"Mountain Jane Doe" in Harlan, Kentucky is one of more than 10,000 unidentified bodies in the country.

“Mountain Jane Doe” in Harlan, Kentucky is one of more than 10,000 unidentified bodies in the country.

Scott Anger for Reveal

It’s a grim question, but an important one: How many unidentified bodies are in the United States?
The answer is at least 10,000. However, there’s no federal requirement that local authorities report these Jane and John Does to a centralized system. That means it can be difficult for the families of missing people to connect the dots between the missing and the dead.
This disconnect is the subject of a project called “Left for Dead” from Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX.
OPB’s All Things Considered Host Kate Davidson spoke with investigative reporter G.W. Schultz about the project.
The following is an edited transcript.


Q&A with G.W. Schultz

Kate Davidson: How many unidentified bodies are in the United States?

Reporter G.W. Schultz: Around 10,000 that we know about, recorded in a federal database. Beyond that, we can’t truly say.

Davidson: And how many people are believed to be missing on any given day?

Schultz: About 80,000 is the number the FBI tends to use.

Davidson: You report that there’s no federal requirement that authorities report unidentified bodies - Jane and John Does -  to a centralized system. What’s the effect of that?

Schultz: That means we don’t know how many opportunities we could be missing to connect those individuals to families that have reported their loved one missing. And it means we don’t know how many Jane and John Does there truly are in the United States. We only know the number that’s in NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and since it’s voluntary, it wouldn’t reflect as clearly how many there truly are.

Davidson: Can you give us a real example from your reporting that illustrates the obstacles in place to solving these kinds of cold cases?

Schultz: We did look at the case of a young woman named Michelle Busha who disappeared in 1980. She had been hitchhiking and was passing through Minnesota. She was killed by a state trooper who was on duty on the time — murdered by him — but he didn’t know her name. So after a period of time of authorities trying to identify her, her case went cold. Until a local resident of Blue Earth, Minnesota, where the girl’s body was found started to dig in, and eventually was able to unravel this girl’s identity and get her back to her family, who had never stopped searching for her in Texas.

Davidson: And what were the obstacles that resident encountered in the process?

Schultz: She had a hard time getting local authorities to fully engage in the case, to move forward with an exhumation. She thought that an exhumation could help with a facial reconstruction that someone might recognize online, or getting DNA into the system. And it turned out when she was finally exhumed, her DNA did match up with a family that had already submitted its own DNA, looking for Michelle several years prior.

Davidson: You mentioned NaMus, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. There are public tools available for either searching for missing people or searching for unidentified bodies, but you point out those databases don’t talk to each other. Can you tell us about the tool Reveal has developed in response to that?

Schultz: So NaMus, for government users, will communicate fairly well. The cases will communicate side by side. The criticism we heard from public users, everyday people who might want to try to use NaMus to make connections, you have to open two browser windows and compare reports of missing persons with case details about the unidentified (dead). What we’ve tried to do is reorient NaMus data to make it easier for everyday people, even families, to see certain types of information inside NaMus. The idea was to get some elements of NaMus a little bit higher, so you can compare them side by side. Things like images of clothing that was reported to be on someone when they disappeared and maybe was found at the same time they were located as an unidentified person.

The Center for Investigative Reporting’s new radio show Reveal designed a tool to make it easier for the public to search.

This story is part of a larger project by Reveal, public radio’s first investigative news show. You can listen to “Left For Dead” from Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX at 9 p.m. Tuesday on OPB.