A Silent Epidemic
Several years back, I became involved in trying to give an unidentified woman her name back. She was found off of a service road in Brazoria County, Texas. This area of Texas has become known as “the killing fields”. There were many murdered women who were dumped in and around this area in Brazoria County. September 10, 1990, when a local pulled off of the road to relieve himself, he found skeletal remains near an old tire. With the remains was jewelry; one being a 1975 class ring from Robert E. Lee High School. According to the medical examiner, her remains had been there for a few years. No one knew who she was. To this day, she remains unidentified.
What intrigued me about this particular case was the Class of 1975 Robert E. Lee High School class ring that was on her finger. The school was located in Houston, Texas, and has since been renamed “Lee High School”. One would think that this would be a great clue and would make the chore of identifying her very easy. That proved not to be the case. During this time, I had a website that was a database of sorts and contained information on many missing and unidentified person. It was called someoneknowsme.com.
Unidentified missing always make me sad because they have been found, but their families may wait for years or may never know that their loved one’s remains were found. They have a name, but no one knows it until DNA is matched, and sometimes that takes a very long time. That was the thinking behind the website name — someone knows me. This girl did not have a name, and as an act of respect we gave her the name “Princess Blue” signifying the color of the stone inlaid into the class ring. My former admin at someoneknowsme.com, myself and others found a Robert E. Lee High School 1975 yearbook for sale on ebay and purchased it. We harvested the names of students from the Class of 1975 and searched tirelessly to find their location, and sent hundreds of letters out with Princess Blue’s composite and a photo of the ring hoping that someone knew who this young lady was, or might have heard of someone whose daughter was missing. The ring was a woman’s ring, size 9.5 and had been upsized twice, from an original 7.5. Because of the resizing, any markings or initials in the band would have been wiped out. We realized this was a long shot, but was worth the effort just in case.
Princess Blue was too young to have graduated in 1975. When the medical examiner did a second study of her remains it was determined that she was white, but with some African-American ancestry and around 17-21 years old. We had been in contact with the detectives on her case, and provided all of the information that we had gathered, as well as a photo overlay that I had done of Princess Blue and a missing woman named Kimberly Cheatham.
Kimberly was last seen in Dallas, Texas on April 12, 1989. She was supposed to go to a cousin’s residence to do her laundry, but never arrived there. She has never been heard from again. A short time after Cheatham’s disappearance, her car was found abandoned outside of Dallas, covered with brush. There was no sign of her at the scene. She is believed to have been taken against her will. Few details are available in Kimberly’s case. It is suspected that she met with foul play. When the overlay was done on Princess Blue’s composite and Kimberly’s photo, we were hopeful that we had identified her. We had been able to locate Kimberly’s mother and facilitate her DNA swab to be submitted into CODIS so an analysis could be initiated to determine if she was Princess Blue. Kimberly’s mother was getting up in her years and her words to me were that she did not want to leave this world without locating her daughter. Understandably, this was heartbreaking to hear her pain in not knowing where her child was. Her DNA was submitted and it was not a match. We were able to generate some press for Princess Blue in 2007 when the Houston Press did a story on her case and the plight of unidentified missing persons.
Sadly, Princess Blue’s case is not unique. There are more than 40,000 Americans in morgues throughout our country. Over the last 50-years their remains were pulled from watery graves or from dead end roads similar to the secluded area that Princess Blue was dumped. These people were found by unknowing hunters or individuals who were just out for a nature walk never expecting to come across human remains. They all share a common name – Doe. They are the unidentified persons who sit in medical examiners’ coolers until the day that they are identified and returned to their loved ones for proper interment.
The International Homicide Investigators Association president states that the number of unidentified persons in the United States is probably more like 60,000. Nearly all have been murdered and their bodies disposed of. At any given time there are more than 100,000 missing persons across the nation. Even more frightening than the number of persons who remain unidentified is the fact that only 15% of these individuals have had DNA samples collected and entered into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). CODIS fosters the exchange and comparison of forensic DNA evidence from violent crime investigations and is responsible for identifying some of the nameless. Even though CODIS is a wonderful tool that provides DNA analysis, it is not utilized to the fullest extent because medical examiners are not required to enter DNA of unidentified persons into the database. Only a few states require that medical examiners do so. This causes a stall in an investigation, and if the unidentified person has already been buried or cremated, it makes it impossible to ever be able to identify them through DNA.
There is also a terrible backlog in obtaining DNA analysis information. There are only three labs in the United States that are allowed to upload DNA information into the CODIS database. There is a 6 to 9-month backlog and there is a massive shortage in trained research analysts which further stalls the retrieval of DNA input.
It is hard to believe that there are that many unidentified persons. Families who may be looking for a missing loved one may never find their loved ones if their DNA has not been entered into CODIS. Everyone deserves to have a name.
The Doe Network does an outstanding job of indexing unidentified persons, as well as missing persons. They have sorted the data into time periods, by gender and by geographic location where the remains were found or from where the individual went missing. It is a great resource and I encourage everyone to go over and take a look at the site. Who knows – maybe you will be responsible for giving someone their name back.