Recently, it was announced that the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NaMus) was slated to lose its funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) as of January 1. As a result, NaMus was scheduled to cease all operations and support to law enforcement agencies across the country. The NIJ cited funding limitations and significant program modifications as the reasons for this potentially detrimental decision.
Structure of NaMus
NaMus was established with the overall objective of providing support services to law enforcement, medical examiners, and relatives of missing family members. It originated with the launch of the Unidentified Persons database followed by the Missing Persons database, established in 2007 and 2008, respectively. In 2009, these two databases were combined to provide better cross-case comparisons and analyses. It is the only centralized repository and online search service of its kind.
As NaMus grew, a fingerprint unit and analytical division were added in 2012 to provide additional resources to officials in the criminal justice system.
These divisions expanded in subsequent years, combining efforts with the FBI’s Latent Print Unit and Next Generation Identification System. The most recent addition to NaMus was the Victim Services Division, established in 2019 to provide support and updates to families of victims and missing loved ones.
What Services does NaMus Offer?
Through its online portal, NaMus offers an advanced search engine to help document and search for missing persons throughout the U.S. Registration is free and users may input details about a missing, unidentified (often referred to as John or Jane Does), or unclaimed body. Details available for input include physical descriptions and distinctive identifying features such as jewelry, tattoos, birth marks, and other markings; also demographics, last known location, and circumstances under which the person went missing.
Users receive a list of potential matches accompanied by case file information previously entered into the data base by law enforcement. They also receive a map illustrating the locations of each reported unidentified victim included in the search results. The goal is for family members of missing loved ones to conduct a search and, ideally, find a potential match between an unidentified body and their missing person. Following such a discovery, they can contact the law enforcement agency that entered the information about the unknown victim. Ultimately, this assists police in identifying unknown decedents and provides information and resolution to families missing a relative.
This process can also work in reverse. Members of the public may enter information about a missing person into the NaMus database, which law enforcement officials who have an unidentified victim can later cross-reference. The goal is to establish a positive identification of John and Jane Does.
In addition to the nationwide search engine, NaMus also provides forensic services, including dental records comparisons, fingerprint examinations, and DNA analysis. These services are provided free-of-charge and are conducted by the University of North Texas (UNT) Center for Human Identification.
NaMus forensic subject matter experts provide nationwide training and outreach opportunities. Their training seminars focus on the use of investigative strategies and forensic technology to resolve cases of missing and unidentified persons.
The Role of NaMus in Case Resolution
Currently, there are 80,000 to 90,000 missing persons cases in the United States. Additionally, there are approximately 40,000 human remains cases that law enforcement departments have been unable to identify, many of them victims of foul play. Law enforcement agencies do not have the manpower or resources to provide the attention needed to tackle every case. This has resulted in an overwhelming backlog sometimes referred to as the “Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” NaMus provides critical assistance and insight for many of these cases.
NaMus’ repository contains the records of more than 12,000 missing persons, over 11,000 unidentified bodies, and 2,500 unclaimed remains. Since its inception, the agency has assisted in solving 2,745 missing persons, 2,080 unidentified persons, and 138 unclaimed bodies. The statistics speak for themselves. NaMus has been a vital aid in achieving positive outcomes to thousands of cases nationwide.
NaMus in Action
The case of Mark Ashland is an excellent example of the collaboration between law enforcement and a citizen sleuth, both using NaMus. In 1984, the body of an unknown male suicide was found hanging in a Seattle park. Police were unable to identify him and no local missing persons reports matched his description. The body remained a John Doe for decades even though investigators had entered the man’s fingerprints into the FBI’s Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). In addition, general case information was logged into NaMus and the Doe Network. None of the databases returned any results and the case went cold.
Last year, a woman who ultimately turned out to be Ashland’s niece, perused the NaMus database looking for information about her uncle who had been missing for decades. Upon finding the John Doe profile that ultimately belonged to Ashland, she contacted the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office.
Although no DNA from Ashland was available for comparison, his niece did provide a letter he’d written. Investigators were able to obtain two fingerprints from that letter and match them to Ashland’s prints in the data base. After 35 years, the collaboration among multiple users of the NaMus database resulted in a positive identification. Finally, Ashland’s family had answers about their missing relative.
The Future of NaMus
Future funding for NaMus was in limbo for several days. As a result of negotiations with NIJ, the UNT Center for Human Identification awarded $4.3 million to fund the continued operation and management of the NaMus online search engine and all associated forensic assistance to law enforcement. It is expected that as DNA technologies advance, so will NaMus’ capabilities. Forensic genetic genealogy and DNA phenotyping are rapidly expanding subsets of DNA analysis and will likely be incorporated into NaMus’ future increases of its ability to solve cases.
About the Author: Jennifer Bucholtz is a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, Master of Arts in criminal justice and Master of Science in forensic sciences. Bucholtz has an extensive background in U.S. military and Department of Defense counterintelligence operations. While on active duty, she served as the Special Agent in Charge for her unit in South Korea and Assistant Special Agent in Charge at stateside duty stations. Bucholtz has also worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University and teaches courses in criminal justice and forensic sciences. Additionally, she is an instructor for the Department of State’s Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance and a licensed private investigator in Colorado. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bucholtz@mycampus.apus.edu.