The case of the dirty bones
Written by Deborah Halber   

In October 2013, a father and son bought the contents of a locker auctioned off by a storage facility in Corbin, in southeastern Kentucky. Instead of the model trains they had hoped to find behind the rolling corrugated-metal door, they discovered yellow plastic grocery bags filled with what looked like weathered, dirt-encrusted human bones.

The man who had been renting the unit, Robert Allen Wood, had once lived in Corbin. Even after moving out of state, he continued to pay for the locker until he died in an Alabama hospital in May.

His wife, Doris Anne, had been missing since 1997.

The owner of the storage facility called 911, telling the dispatcher that he recalled that Wood had worked for him around the time his wife went missing. “Everybody thought for sure that he had killed her,” he said during the recording of the call obtained by a local TV station.

The local coroner declared that the bones—a jawbone, ribs, and femurs that looked like they had been sliced with a power saw—were human, and female. To confirm the suspicion that they had uncovered the remains of Wood’s missing wife, Kentucky and Delaware investigators turned to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

NamUs is a centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records, a free online system of three major databases—unidentified remains, unclaimed remains, and missing persons. U.S. law enforcement typically uses the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), both managed by the FBI, in searching for missing persons. Increasingly, officials are also turning to NamUs, which, unlike NCIC and CODIS, can be accessed by the public as well as by medical examiners, coroners, and law enforcement officials.

“By allowing the public to view and input potentially useful information to the missing-person database, NamUs is more comprehensive,” said J. Todd Matthews, director of communications and quality assurance for NamUs. “Those who best know a missing person can provide law enforcement’s best shot at an ID.” The data entered into the missing person database is automatically cross-referenced with the other two.

Tips for using NamUs

Tip #1—Know that help is out there.

“It’s easy to get frustrated by cold cases,” said Matthews. “No one likes hitting dead ends” such as the 16-year-old mystery of Doris Wood’s disappearance. The more law enforcement is aware of—and willing to take advantage of—resources such as NamUs, the better the chances that the unidentified will be reunited with their names.

Tip #2—Be careful what you ask for.

As many in law enforcement know all too well, following up on tips from even well-meaning citizens is time-consuming and not always fruitful. To minimize wild goose chases, make it clear you’re looking for specific information—is the tipster a potential witness? Does he or she recognize the victim? Does he or she remember being in a specific area on a certain day or time? Details from tips can be checked against those included in NamUs.

Tip #3—Act fast.

For any unidentified remains—especially those of suspected homicide victims—it is critical to collect and input dental records; DNA, if available; and fingerprints into the database as soon as possible. “We really need the biometrics,” Matthews said. “Without them, we only have theories. We need proof, which we can only confirm with hard data.”

Tip #4—Collaborate.

Matthews said he’s noticed that some officers investigating unidentified remains log in and start scanning for potential matches without first entering their victim. Are they playing their cards close to the vest or concerned that someone else will “steal and solve” their case? “Don’t try to solve it all by yourself,” he said. “We work hard to make sure everyone gets credit for their roles.”

Tip #5—Give your victim a face.

Matthews and others at NamUs can help arrange for an artist’s reconstruction, free of charge, that can dramatically boost the public profile of unidentified remains. If an exhumation is needed, Matthews has been successful in the past at arranging for the costs associated with exhumations to be donated or subsidized through grants.

NamUs staff, working with state officials, used dental records in October 2013 to reveal the identity of the remains as Doris Anne Wood, a petite, dark-haired 42-year-old who was last seen alive in Newark, Delaware, in summer 1997. There are still plenty of questions surrounding the case. Her husband was reportedly questioned at the time of her disappearance and never charged in connection with her death. But by facilitating a positive ID, Matthews noted, NamUs enabled the missing woman’s family to get closure and helped investigators take the next step in nailing down some answers.

For More Information

Visit NamUs.gov

About the Author

Deborah Halber is a Boston-based journalist and author. Her nonfiction book coming from Simon & Schuster in July 2014, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, provides an entreé into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes-wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains. See more at: www.deborahhalber.com

 
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