Sunday, November 13, 2005
OMI Has Hundreds of Remains, and Linking Bodies to Cases Is No Easy Task
By T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writer
On the second floor of a museum at the University of New Mexico, in a small room with a musty stench, are hundreds of rectangular boxes filled with bones.
The bones are all that remain of adults and children, men and women, whose unidentified bodies were found in New Mexico in the last 30 years. They were found in all sorts of circumstances, mummified, in suitcases, lunch boxes and beneath desert sand.
Each one represents a story that no one knows.
For 17 years, Norma Denise Sahm was in one of those boxes.
Sahm was reported missing from a Bernalillo County group home in 1987, and her body was found a year later on the West Mesa.
But no one connected the dots until last June when an officer randomly looking at reports noticed the similarities between her missing person report and autopsy records.
Her mother had spent 18 years calling police, medical investigators, the media and politicians trying to get information about her daughter's case and help in finding her.
She got little response because everyone had assumed her daughter was a runaway.
Now police have determined she was slain, and they are actively investigating the case.
"It is amazing how many people die, and no one cares and no one knows," Judi Sahm said. "There are a lot of people out there like me searching with no answers. I don't think this was a one-time faux pas."
Sahm is right.
There are 338 bodies stored by the state Office of the Medical Investigator in UNM's Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.
The bodies have all degraded to skeletons and are stored in cardboard boxes on metal shelves. Each one has a case number and a tag marked "Doe," the generic name medical investigators and police use for an unidentified body.
Chances are that many of these bodies most of them homicide victims have a missing persons report attached to them.
But an inadequate computer database, lack of cooperation among law enforcement agencies and the reluctance of families to provide DNA samples have made it difficult to identify the Does.
"It is a mess," said Bernalillo County Sheriff's Deputy Mary Brazas, a forensic artist who also works to find the identity of the Does. "The missing persons database and how these cases are handled is a mess. There is really no database or no central location for us to compare the bodies to the missing person reports."
Finding the identity of a body is not as simple as it appears on TV.
There are several national databases that allow law enforcement to enter missing persons and unidentified bodies.
But not all law enforcement agencies use the same database and few are public record.
The database that is used the most, the National Crime Information Computer, is outdated. It can't automatically match bodies with missing persons reports and law enforcement can enter only a limited amount of information on a case.
In 1997, the state made an attempt to get everyone in New Mexico to use the same database.
It established a missing persons clearing house managed by the Department of Public Safety. All law enforcement agencies are required by law to report their missing persons and unidentified bodies to the clearing house, which reports and communicates with the national database.
However, the Office of the Medical Investigator isn't required to report to the database.
According to DPS officials, 40 percent of missing persons cases and Does are not reported to the clearing house.
The database isn't public. However, DPS does post 10 missing persons cases on its Web site. When the Journal recently checked the site, some of the missing persons had already been found. One of them was Sahm.
"(The database) is only as good as the information we get," said Regina Chacon, who coordinates the clearing house for DPS. "Honestly, I think it is a very good database if it is used to its full capacity."
However, very few law enforcement officers use the clearing house. If they did, Chacon said, many Does could be identified.
Law enforcement officials say one of the best databases is the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or VICAP, which is managed by the FBI. VICAP has the ability to instantly match Does to missing persons reports by matching information such as hair color, height, age, race and other physical characteristics.
But VICAP is used very little because law enforcement agencies must have special software and be trained on its use. And only cases in which there is evidence of foul play can be entered into the database.
By that criteria, Sahm was never entered because everyone was convinced she was a runaway.
"We need to have a one-stop shop for all of this stuff instead of having all of this redundancy between databases," said Gary Cramer of the FBI who works on VICAP. "Like any database, it is as good as the data in it. If there is not data, it is not that reliable."
Recognizing the problem, the FBI in 2001 assigned agents in every state to assist local agencies in using relatively new DNA testing to identify their Does.
Those agents help police and OMI gather DNA from Does and from family members who have reported someone missing. The samples are sent to a national lab for testing and then entered into a missing persons database.
So far 146 samples from New Mexico Does have been sent in. But only 30 relatives from the hundreds of missing persons cases have volunteered to submit their DNA.
Investigators said people are reluctant because they fear DNA will be kept in a federal database and compared to DNA from crime scenes. Others don't want to accept the fact their relative may be dead.
FBI officials said that, since the program started, New Mexico agencies have been more proactive at sending DNA samples for testing than any other state. So far, there have been six matches, including Sahm's, but, in those cases, investigators had a good idea who the person was and convinced a relative to send in DNA.
"This is a last-ditch effort to find these people," said Diana Parker, the New Mexico agent responsible for collecting the DNA. "The people who give us samples know that, if they get a positive match, their relative has been found dead. But at least they get closure and that is something."
Parker has taken her work a step further.
Near her office, she has set up two large charts and a map of New Mexico. The state is filled with pins of all the Does whose DNA has been sent in for testing.
The other chart contains a detailed list of all of the missing persons in which family members have submitted DNA.
The "Does chart" lists dates the bodies were found, where they were found, their description and a paragraph about how they were found.
One paragraph describes a man found north of Placitas. He had a gun under one arm and his hands were missing.
Others deal with a child, an elderly woman hit by a car and victim who was killed and buried in a backyard, but his killer claimed he didn't know who the victim was.
"Every single one of these you wonder who this is and why we can't figure out who they are," Parker said one morning while staring at the list. "There are so many stories, and each of these Does has one."
Several local law enforcement agencies have taken steps to connect the dots, but progress has been slow.
Investigators from APD, the Sheriff's Office, the FBI and OMI now conduct regular meetings to discuss cold cases and try to identify the Does.
The Sheriff's Office and OMI have plans to start a Web site featuring missing persons and Does.
Chacon and other DPS officials are doing a lot of work by hand and comparing their data to the NCIC database. They also plan to contact every law enforcement agency in the state to educate them that they have to report their missing persons and Does.
The Doe collection at the museum is not shrinking. Every year, as many as 12 are added to it.
So far this year, 11 Does have been found and are waiting to be identified.
Judi Sahm holds out hope for those families. When she tells her story, she boasts that she never gave up, and she encourages other families to keep calling and looking.
Her search ended the day her son drove from southern New Mexico to Albuquerque and picked up the box from OMI containing Norma Sahm's remains.
Judi Sahm never looked at the bones. She had them placed in an infant-size casket and buried after a memorial service in Alamogordo.
Now she waits for police to capture her daughter's killer.
Law enforcement and medical investigators hold out hope they will one day be able to identify all of the Does in the museum.
But there remains an empty shelf in the room where the Does are kept. It's there so that investigators can add more cardboard boxes.
BY THE NUMBERS
Active Missing Person Reports from New Mexico that have been entered into the National Crime Information Computer.
Bodies in the possession of the Office of the Medical Investigator that have not been identified.
The number of years the remains of Norma Denise Sahm were in possession of the Office of the Medical Investigator.
The matches made from unidentified bodies to missing persons reports since the FBI started a new DNA testing program.