police car down or walk into the police station or sheriff’s office, your first point of contact will probably be the 911 operator or police call taker/dispatcher. Tell the call taker that you wish to report a missing person. Reporting methods vary from agency to agency. Some agencies send uniformed police officers in marked police cars to your location to receive your information. Some agencies will take your information over the telephone. Other reporting methods require you to report on-line via a computer or hand write citizen report forms.

Regardless of the reporting method your law enforcement agency uses, make a Missing Person Report. Insist, if you must, to report your person missing. If you are put off or stalled by the police, ask to speak to a supervisor. A supervisor is someone with management decision-making ability. They should have more training and experience than lower echelon employees that they supervise. Hopefully you will get satisfaction from the supervisor.

Reporting a missing person to a law enforcement agency does several things:

  1. A law enforcement investigator will be assigned to follow up on the missing person report;
  2. The missing person will be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database;
  3. NamUs can publish the case with the NCIC and Police Report information;
  4. Only a law enforcement officer can handle evidence/DNA involved with this case.

NCIC is a nationwide law enforcement network. When the missing person is entered into NCIC, any law enforcement agency in the country that contacts the missing person can be notified. If you are reported missing in Florida and you get stopped for speeding in Washington state, the officer/trooper/deputy should check to determine if you are a wanted ax murderer. That officer/trooper/deputy will "run" you through NCIC. The fact that you are listed as a missing person will become known to that law enforcement officer.

What that law enforcement person chooses to do, once they know you are listed as a missing person, will depend on their training and experience. They cannot arrest you for being missing. They will not fly you home to the person who reported you missing. They may not even notify the law enforcement agency or investigator that they have located you. NCIC does, however, alert the agency that entered the missing person information that an inquiry was made by a specific law enforcement officer in the state of Washington. The investigator can then contact the officer/trooper/deputy to find out the circumstances of their meeting with the missing person.

Enter Your Missing in NamUs and the Doe Network

You can enter your missing person into NamUs, but ideally it is best for the law enforcement investigator assigned to your case to complete the NamUs entry. Not all law enforcement investigators are registered with NamUs. Some are not familiar with NamUs or even know of its existence.

The Doe Network is another resource to supplement NamUs. Utilize every tool available to you. There is no cost to enter your missing into NamUs or The Doe Network.

Don’t embarrass the agency or investigator if they don’t know about these resources. Your assigned investigator has had to complete a significant amount of training to become a certified law enforcement officer. To become an investigator, they must possess additional training and experience. While we think they know and can do everything imaginable, they are human — super human maybe — but human just the same. So just because your investigator is not familiar with NamUs, the Doe Network, or The President’s DNA initiative doesn’t mean that he is incompetent.

Become a friend, an advocate, and a supporter of your law enforcement agency. Help them get the assets that they need to attain your common goals. Being confrontational or critical will endear you to no one. Remember, law enforcement wants the same thing you do, work together as a team. Remember also that while your case is the most important case to you, it is only one of many that your investigator is assigned. Every case your investigator has is attached to someone just like you, who believes their case should be the top priority for the agency.

Successful investigations involve a systematic and comprehensive protocol — one that your investigator is familiar with. The successful investigation must exhaust all leads and utilize all resources. This takes time for the investigator to work through. Help your investigator and provide him all of the information he needs to be solve the case.

Plan for the Worst and Pray for the Best.

There is a reason that NamUs staffs odontologists and forensic anthropologists, and works in conjunction with the largest and most advanced DNA lab in the world. It is these professionals who work with the most advanced technology to identify the decomposed remains of unidentified persons.

This is the world within which your law enforcement investigator lives. Investigating equivocal death requires the greatest training and experience of all crimes. Emotions are the highest. Dynamics include the victim with its resulting crime scenes, the suspect, the evidence, witnesses, and the surviving families on both sides, victim and suspect, which sometimes are the same.

From the beginning you must work with your investigator to identify the remains of your missing person. Facilitate the collection of DNA from blood relatives of the missing person. Law enforcement can use family DNA to identify your missing person. The President’s DNA Initiative provides the means to make those DNA identifications.

Providing DNA is free and painless.

DNA kits, called "Family Reference Sample Collection Kits" are provided by the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The kits contain everything your law enforcement investigator needs to collect DNA samples from family members. DNA is collected from "buccal swabs." A buccal swab is a cotton swab that is rubbed against the inside of your cheek to collect your DNA sample.

DNA collected from family members to identify missing persons is compared only to unidentified persons. If you hesitate to give your DNA to law enforcement because you fear getting caught for some crime you may or may not have committed, don’t worry. Family members' DNA profiles can only be, and are only, compared to the DNA profiles of unidentified decedents in the National DNA Index System. Your DNA will not be compared to any other profiles in the system.

Help to locate dental records and x-rays. NamUs Odontologists work with dentists across the country to obtain missing person dental records. Your investigator must know who the dentist is and how to contact him.

A Forensic Odontologist can compare those records to a body to quickly make the identification. A Forensic Odontologist is a big name given to a dentist who is specially trained to make identifications based upon dental records and x-rays.

Surgeries or broken bones your missing person has had can help identify them. X-rays of broken bones can act like dental x-rays to identify. Knee or hip replacements, rods, screws, plates used to treat your missing person can also be used to identify. This is where the family can help to find this important information law enforcement can use to make the identification.

Fingerprints are not just for people arrested. All law enforcement officers are fingerprinted. All military personnel are fingerprinted. Many professions require personnel to be fingerprinted, and of course if you have ever been arrested you probably have been fingerprinted. Law enforcement fingerprint examiners can take these "inked" prints to identify, they just need to know that they exist and where to find them.

Clothing and Jewelry Offers Additional Opportunities

Clothing and jewelry can be used to help identify. Clothing and jewelry can also be used to solve crime. Some of the latest DNA technology involves "touch" DNA. This means that if the victim or suspect touched something that fact can be proved through the presence of DNA. Where that DNA is located is also an indicator of the relationship of the clothing to the victim or suspect. An article of clothing worn by someone will often have that individual's DNA on the inside of the garment that is closest to the body, necks and cuffs for example. A stretched or disfigured area on the outside of the clothing might indicate that that area was grabbed or held with force by a suspect.

Blood, incise/knife cuts, holes/bullet holes, gunshot residue, on the clothing, can all provide probative evidence to bring resolution to your missing person investigation. Too often the decomposed state of the victim means that the corresponding wounds to the body are no longer available. That makes the clothing all the more valuable as evidence.

If the body can be examined and matched to the clothing, these facts provide significant evidence to document manner and cause of death. Manner and cause is where the Forensic Pathologist lives. The Forensic Pathologist will conduct a forensic examination of the victim's body, when found. Their job is to determine only two things: manner and cause, just to describe their function in the simplest of terms.

The manner of death will fall into the following: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or unknown. The Cause of Death describes what brought about the victim's death. Gunshots, knife wounds, blunt force trauma, are all examples of a cause of death.

If the body is too decomposed for the pathologist to determine manner and cause, then the task will fall to the anthropologist. A forensic anthropologist examines the victim's skeletal remains for artifacts that will reveal the manner and cause. This is all very graphic but perhaps will prepare you for the worst possible scenario.

The human body is fragile. The sooner the missing person can be found the better for many reasons. The less decomposed the body the easier for the forensic pathologist to determine manner and cause. Witness memories will be much fresher. Evidence will still be present and less degraded. The faster you contact law enforcement the better their response can be.

Vehicle information is extremely important, if the person and their vehicle are both missing. Locating and identifying the vehicle can be as significant as finding the person, in a criminal investigation. Who had the vehicle when it was found? Could this person be involved with the disappearance? Is the vehicle the motive? Is there evidence in or on the vehicle that will link to a suspect? Consequently, it is important that you provide vehicle information when you make the missing person report.

Cellular telephone and other electronic technology are important. Is there anything else missing? Is the person’s cell phone, computer, iPad, or other electronic communication technology missing? The fact that someone took this equipment with the missing person might provide important clues. With whom was the missing person communicating around the time they went missing? Fortunately possessing the telephone or computer is not required to extract the important information from it. What is important is the ability to tell law enforcement that these items are missing with the person.

Victimology is Important

Victimology describes the victim and why they might have become a victim. For example knowing that the victim was a gang member might explain why they were shot in a drive by shooting. Knowing the victim's gang affiliation will tell investigators who would have a motive to commit the shooting. This puts the investigation going in the right direction immediately. The quicker that law enforcement can react the more success they have.

Sometimes, learning an individual's victimology is not flattering to the victim. Your law enforcement investigator is not going to judge your missing person based upon the fact that they were selling drugs or working as a prostitute. Knowing this will help law enforcement solve your case. Lying to investigators or withholding important information will not help find your loved one. Telling law enforcement everything will give them the tools that they need to succeed. Helping law enforcement succeed may save someone else's life and keep another family from the grief you are suffering.

Knowing who the missing person was meeting to complete a drug transaction could be important information in locating your loved one and solving the case. Don't jeopardize the successful search for your loved one because you don’t want to disclose sensitive information.
Your life has changed forever

If your missing loved one has been the victim of violent crime your life has changed forever. The degree to which it has changed and how it will affect you is completely your decision. Do not allow yourself to become a victim.

Educating yourself is one of the best ways to fight back. Throughout 2010, there were almost 700,000 missing person reports made to law enforcement agencies across the United States. On any given day, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 active missing person cases entered into the NCIC databases. It is estimated that there are also more than 40,000 remains in medical examiner's and coroner's offices across the United States, waiting to be identified. The number of missing and unidentified persons in America has been deemed "Our Nation’s mass disaster."

Free training is available and there are plenty of ways you can volunteer to fight back. Become an advocate and strive to find and identify those who are missing.