Reveal: A Startling New Investigation of the 10,000 Unidentified U.S. Dead

"Mountain Jane Doe," who was found stabbed to death, was buried in a small hillside cemetery in Harlan, Ky., in 1969. Her identity is still unknown.

Jeremiah Flemming and Sean Tannassee/ / Aerial Cinematography for Reveal

'Mountain Jane Doe,' who was found stabbed to death, was buried in a small hillside cemetery in Harlan, Ky., in 1969. Her identity is still unknown.

The FBI estimates there are some 80,000 people missing in the United States on any given day, and 10,000 others on a national list of people found deceased without an identity, according to a gripping new series by Reveal, from the Center for Investigative reporting.

“The toll goes beyond the missing and the unnamed,” writes G. W. Schulz in the series, Left for dead: How America fails the missing and unidentified. “Their mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters have no idea what happened to them. Killers could still be on the loose.”

Details about the missing and unidentified dead are recorded in a growing but voluntary federal database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, housed at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth, Schulz writes.

Marla Busha’s sister, Michelle Busha – seen here in police sketches – spent more than three decades as 'Blue Earth Jane Doe.'

Reveal/Minnesota Department of Public Safety / Minnesota Department of Public Safety

Marla Busha’s sister, Michelle Busha – seen here in police sketches – spent more than three decades as 'Blue Earth Jane Doe.'

“Never before has such a comprehensive portrait of these Jane and John Does been available to the public. Launched in 2007 with help from the Justice Department, NamUs operates similar to a dating site, suggesting compatibility among cases. Medical examiners and coroners upload information about a person who is dead and unknown, and a list of possible matches to missing persons reports appears based on a number of criteria – hair color, height and date the individual went missing, for example.

“Authorities then must decide whether to take the next step and compare DNA or dental records. Members of the public can search, too, and contact investigators if they think they’ve found a match. The database contains thousands of clues, including locations, dates, physical descriptions, photographs taken post-mortem and more.”

Even so, notes the author, “Some Jane and John Doe cases aren’t just cold – they’re in deep freeze. Reveal submitted dozens of open-government requests for records to state and local agencies, conducted more than 100 interviews with experts and the families of missing people and victims, and examined thousands of pages of case files from around the United States. The work sometimes required exhaustive and fruitless battles with police over access to records that might not have been revisited in years.”

Even with NamUs, the system operates without federal reporting requirements, which likely would lead to many more resolutions, Schulz explains. “The answer to many Jane and John Doe cases might be sitting in different filing cabinets or databases, separated only by jurisdiction or login credentials.”

Todd Matthews (left), a Kentucky state trooper (center) and Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi compare a bone found at the exhumation site in Harlan with an example in a forensic manual

Scott Anger / Special to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting

Todd Matthews (left), a Kentucky state trooper (center) and Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi compare a bone found at the exhumation site in Harlan with an example in a forensic manual

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To read the Schulz’s harrowing first installment about Mountain Jane Doe, a young woman stabbed to death and left naked in the woods near Harlan, Ky. in 1969, please click here for the story on the Reveal website.

To see I-News reporter Katie Kuntz’s examination of a long-running Colorado case, watch Colorado State of Mind this Friday night at 7:30 on Rocky Mountain PBS, Channel 6.

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