Database solves cold cases crossing state lines; Data shows the tool is not being fully utilized

U.S.

(NewsNation Now) — For more than a decade, scientists have used the NamUs database to crack nearly 5,000 cold cases. For one North Carolina family, in particular, it helped them solve a 20-year mystery that spanned multiple states.

NamUs stores the DNA of thousands of unclaimed bodies and matches them to missing person cases around the country. The program is fully funded by taxpayers.

The search for her cousin, Angie Toler, led Nona Best down a path to helping others. Best is the director of the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons. While ensuring other families find their loved ones, Best held on to hope that Angie would return one day.

She went missing in 1992 at the age of 21 after she left her North Carolina home for a trip with her boyfriend. Days later, he came back but she did not and her disappearance puzzled police for years.

Then, in 2011, a clue appeared right in front of Best’s face.

“I was at a NamUs training in Atlanta and there was a coroner there from Maryland. And He was flashing unidentified pictures and I saw one that looked very familiar,” said Best.

The photo was a sketch of a woman listed in the NamUs database as an unclaimed body.

“After the training, I went up to him and said ‘Can I see your slide show again?’ And he showed me his slideshow. I mean, it looked just like her,” said Best.

She rushed to North Carolina and got Angie’s mother to do a DNA test and sent it off to NamSs’ forensic scientists.

Weeks later, there was a match.

Authorities found Angie’s body near railroad tracks in Richmond, Virginia just days after she went missing in November of 1992. Princeton Police in North Carolina had her missing person’s report.

And just three hours away, Virginia officials had her body.

But the agencies were never in contact with each other until NamUs.

“They ruled her death as accidental hypothermia,” said Best. “Of course we don’t believe that. But that’s what they ruled it as. By the time we got ready to try to reopen the case, there wasn’t enough evidence.”

Stories like Best’s inspired North Carolina State Rep. Allen McNeill.

In 2019, lawmakers unanimously voted yes to the bill he sponsored, which required all law enforcement agencies in the state to enter missing person cases into NamUs after 30 days.

“Missing persons cases are like any other crime…time is of the essence,” said McNeill.

Ten other states have similar laws but data shows many agencies are not using NamUs.

About 10,000 missing person cases are filed each year, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. But there are only about 400 North Carolina missing cases listed in NamUs’ database.

The FBI reports during 2020, law enforcement entered more than 540,000 missing person cases into the FBI’s national database. There are only about 20,000 missing person cases total entered in NamUs.

“Occasionally, I look at NamUs and I see that I think there are some agencies in the state that are not entering them,” said McNeill.

McNeill says technically those agencies are breaking the law, but it’s a law without a set penalty.

Several police officers NewsNationNow.com spoke with say without added state funding or personnel to help officers with the requirement, it’s hard to meet that 30-day deadline. 

NamUs officials say they are staffed to primarily support long-term cases. They recommend — unless someone is endangered — the deadline should be from 180 days to 1 year. 

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