A traveling carnival worker found dead in Farmingdale six months ago. Unearthed skeletons dating back to 1978. Half of the 10 sets of remains discovered amid the ongoing Long Island Serial Killer investigation.
These are among the 38 sets of unidentified human remains that Nassau and Suffolk county coroners have been trying for years to identify. Under a recently enacted New York State law, medical examiners are now required to list descriptions of such remains in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a federal database designed to help identify John and Jane Does. But adding to the difficulty in finding matches is the site’s underutilization and a funding fight that could hamper its efforts.
“NamUs is one of he most underutilized tools, not just from law enforcement, but also from the public,” said retired NYPD Det. Joseph Giacalone, a former cold case investigator. “It’s one of the greatest tools that can be used to solve some of these cases, but no one knows about it.”
Out of the 11,287 open cases of unidentified deceased persons nationwide listed in NamUs, 1,289 are in New York State, including 27 in Suffolk and 11 in Nassau, as of this story. NamUs is credited with helping put names to 35 percent of cases listed in its database since it was launched nearly a decade ago. It also has functions for missing persons and identified unclaimed deceased persons.
In June of this year, state lawmakers passed legislation requiring medical examiners statewide to upload data on unidentified dead people into NamUs, the governor signed the bill into law a month later and it took effect in September. Although the lawmakers who crafted the legislation concede that the law doesn’t specify whether data has to be updated retroactively or only moving forward, they cited at least one case in which an upstate medical examiner’s office did just that and promptly solved a case.
County medical examiners in New York State are required to upload dental records, fingerprints, photos and other physical details they have to describe unidentified people who died—some by homicide, some not—in their jurisdiction into NamUs. The law doesn’t require coroners to enter DNA records, but NamUs records show local coroners enter such info when they have it available. Both counties had used NamUs before the law was passed, but Dr. Michael Caplan, Suffolk’s chief medical examiner, recently issued a memo to staffers to ensure they use it.
“In order to…maximize the chances for obtaining accurate scientific identification, it’s in the interest of the medical examiner to facilitate that access as best as we can,” said Caplan, who helped draft the state’s NamUs law.
New York is the second state to pass a NamUs requirement after Connecticut. Congress has failed to pass a national version of the legislation. With the majority of states having spotty voluntary usage of the database, NamUs officials have taken to urging state legislatures to pass such measures instead.
“We are pleased to see that New York has taken this positive step forward,” NamUs spokesman Todd Matthews said. “No amount of hard work and effort can assemble a puzzle with missing pieces.”
Matthews noted that despite the progress, NamUs is worried about recent cuts to federal grants funding hundreds of DNA tests annually for family members nationwide seeking to identify missing loved ones. He hopes that the change in administrations could reverse those cuts.
Back in New York, county medical examiners statewide have long since been required to report information about unidentified remains to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) so that law enforcement agencies can share information on such cases. But the DCJS database is not open to the public like NamUs, which restricts some information, such as DNA and dental records, to members of law enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched NamUs to help investigators, coroners and victims’ families identify the more than 1,000 people nationwide left unidentified annually more than a year after they die. The nameless dead are often buried in anonymous mass graves in a potter’s field, such as New York City’s Hart Island just off the Gold Coast, where more than 1 million dead are interred.
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Compounding the difficulty in putting names to those who die in anonymity is the lack of NamUs’ use, which is not unlike how most law enforcement agencies don’t use the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program—known as ViCAP for short—system designed to help investigators solve violent crimes committed by the same offender across jurisdictions.
Despite this, NamUs still helps advance cases. NamUs made national news when it contributed to the biggest revelation in years in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case during last week’s sixth anniversary of police finding the first victims dumped along Ocean Parkway. NamUs was updated—following prodding by filmmakers Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills—to clarify that skeletal remains dubbed Jane Doe No. 3 found near Jones Beach in ’11 were determined via DNA to belong to an unidentified woman’s torso found in 1997 in Rockville Centre, as the Press first reported. Investigators in effect said the woman, dubbed “Peaches” because of her fruit tattoo, is the mother of Baby Doe—the lone child found on Ocean Parkway.
“By requiring all medical examiners in New York to report identifying information on unidentified remains to NamUs, the [law] will increase the probability that human remains can be identified,” said Assemb. Steve Otis (D-Rye), who sponsored the bill.
Otis noted that there are neither penalties for noncompliance nor deadlines for compliance, other than the law stating the information needs to be shared “promptly.”
“I’m not quite sure how that is defined in practice,” Otis told the Press.
State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), who sponsored the senate version of the law, is nonetheless optimistic that the new requirement will help bring justice and closure.
“When medical examiners and coroners in New York State report unidentified human remains and other forensic data to NamUs, the entire country benefits,” Savino said. “Law enforcement, families and all others involved in finding missing persons will have a greater possibility to solve one crime, a series of related crimes, and most importantly provide closure to grieving families who have lost loved ones with no explanation.”