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Web site tries to help match missing persons, unidentified dead

Rene Benedetto wants to believe in the dream, the one where her family is reunited in Colorado and lives happily ever after. Her 22-year-old sister, Laura Nimbach, would have put her problems behind her — no more pain pills, no more abusive relationships.

A fresh start. Peace.

But that dream became a fleeting notion when Nimbach disappeared Feb. 17, last seen when a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy found her sleeping behind a building near Memorial Park Cemetery at 49th Street in St. Petersburg.

Benedetto realizes with each day that her sister might never come back alive. It might be morbid, but that may be the only peace she can hope for.

"We don't give up hope," she said. "We want her to come home, but there is no closure. I've lived through death, but in a bizarre kind of way, this is worse."

Scores of people vanish each year. And thousands of human remains are catalogued by medical examiners, many never identified. Matching the missing and the dead can provide the closure family members like Benedetto are looking for. But it's often a game of chance.

A new high-tech tool based in Largo could change that.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is a revolutionary new Web site based in Largo that knits together disparate databases of missing persons and unidentified bodies across the nation.

Namus.gov not only consolidates information, but it effectively deputizes families in the hunt for the missing.

It already has closed at least four cases that might have faded into oblivion.

And it could provide answers for families like Benedetto's.

• • •

The backlog of missing persons cases is enormous.

It totaled about 100,000 in August, and only 15 percent were logged into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.

Meanwhile, 40,000 bodies are unidentified nationwide, according to the National Institute of Justice.

That number keeps growing, as about 4,400 new sets of unidentified remains are discovered each year — and about 1,000 are still unidentified a year later.

The NamUs system, developed at the University of Central Florida and the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, ties those cases together for the first time.

Kristina Rose, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, calls the Web site, which launched in January with a $1.6 million budget, "government at its best."

"It grew out of a need to build a centralized system, and through NamUs we can provide some answers to families," Rose said.

The database is still being built. It includes 2,039 missing persons and 5,573 unidentified bodies. It grows daily with the help of law enforcement and families, all of whom can add information and analyze it.

So-called cyber sleuths also play a role.

Five cases have been closed so far, and three were cracked by private citizens with no ties to law enforcement or a missing person.

One helped police in Albuquerque, N.M., in June identify the remains of Sonia Lente, who was missing for five years.

Karen Edwards, a 57-year-old unemployed title clerk from Indianapolis, made the match from her home computer by comparing an artist's rendering to a photograph of Lente on NamUs.

"There was some satisfaction," Edwards said. "That's always your objective. But there wasn't the sense of elation I thought there would be. I'm glad I helped someone find closure, but then they become an actual person. Before that they were kind of abstract."

Families stand to make an even greater impact — sometimes quickly.

A woman in Connecticut alerted authorities after she saw similarities between a description of an unidentified dead man and her nephew. She was right: The man was later identified as Jody King, missing for two months.

Donna A. Fontana, a forensic anthropologist with the New Jersey State Police, entered all 279 missing persons cases from her state into NamUs. Early this month the number dropped to 278 when a woman scanning the Web site recognized the description and sketch of an unidentified dead man as her brother, who had been missing for a week.

A DNA sample from a family member confirmed her suspicions.

The identification likely would not have happened without NamUs, Fontana said, and certainly not that quickly.

• • •

Benedetto hoped her sister's troubles were behind her after a series of abusive relationships and an addiction to pain pills.

Growing up Michigan, Nimbach's sisters fought over who loved her more. She tried to pay her way through private high school working as a nanny when her father couldn't afford it. She eventually attended Wayne State University to become a nurse, but dropped out and moved to New Port Richey in 2006.

Nimbach eventually became entangled in an abusive relationship and got hooked on oxycodone. She attempted suicide.

She returned to Florida in January for a court date, Benedetto said, and was staying at a domestic violence shelter when she disappeared.

It took nearly six weeks for police to file a missing person's report, Benedetto said, because she was considered a transient.

Benedetto did what she could from Grand Junction, Colo., spending the first few months scouring Web pages dedicated to finding her sister on Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter. Now with NamUs, Nimbach's life has been dissected into potentially identifiable details provided by the family and verified by caseworkers.

"Head hair: Her hair as of 2/17/09 was bleached to a light blond and very long. She straightens it but it's naturally wavy/curly."

"Tattoos: Lower back — pink or red flower with a tribal design around it. Wrist — LN"

"Piercings: Tongue, Monroe, Navel and Nose."

Perhaps those details can give Benedetto the closure she seeks.

"When she first came up missing, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness, not knowing where to turn at all," she said. "This gives us hope."

Web site tries to help match missing persons, unidentified dead 10/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 8:20pm]
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