Who Are You? NamUs helps law enforcement identify the unidentifiable
For nearly five decades, the residents of Harlan County simply knew her as “Mountain Jane Doe.” That all changed in September 2016 when DNA results confirmed her identity and gave a long-suffering daughter closure she had sought for 47 years – “Mountain Jane Doe” was in fact her mother, Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.
Kentucky State Police Detective William J. Howard, of Harlan’s Post 10, credited the efforts of NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System – and Blair-Adams’ daughter, Karen Stipes, for putting a name to remains first discovered by a man picking flowers on the side of Little Shepherd Trail in June 1969. According to KSP, Blair-Adams had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and was just 21 years old when she died.
For the last 10 years, NamUs, has assisted the law enforcement community with missing-person and unidentified-remains cases, which began unassumingly enough when a factory worker took an interest in a Scott County, Ky., case. An unidentified body had been discovered near Georgetown in May 1968 by a man scavenging for glass insulators.
In that case, the body of Barbara Ann Hackmann Taylor, known as “Tent Girl” by locals in Scott County, was discovered in May 1968, but she wasn’t identified until 1998. According to Todd Matthews, director, Case Management and Communications for NamUs, Taylor’s body was found wrapped in a canvas tent tarpaulin.
“My father-in-law (Wilbur Riddle) found that body, and using the Internet (many years later), I was able to identify her,” Matthews said. “It took 30 years, and ultimately, I was called to the Department of Justice to develop the NamUs program in 2007.”
Howard said Post 10 began to refocus on the Harlan Jane Doe case in 2014.
“When (Stipes) first contacted NamUs about this case in 2009, I think she was told that they didn’t think it was her mom because the autopsy report in the case states that the female had not had a child,” Howard said. “But the copy that we have in this case shows that (statement) was marked through by a doctor back in 1969. There was no reason given on why that was marked through; I don’t know if he saw something and changed it, but we’re dealing with paperwork that is 50 years old.”
Once Stipes convinced NamUs to look into the case, the organization soon contacted Post 10.
“We were contacted by NamUs after they received information from Karen Stipes,” Howard said. “She was on the NamUs website back around 2009 and read a case and felt that there were some similarities from what she learned as a child.”
From there, two bodies were exhumed in 2014, but once NamUs conducted DNA testing at the University of North Texas (Denton, Texas) DNA Lab, the results did not pan out how the state police or Stipes had hoped.
“We went there in 2014 with NamUs and did a couple of exhumations because the area where she was buried wasn’t marked; we just went on what people told us for years,” Howard said. “The one in 2014, we went ahead and sent the bodies to NamUs, and they determined that it wasn’t who we were looking for. So we made another attempt in 2015, around November. We found what appeared to be what we were seeing in the case file: badly decomposed body, and we figured we’d see a body bag, which we did, a very small female, or what appeared to be a female, and was buried pretty much in a shallow grave, about two feet deep.”
DNA testing was compared to samples provided by Stipes, and a match was found.
Howard said organizations such as NamUs and Doe Network are an enormous benefit for police agencies.
“I think they’re extremely valuable,” Howard said. “To the best of my knowledge, they’re federally funded, which allows them to put a lot of information out there for the public through the Internet.”
According to Matthews, there currently are 52 cases in Kentucky involving unidentified bodies – 39 males, 12 females and one where the gender is undetermined.
Additionally, NamUs also lists 209 active missing person cases in the state.
Matthews said NamUs - which is funded through the National Institute for Justice - has a vetting process that takes place before a case is listed in its system.
“We yield to law enforcement,” Matthews said. “This is the first national database that allows users to initiate an entry. We’re going to vet the information and contact the local agency and make sure that they have a report and that they’re ready for publication at that level. They may say, ‘We know where he’s at, but he just doesn’t want anything to do with his family,’ and we get that.”
Matthews added that advances in technology, DNA and the advent of the Internet has allowed an extensive amount of ground to be covered in this discipline.
“I’m not a Ph.D.; I’m not a subject-matter expert; I just know how to work the Internet, and that’s all I had to offer the federal government,” Matthews said. “It’s the communication and how instantaneous everything is now. Before, you would have to call or write to people with a physical letter, and now I can poke around a little bit and get what I need.”
Howard agreed, adding how times have changed, which has made it a lot easier bringing closure to families.
“If you look how times were in 1969, no cell phones and no Internet, it is hard for us to understand today,” he said. “Just the way people communicated or traveled back then; it was a big deal to go 20 or 30 miles away from home to another city whereas today, it’s nothing.”
Howard said what made Blair-Adams’ case go cold almost from the start was twofold. First, her nude body had been out in the elements for about a month and was badly decomposed. Secondly, in 1969 no one was looking for her.
“There wasn’t even a missing person report filed for Sonja Adams,” Howard said.
Present day, Howard said, there is much more of an emphasis by law enforcement to get as much information as possible.
“The more information you have, the better off it is for law enforcement because you put in a lot of identifiable markings such as tattoos,” Howard said.
Matthews said cases such as Blair-Adams’ have helped NamUs gain traction with police agencies across the nation in recent years, and more and more departments are using the organization as a tool.
“It’s a process,” Matthews said. “Every year for the past five years we’ve had sustained growth. This past year, there were close to 600 articles we were mentioned in.”
Matthews is spearheading efforts to pass legislation in states to require the use of NamUs by law-enforcement agencies.
“We’re looking at legislation in Tennessee that will mandate the use of NamUs,” Matthews said. “Should it pass, it will be the third state (New York and Connecticut) that has passed such legislation, and it would be the strongest legislation. I truly hope that Kentucky will follow. Even though Kentucky is not in bad shape, I still think from an awareness point of view and how quickly we’re able to respond, it’s not going to cost the state anything; it’s just requiring the state to take a free service.”
Howard said without the assistance and resources of NamUs, coupled with the determination of Stipes, “Mountain Jane Doe” would still be buried in that dank, shallow, 2-foot grave in rural Harlan County.