In That Darkness, forensic specialist Maggie Gardiner investigates, among other things, the murder of a young girl found draped over a grave in Cleveland’s historic East Ninth Street Cemetery. It wounds Maggie to think that the young teen could go missing without anyone calling the cops, filing a report, or looking for her in any other way. Her fingerprints are not in the criminal database and Maggie discovers that there are precious few other ways to track down the identity of one lost girl.
One of the nets she can cast, however, is called NamUs—the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It came into existence after 9/11 and is a national centralized repository of information, separated into three distinct databases :
- The Missing Persons Database can be added to by anyone (though the information is verified). If your son runs away from home, you can enter his information to the database—name, age, description, where he was last seen and what he had been driving, if he has any tattoos, whether you have submitted a DNA sample, photos, the name and contact information for the detective handling the disappearance. If he encounters someone who cares to check, or worse, if his body turns up, law enforcement and/or anyone else could use this information to identify him. For instance, a quick search tells me that there are eighteen women and girls named Tiffany currently missing in this country.
- The Unidentified Persons Database is maintained by coroners and medical examiners, with information about unidentified deceased. Anyone, however, can search this database, so I can see that there are 95 unidentified white females found in my state of Florida, dating back to 1961.
- The Unclaimed Persons Database are those who have been identified but no next of kin have been found or have been willing to claim the bodies. As above, only coroners and medical examiners enter the information but anyone can search it. If anyone knows a William Howard Smith, he still languishes at a coroner’s office in California.
NamUs came to my attention through my job as a forensic specialist at a police department in Florida. A 15 year old girl had run off with a 27 year old boyfriend, possibly heading for Mexico. We tried to enter her fingerprints into IAFIS in case her prints turned up at a crime scene—the ne’er-do-well boyfriend had a record for burglaries and drugs, so it seemed possible that he would enlist her help to get traveling money. However we had nothing but a right thumbprint; at the time she had immigrated from South America, INS required only a thumbprint for children under 12. Her parents could provide her toothbrush and hairbrush for a DNA sample, but CODIS consists only of samples collected from a convicted felon, an unidentified body or an unidentified specimen from a crime scene. I was going through the process to enter her into NamUs when she returned home on her own.
But then, of course, I had to use this in a book. In That Darkness, crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner is dealing with a typical week’s workload–a gang boss shot in an alley, the dead girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. She will have to decide how much of her life, her career, and her friends she will be willing to risk to do what’s right.
Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.