More than 20 years after her sister Paula Davis disappeared, Stephanie Clack went to a newly created federal website which matches missing-person cases with unidentified human remains, and quickly unraveled the disturbing mystery that for so long had haunted her family.
“We held out hope all these years until that day. But it means a lot. Finding out what happened to Paula brought some closure,” said Clack, whose sister had been found strangled in Ohio just 14 hours after she had disappeared in Missouri in 1987. “We would not have known without NamUs.”
NamUs, the acronym for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, is a powerful, fully searchable online Justice Department database used for investigating and solving missing and unidentified person cases nationwide. It is the one place where everyone across the country interested in solving such cases—law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners, victims’ advocates and families—can share information.
The NamUs project, led by Charles Heurich and his team at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), was formally launched in 2009, and has been slowly but surely growing and gaining traction. In the past two years, NamUs has helped resolve cases involving 44 unidentified persons and 65 missing persons. The site has received more than 750,000 visitors, logged in data on approximately 7,000 missing persons and 8,000 unidentified individuals, and has been adding new cases every week.
Heurich was instrumental in getting the innovative project off the ground. He has served as an advocate inside government, played the role of mediator and moderator among the various stakeholders with different needs, overseen management and technical issues, handled funding and focused on new ways to expand the program.
“He has kept an eye on the goal while respecting the needs of competing interests,” said Michael Murphy, the coroner in Las Vegas. “He’s the one who says, ‘We need to look for solutions and make things happen.’”
Michael Sheppo, Heurich’s supervisor and the director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at NIJ, said his colleague is “an affable person who melds together the technical computer wonks with the medical examiners, the coroners and law enforcement.”
“I credit him with the success of this project. He works with diverse groups who often have different goals and brings them together,” said Sheppo.
Heurich said the lack of a public nationwide database hindered the ability of investigators, medical examiners and coroners, and families to make links between missing person cases and unidentified human remains. There are an estimated 100,000 active missing person cases throughout the country and as many as 40,000 sets of human remains that have not been identified, a situation that some have described as our nation’s “silent mass disaster.”
NamUs provides unprecedented access to fully searchable information, brings fresh eyes to every case, reaches across jurisdictional lines and often provides investigators with new data. In addition, the system automatically cross-searches the missing against the unidentified, and presents potential matches to investigators, dramatically reducing search time.
Heurich said the key to getting NamUs up and running was bringing all of the interested parties into the same room, letting them explain their concerns, and then making it clear that the problems “can’t be solved by only one part of the criminal justice system.”
A sizable number of law enforcement agencies, coroners, medical examiners and families with missing loved ones, however, have not yet entered data into the NamUs system. This is because they don’t know about the database, are wedded to thinking locally about cases, or don’t have the time and resources. But Heurich said word is spreading and the potential impact will be significant and meaningful.
“The biggest benefit is the human part of the story,” said Heurich. “We are helping families resolve issues of missing loved ones who may have been murdered or met a violent end. Their families don’t know what happened.”
In the case of Paula Davis, her sister recognized the description of two unique tattoos listed in the database case file—a unicorn and a red rose—and that led her to contact the law enforcement authorities and unlock the mystery. Davis was recently reburied near her mother in Missouri.
In another case, a police officer in Omaha, Neb., entered the name and data for Luis Fernandez, missing since July 2007, into the NamUs system in March 2009. A citizen sleuth noticed similarities with an unidentified case and tests concluded it was a match. Because a coroner in another state had also used the system, the agencies were able to identify Fernandez, who was murdered, and then close their cases and return his remains to his family.
“As more cases are coming into the system, we are getting more successes,” said Heurich. “It doesn’t always bring closure to the families, but it brings some resolution.”
This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and Law Enforcement Medal in 2020.